Jeff Koons and the Re-weird Function
This relationship between play and sexuality is referenced all through the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney, sometimes cheerfully and sometimes with inflections of the ominous. Koons’s series The New is an example of a happy appearance of this theme.
The series includes several sculptures made from brand new appliances in various interactions with fluorescent lights. A toaster rests vertically against a bulb as if drawn to it. Vacuum cleaners are stacked in Plexiglas boxes, illuminated by horizontal bulbs. In this context, upright, perky, and bathed in hygienic light, the vacuum cleaners look almost cute. Koons frequently plays around with marketing concepts, and this series stresses the please-please-take-me-home aspect of products in a store window. Some of the appliances are reclined over the horizontal light-bulbs as if on a tanning bed. The whole thing looks humanoid, but cartoonish instead of uncanny. The section label for The New series quotes Koons saying, about his thought process during the creation of the series, “Vacuum cleaners to me were anthropomorphic . . . They had this sexual reference, having orifices and a sucking power, and their shapes can be both masculine and feminine.” Koons used the word “virginal” to describe the light inside the boxes, and it’s an important word. The shade of the light is remarkable. It’s so clean. It would feel completely different were the light yellow instead of white. The boxes seem like a joyful riff on a more sordid scenario involving a glass-partition, something like a peep-show booth in a back room. On the other hand, Koons’ series Banality has very different undercurrents. This series does engage with the uncanny and the eerie, better than any other series in the retrospective.
There’s a piece in Banality called Bear and Policeman, which depicts a man in a police uniform embraced by a wide-eyed bear. The bear holds the policeman’s police whistle in his paw, as if about to blow it. There is nothing explicitly sexual about the situation except the generally sexual feeling to it. And the bear’s eyes are awfully wide. The same is true of Naked, a polychrome sculpture of two naked children holding a flower from which emerges a phallic-looking stamen. This time the erotic message is less difficult to decode. Each of the figures depicts some sort of childlike scenario with subtle sexual overtones. The famous piece Michael Jackson and Bubbles is a rendering in kitschy porcelain of Michael Jackson holding his pet monkey, Bubbles. Michael Jackson is practically shorthand for ‘childlike with subtle sexual overtones.’
Every series in the Koons retrospective at the Whitney has its own brand of sensuality. What’s great about this series in particular is that it recreates the shadowy feeling of that time during childhood where the presence of sex in adult lives can be felt, but not quite understood. In which the weight and importance of sex are influential in a way that a child can sense without knowing the specifics. The figures of Banality seem so strong because they re-weird the world by mimicking things we think we know, and perverting them slightly. The kitschy, fakey-fake forms recall an amusement park, or even a Chuck. E. Cheese. It made me remember the time, when I was eight-years-old, that a friend showed me her anatomically correct baby doll. It was incredibly realistic, indistinguishable from a real baby in every way (including miniature male genitals) except for its lack of movement. This was a different kind of thrill than I got with normal toys. Because I didn’t completely understand anatomy at the time, the doll had a creepy, dissonant appeal that was terrifying at the same time that it was fascinating.
Celebration is not Koons’s most recent series but it’s certainly the most compelling of those at the Whitney right now. A massive sculpture, Play-doh, dominates the center of the room. It depicts a huge, ten-foot-tall stack of Play-doh. The texture and shape of the Play-doh (some of the blobs retaining a shape that suggests it has just been taken out of the canister), is crafted to scale so convincingly that in a photograph, it might be mistaken for the conventional size.
The famous Balloon Dog (Yellow) is also a part of this series. It’s an enjoyable irony that the dog weighs a literal ton. The piece took six years to realize since Koons wanted the illusion of hyper-realistic near-weightlessness, taking into account even the knotted joints where the rubber of the balloon animal twists.
Air and circulation of air are thematic, sensual aspects of structures such as Balloon Dog (Yellow), the vacuum cleaner sculptures of The New, and a handful of pieces in the Popeye series. These include Seal Walrus (Chairs) and Seal Walrus (Trashcans). In these pieces, pool-toy inflatables intertwine impossibly with plastic folding chairs (price stickers still attached) or metal garbage cans. It takes a good minute of inspecting the inflatables to realize that they are in fact made of polychromed aluminum, not inflated plastic. The inflatables absorb the chairs/trash cans in the same way that a hologram might, but are still plausible enough in texture and detail to be taken for the genuine article. It completely changes the feeling towards the work once you understand that these aren’t purchased items, like Duchamp’s readymades, but constructed readymades, with meaningful deviations that distinguish them from the real thing. Like some of the smaller balloon animal pieces, including the 1986 work Rabbit, the sensation of looking at the pieces changes with the realization that they’re not filled with air.
Other less interesting pieces, such as Lifeboat and Aqualung from the Equilibrium series, also play with the idea of the paradoxically heavy inflatable. These pieces are constructed from bronze and are more abstractly than visually engaging (the idea being that any life-vest or life-boat made from bronze would sink rather than save you).
More disappointing was Made In Heaven, an infamous series that features several photographs of the artist in graphic sexual positions with Italian personality and porn star Ilona Staller, his wife at the time. The visual extravagance of the makeup and butterfly graphics are attractive, but without the 1990s context in which these works were conceived, and unaccompanied by some of the other, racier photographs in the series, they aren’t as legible or engaging as expected. I kept looking around for the dirtier pictures and found a poodle sculpture instead. I can’t complain though because the poodle was great.
A notable common feature of every single piece in the retrospective is the ostentatious perfection of the artwork. There is frequent mention in object labels of the fantastic amount of people involved, years spent in construction, rare processes used, and obscure scientists consulted in order to execute the marvel upon which you now gaze. Apparently, the collage prints in the Easyfun-Ethereal series were actually made using computers. Heavens.
But perfection in Jeff Koons’ work isn’t just a side-effect of a driven person attempting to produce the most excellent work possible. It’s a concept explored and glorified and sometimes inverted. There’s one particular piece I didn’t notice at first, because it’s one of the least colorful works and even though eight feet tall, seems small compared to the mammoth works around it. Gorilla, which was cast from a miniature toy souvenir of a gorilla, is conceptually my favorite piece. Like so many of the other sculptures, Gorilla has the nicely confusing effect of enlarging an object while preserving all of its attributes. The toy itself was nothing special, a mass-produced piece of plastic with the seams of the mold visible. The toy may not have been marvelous but Gorilla is, because it retains all of the original toy’s flaws, including the seams of the mold. It’s the sloppiness of the shape, exaggerated by scale, that makes this piece so compelling. Koons takes the un-special qualities of the toy and renders them momentous. He converts the imperfect into the perfect, in the same way that Play-doh is so good because the structure seems spontaneous, even if it’s anything but.
The relationship that Koons’ work has with perfection might best be synthesized in a quote from a recent profile of Jeff Koons in Vanity Fair. He’s discussing the Made in Heaven series, with its exaggerated pornographic scenarios and poster-ready poses. Speaking about one of the more graphic prints, he says, “What I really like about it are the pimple’s on Ilona’s ass.” It’s all self-consciously artificial, but no matter what, he makes sure the texture is right.
While walking through the charismatic pieces at the retrospective, it’s worth keeping in mind that this year Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for 58.4 million, the highest price ever paid for work by a living artist. Koons engages with marketing concepts in a very real way, not just intellectually. His work doesn’t mock capitalism so much as dance with it. His search for aesthetic perfection is so exhibitionistic and so obsessed that it verges on fetish. The massive, revenue-producing machine that is Jeff Koons, who has over 100 people working for him and produces fewer than 20 pieces annually, recalls certain other companies obsessed with form, like Apple. The difference between the two probably has a lot to do with temperature. The word for Koons’ work isn’t accessible, it’s more like “welcoming.” Just as I was drawn to Gorilla, there’s sure to be something at the Whitney for everybody.
Koons is not an excluding or cold artist, he’s a supernatural intersection between big and small, playful and colossal. The reason he’s special is because it’s so rare to see un-serious things done so seriously. Like products in a display case, his work wants to be liked and wants to arouse. In this sense, Jeff Koons is a gifted salesman.