Thursday, June 26, 2014

Koons—First and Last Laughs at the Whitney

Hoovers galore! 
The Whitney Museum's show, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, (Friday through Oct 19) fills the one truly glaring blank in the artist's lengthy CV. Until now, he has never been featured in a major New York museum exhibition, though he has been ubiquitous in group and gallery shows since the '80s. Not only does the Whitney show, organized by Scott Rothkopf, capture this wily artist's body of work at a peak in his career, it is the final Whitney exhibition at the Madison Avenue building. (That said, it's not for a lack of opportunity—in 1996 he was scheduled for one at the Guggenheim, but he was unable to complete the work in time.) Those are some meaningful firsts and lasts.

Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994—2000

Despite all that cold-shouldering by the curators, Koons' oeuvre has emerged among the most famous and high-priced in recent years. And why not? Shiny objects appeal to humans as much as they do to magpies, who collect little glittering baubles for their nests. So it is with rich collectors and their nests, particularly the clientele of Gagosian Gallery, which shows Koons (in addition to Sonnabend Gallery) and is the lead sponsor for the Whitney show and of a companion installation of a giant, floral Split-Rocker at Rockefeller Center. And Koons' sculptures really do shine and glitter; many even make convenient mirrors if you need one in a pinch. But he also knows that simple objects from childhood can be like visual baby blankies or junk food—comforting, reminiscent of innocent times and carefree days before adulthood and its dreary responsibilities set in. Thus, inflatable things—mylar bunnies, flowers, pool toys, balloon animals; plastic stuff, cheery tchotchkes—are the bulk of the subject matter in this multi-floor show. And they make you smile.

Gorilla, 2006—11.
I am 8' tall and granite!
Lines can be drawn connecting Koons to Duchamp and his readymades, and Warhol and his Brillo boxes, pop art staples, and the Factory. But Koons has taken the techno-industrial supersizing of his subjects to Frankensteinian lengths. What appears to be an inflatable lobster pool toy is actually painted aluminum. (By god, it's all one can do not to squeeze it for proof. Perhaps that's why a guard stood not a foot away.) An 8' tall gorilla that looks like a giant version of a little plastic figurine is made of highly polished granite. The recent Celebration series of colored, mirror-surfaced works familiar to many of us—including a balloon dog, a heart with a bow, a dome—are made of polished steel with transparent color coatings. It's mind-boggling to think of the number of steps involved in creating these scale-ups and highly seductive surfaces. These technical feats alone are worth a tip of the hat, even if the subjects are trite.

One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241
, 1985. Nearly nothin' but window.
One of the most visually powerful, yet understated, galleries is a temple for his vacuum pieces from the early '80s. (An early iteration appeared in the window of The New Museum on Broadway back in the day.) The room comprises single and multiple arrangements of various models encased in plexi boxes and is lit almost solely with fluorescent tubes, lending the space a tongue-in-cheek gravity and solemnity. And the basketball equilibirum sculptures look downright like old masters by now. 

In between these robust periods, however, we cannot avoid the early '90s Made in Heaven series (when he married Cicciolina, a porn star/politician, and decided to explicitly immortalize their love on photographic canvases and in life-sized 3D). This was when he alienated pretty much everyone (though I have to hand it to Sonnabend Gallery, which stuck by him even through this), and critics found the perfect ammunition to justify dismissing his work as glib and egomaniacal. Before that came the Banality series of tchotchkes in polychromed porcelainMichael Jackson and Bubbles, Woman in Tub, String of Puppies, and prior to that, the semi-serious statuary collection of pewter-toned replicas of bar paraphernalia, renaissance sculptures, and kitsch. While the show features sculpture, a number of 2D works are on view, including a series based on the power of advertising, and the Easyfun-Ethereal series of funny paintings such as Sandwiches, in which the pseudonymous lunch items are affixed with googly olive-and-pickle eyes and moustaches. 

Sandwiches, 2000
In a sense, the slickness and dumb appeal of Koons' technically challenging sculptures are as deceptive as his current popularity, which has taken his entire career to reach. (You can bet many people will see this show seeking not just floating basketballs, but also Schadenfreude.) And the man himself looks the same as he did decades ago, more like the investment banker he once was, and nowhere near his 59 years. Then again, he himself has been a consistent subject of his own work. One more example of the exterior appearing to be one thing, and the interior quite another. Taking the analogy a step further, despite their fragile appearance, you cannot pop his inflatables—they will endure, just as the artist has despite critical drubbings and symbolic exile.

A note on Gagosian's sponsorship: on the one hand, it would seem scandalous that Koons' dealer is underwriting these high-profile exhibitions, but on the other, the clarity is rather refreshing, as opposed to banks and real estate developers trying to bleach their spotty reputations in philanthropy.

The Whitney moves to MePa, or should I say HiLi, after this, with exhibitions planned for next spring in its new 60,000 square foot digs with a river view. The Met will take over the Breuer building on Madison, with its well-proportioned rooms, stone and wood floors, and embroiled history with Landmarks.

Photos by Susan Yung, except Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994–2000, © Jeff Koons, courtesy the Whitney Museum.

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