Subversive is the word that comes to mind when I think of Jeff Koons. I had heard in passing of this artist’s work, and what I knew of him was colorful and ambitiously cartoon-ish. His name always sounded like he could be some kind of outre illusionist, but I never got to experience his work in person. His career spans over 20 years, and in the summer and fall of 2014, a massive collection of his work was held at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
Koons’ exhibit A Retrospective: Jeff Koons, since its opening in June, has attracted many curious observers and his art is not as cute or bland as you’d imagined, but it is highly campy, layered, and occasionally just odd. I was mislead at first when I stepped into what was essentially part one of A Retrospective as his collections took a majority of the space in the Whitney. The mini clumps of regular day items like scrubs and basketballs in glass cases (and shots of imagined Nike ads, and neighborhood boys) were statements on consumerism (“Equilibrium”), but I wasn’t too moved at all. I almost felt instantly jipped and I was eager to see in person the images of his other pieces instead like his infamous “Banality” sculptures. I knew according to Koons, there was a purpose to the bland madness of the scrubs and the stand-alone vacuum cleaners, but my visceral takes were not impressed and were disappointed.
When I got to the second floor however, I was introduced by a big poster that read “Made in Heaven” featuring Koons and Ilona Staller, whose stage name for her pornographic work was La Cicciolina. I never knew much about Koons and for being a self-described #90schild, Koons’ 1991 Made In Heaven collection which some at the time labelled as suicidal went over my head. Considering the mischievously faced Koons posed in sexually graphic poses with Staller, it was Koons’ Erotica phase and while I could appreciate Koons pushing boundaries for himself and the comfort of his art expression, it did transpire as a bit self-serving because he chose himself to be Staller’s love interest and then posed naked with her. I was not surprised to hear the two had gotten married and conceived a child, but only later to have an acrimonious split. It was a bit of a jaw-dropper to see and know that Koons was so free in being exposed to the public like that. Also, his apparent understanding of pornography as more than just seamy excuse to exploit sex and it’s a minor morif in his collage pieces. His inclusion of porn reminded me of a quote from the Diana Vreeland documentary, The Eye Has to Travel. To paraphrase, a colleague of Vreeland remembers that the legendary fashion magazine editor was amused by porn because she understood “the genius of vulgarity” and didn’t shun it as potential resources of culture analysis. Furthermore, thankfully, and not necessarily because of Made In Heaven, the exhibit got better and a little bit more exhilarating.
I finally ran into the crazy 1988 “Banality” set that includes the infamous sculpture of Michael Jackson and his monkey Bubbles (very popular with everyone’s phones and cameras), and I went on to find the Koons exhibit pretty good and never minded its dis-satisfying beginning. As mentioned in the paragraph blurbs for each set, that ranged from his start with “Inflatables and Pre-New” in 1978 to “Grazing Ball” in 2013 (A Retrospective didn’t include his artwork for Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP album), his work is multi-layered (with with a smattering of juvenility) and his work is weird, random, pseudo-political, pro-counterculture, and a tad solipsistic. His an edgier Andy Warhol (what have you). Due to how the collection was arranged, it ended with 1994’s “Celebration” that features other iconic works of his like the Balloon Dog and Cat on a Clothesline.
It all reminded me of the MoMa PS.1’s (in Queens) exhibit on Mike Kelley that was a peculiar take on childhood memories and man-child erractic fantasies. Like Koons’ gigantic Play-Doh display, Kelley had a grungy, piled up on a quilt stuffed animals, and where Koons was disarmingly attuned to dreams and reverse of societal thoughts, Kelley was at times uncomfortably forward. Both excelled in giving into their sometimes debased tendencies, though Koons is the more commercial side of this outre showcase, and though I was unsure of whether or not I was or would enjoy A Retrospective, I did exit the Whitney better appreciating, when an artist places himself in the fire for discussion, examination, and even mis-understanding.