What the critics aren’t saying.

Jeff Koons with his wall-sized painting, “Arousing Curiosity”.

I’ve devoted probably far too much attention to Jeff Koons, rather than devoting my energy to championing the artists that I actually admire. And it is considered a terrible thing to criticize any art, especially conceptual art, because one ends up looking out of touch with the reality of NOW; bitter, resentful, and jealous. In a world where business runs government, and the validity of any argument is measured only against profit, criticism of an artist is seen as an attempt to devalue the art collections of the wealthiest and most influential patrons of the art. For an artist to do so is taboo. A potential gallery might not want to be associated with an outspoken critic of the merchandise they peddle, or that their biggest customers own. There is a fear and reluctance to speak out. But for artists to not do so is to give a cowardly deference to the business paradigm, as opposed to their own visions. Marketers might learn something from pro wrestling: that challenges from one camp to another spark interest and controversy, and this could be good for generating publicity. Fortunately for me, several critics have made mincemeat of the Koons show, and largely spared me having to get into the fray. However, as an artist, I have a different perspective, and there are a couple important factors that the critics, who are writers, left out.

I’ve argued before that Koons makes fashion baubles for the oligarchic class, and that appropriating objects and imagery from popular culture and paying artisans to make extraordinary versions of them leaves precious little for the artist to get his own hands dirty with. It is impossible for Koons to stretch his own imagination to realize his own vision if he restricts himself to reproducing schlock kitsch. And I’ve said that Koons is an art-CEO, taking credit for the work of paid assistants whose level of skill and perfectionism (which he admittedly does not possess himself) is what lends Koons’s work its authority. Those are my own views that I honed myself, but now I see that some critics are saying very similar things.

What the critics said

In the Guardian, Jason Farago wrote:

For an artist who strives so mightily to convince us of his good nature, there’s something truly cruel in his sculptures’ indifference to any audience desire for profundity, complexity, or even adulthood.

One feels this especially in the Celebration series – including the Balloon Dogs that now sell for obscene sums…

How much should that bother us? The oligarchical collectors of our age, we know, do not care: they like their art instantly recognisable, easily graspable, unchallenging and shiny. For the rest of us, the Koons retrospective poses a dilemma: either find within it some intricacy beneath the pristine, impassive surface, or else join the idolaters and take another selfie in the distorted reflection of Koons’s mirrored objects. I can find the conflict and the density of great art in his Hoovers, his rabbit, his banal porcelains and a few other instances. But with the later work, it seems gruelling to suss out anything beyond an unbothered reflection of our current moment, wherein 99% of us gaze in envy or in anger but get nothing back at all. (full article)

Eric Gibson summed up in the New Criterion:

In the end, “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” is profoundly depressing, the first time I have experienced such a feeling in a lifetime of visiting museums. The show is suffused with the atmosphere of cold calculation, of a career advancing as the result of a series of carefully thought-out moves and strategizing rather than proceeding naturally, without premeditation, as artists normally do. The work feels the same way. For all the warmth of the bright colors and ingratiating subject matter—puppy dogs, hearts, balloons—the manner of their execution, the works’ razor-sharp contours and impersonal, textureless, polished surfaces, makes them feel icily remote and distant. (full article)

Peter Plagens’ memorable encapsulation from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:

You go through the show feeling like you’re eating cotton candy on the boardwalk. You leave the show feeling you’ve eaten entirely too much cotton candy on the boardwalk. (full article)

Of course there are also fawning reviews, such as Peter Schjeldahl’s review in the New Yorker, which claims that Koons is, “the most original, controversial, and expensive American artist of the past three and a half decades.” It’s always a bit of a stretch to say that the most deliberately derivative art is simultaneously the most original, specifically because it is unoriginal, but Schjeldahl (who hates Francis Bacon) did as good of a Postmodern, solipsistic, and syrupy defense of the position that the Whitney Museum could have hoped for in a well-placed advert.

What the critics didn’t say

There’s a problem for Koons’s art in the computer age, when over 7 billion people are online, but only a tiny fraction could or would ever go to a retrospective held in New York City: Koons’s art is only really any good in person. Most everyone will only see his work as it appears in photos on their personal electronic screens. Seen on a monitor, Koons’s work is actually indistinguishable from the kitsch he copies. Who can tell the difference between an inflatable pool toy and an exact replica of it weighing tons when all we see is a photo online?  Art that is designed as part and parcel of a gallery setting, and thus incorporates the power and prestige of the sanctified art institution into it’s very conception, is at a distinct disadvantage when reproduced online: a problem that music, writing, film, and more image-based visual art aren’t nearly as vulnerable to.

In the photo below we see one of Koons’s giant, polished-chrome, six-ton, multi-million-dollar sculptures. But when we only see a photo, and are not there in person, what separates the priceless, Koons-brand sculpture from a photo of a piece of candy wrapped in shiny foil?

Jeff Koons, “Candy Wrapper”. When we look at the 6-ton, high-polished chrome sculpture in a photo, is it really so different from just looking at a piece of foil-wrapped candy?

If there are people in the picture, we can get a sense of scale, but even this can be imitated using photo editing software, as can the gallery/museum white-walled backdrop. In reality, the photo above was made by me in Photoshop, and you really are only looking at a piece of candy. And yet it has that same sort of iconic quality that a real Koons has. The photo at the head of this article is also a fake, and the “painting” was created by me.

Not only can the look of Koons’s sculptures be approximated on the computer, they can even be trumped. Personally – I admit to being biased – I think my giant “Sigmund the Sea Monster Dong” is more impressive than Koons’s multi-story sculptures.

Oh yeah, dawg! I think my Photoshop mammoth art looks more cool as an image than do photos of Koons’s stuff. Click to see article about this, and the uncensored version.

It is true that people who have never seen a Koons’ sculpture in person may still worship it, but this has more to do with faith than actual connoisseurship. Any art that is famous and reproduced enough acquires an iconic stature that makes it great in the eyes of the average homosapien sapien. In the new millennium fame and familiarity, rather than intrinsic worth, make greatness. But for the more discerning viewer, over-familiarity merely makes for a headache and a deadening of the senses.

Another problem Koons’s art poses, and which artists are much more likely to notice, is that it is impossible to compete with on its own terms. The two most famous and rich living artists are Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, and both are multi-millionaires who can throw millions at a piece or show. Further, they both employ the best available artisans to execute their work for them, and each have had over 100 assistants working for them at a given time. 99.9% of the rest of us artists have to make our own art with our own hands with what disposable income we have after performing our workaday jobs. Koons’s art is something only the very rich could hope to emulate, and thus, contrary to his pronouncements of vindicating the tastes of the common person, alienate the vast majority of intelligent life on the planet.

Koons relies too much on unimaginable sums of money and the materials, assistants, and connections it can buy to give his art its weight. A much more challenging and dangerous contest is to try to make imagery that can compete on the personal screens of the billions of people throughout the world. The competition is fierce because millions of artists can afford to compete, and the artist is only left with his or her own imagination, skills, knowledge, awareness, and being to work with (and wholesale appropriation can not work).

~ Ends

See my new art here.

6 replies on “Reflections on the shiny surface of the Koons Retrospective.

  1. “Another problem Koons art poses, and which artists are much more likely to notice, is that it is impossible to compete with on its own terms”.

    How can the sandal maker compete with the Porsche designer? The two vehicles are worlds apart. The Whitney wants to lump us all up into “winners” and “losers”. They run a business, as does Christie’s and Saatchi. Artists might not be holy Ghandis, but I think more and more each day, that they need to shun the showroom. Business of art. For me such a painful oxymoron.
    Koons is rich and I think an imposter. Bob Dylan is rich, but he writes. He paints. He welds. Is Koons in a corner painting pictures while his workers sculpt? No? Yes? If all he does is eat sandwiches and go to parties, then he is just what you say, an art-CEO.
    This quote pops into mind, having nothing to do, really, with your post. From Henry Miller (change “writer” to “painter” or “candlestick maker”):

    “We write, knowing we are licked before we start. Every day we beg for fresh torment. The more we itch and scratch the better we feel. And when our readers also begin to itch and scratch we feel sublime. Let no one die of inanition! The airs must ever swarm with arrows of thought delivered by les hommes de lettres. Letters, mind you. How well put! Letters strung together with invisible wires charged with imponderable magnetic currents. All this travail forced upon a brain that was intended to work like a charm, to work without working. Is it a person coming towards you or a mind? A mind divided into books, pages, sentences replete with commas, periods, semi-colons, dashes and asterisks. One author receives a prize or seat in the Academy for his efforts, another a worm-eaten bone. The names of some are lent to streets and boulevards, of others to gallows and alms houses. And when all these “creations” have been finally read and digested men will still be buggering one another. No author, not even the greatest, has been able to get around that hard, cold fact.”

    Thanks for the post.


  2. I thought you made a great point about how most people experience and see art these days. But, as we know, Koons art is not for the everyday person, but the 1%. I just do NOT understand why he’s so rich and famous.


  3. Eric, have you seen the critical article on the Moons retrospective in the current NY Review of Books? I’ ll send it to you if you’d like.


    1. Just read it. It was a great piece, and pleasantly lengthy. I agree with about 95% of it, and this is odd because I rabidly disagree with Perl on other artists, including Francis Bacon (who he hates), and the bland and conventional stuff that he actually likes but which bores me to tears. Thanks for sharing it. I would have enjoyed it even more if my coffee were brewed before I started reading.


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