Right of Jeff Koons’ ecstatic ejaculate puddle, Cicciolina’s clumped mascara is perfect blue. It’s not blue. It’s more specific than blue, but like the pink pimples on her ass, spread half-hoisted onto his painted dick, it is the perfect color it should be. There are 150 objects in his Whitney retrospective (opening to the public Friday), spanning decades of a wildly successful and contentious career. If you want to survive the all-you-can-gaze-buffet, focus on the pimples.
We’re mid-point of the show, forty minutes after being pounded stiff with “dichotomy” in the opening remarks — it’s all about eroticism and innocence, beauty and banality, this but also that… But also perfection, perfection, perfection.
The giant paintings face each other in a corner room on the third floor, beyond the wall text content warning. “If you look at Ilona’s ass, there are pimples on it, and there’s such a sense of humanity in that, and oneness with the world and with nature,” Jeff Koons is quoted in Ilona’s Asshole wall text. “It’s not porn. Made In Heaven dealt with the shame of masturbation in our society. It was a metaphor for cultural guilt.” Between the cum shot and the asshole, there is a giant matte-hued vagina-shaped cluster of flowers with the hummingbird, and a Whitney guard softly asking another to be moved to a different room.
The other room of the Garden of Jeff is laid out to hit all the major check boxes — the giant post-pornographic paintings complemented with Victorian ephemera, dumb regal dogs and feminine flowers, fairy tale shit made as beautifully as it can be.
Then, there’s Koons’ Superman-style bust blooming out of crystals and a tinted glass sculpture with similar mid-thrust contrapposto that Koons is so particular about showing, a sculpture that should really be pumping with rave lights or maybe a dramatic heavenly backlight. Made In Heaven remains as a singular definitive series re-contextualizing pornography into the sphere of art, bulging with very visible complexes of sexual possession and child-like princess hero role-play, but I’m sorry, we have to
grow up move on.
The series of inflatables, rendered from found objects that the yet-to-make-it Koons piled into his apartment like a hoarder, are manufactured in the most perfect way possible. To actually be confronted with a room of them, made me hold the worn-out complaints of how there isn’t really much meaning beyond the pure push to legitimize appropriation art as a concept. I walked away a little guilty, like I just had an intimate encounter with someone I can’t relate to in any way, someone with happy painted eyes and a beautiful body that I spent more time looking at than doing things to. I even fucked a pile of sponges on a mirror on my way out. They were really nice looking. How do I feel about this?
A real moment occurred far earlier, in the Equilibrium section. There it was, that basketball, floating perfectly in the middle of the fish tank. Behind them, were blow ups of dated Nike ads, ads prominently featuring black youth looking cool and an athlete as a god. These are rarely exhibited and rarely sold.
“It’s interesting to see the Nike ads together with the floating basketballs, because it’s so rare to see them together,” critic Paddy Johnson pointed out to me. “The basketballs are everywhere, but if you look at say, the auction history for Jeff Koons, it’s like all the black people were erased.” [Read Paddy Johnson’s review here.]
This was a pivotal moment at looking at this exhibit, looking past the shiny and the backlit, and finding political context, or at least, looking for it.
In Equilibrium, the water was formulated with the help of a Nobel prize winning scientist to have the exact perfect amount of salt to keep the ball suspended and still. Maybe it’s not about process and product alone. Considering the hope of “making it” in basketball is being sold as a commodity in those advertisements targeted at a historically disadvantaged community, maybe we stop thinking about the sculpture being about manufacturing perfection, instead see it as a symbol of the illusion of social mobility. Of getting up but staying down. [Ben Davis address this here.]
Jeff Koons’ painted reproductions of alcohol ads seem to serve as precedent to all corporate-themed art we’re having at the moment, but it’s more pointed in commentary. It’s seems simple and specific — the abstract aesthetics of upscale branding targeting upper class consumers just look like unique objects of art, while the others are busy with supposed “civilized” tropes of “the upper class,” aspirational imagery ham-fisted into advertisements targeting black people. As if the agencies whose ads have been appropriate into the dialogue are thinking, “Right, black people want to be rich and cool, right, rich people want to be beautiful and singular.”
The giant shiny things he’s known for and their discussions of life, death, breath, the hollow that weighs tons, the gazing balls and art history, de’blah — they all seem painfully standard. It’s all too adherent to that beaten-in theme of dichotomy and perfection, when there are those other nuances to think about.
The chronology of the retrospective all built up to the point of today, now, the very fulfilled and very happy Koons that introduced the show earlier this day — up the stairs and into the biggest rooms, to make the biggest effect… but it just wasn’t shiny enough.
If we look at this as an autobiography instead of a retrospective, the Banality series would have looked better in grand European palaces, the palaces Koons always somehow knew he’d make to. That would have true trolly magic. Here, it’s just a shelf of perfect crap.
Why am I trying to politicize Koons? To crown him as a folk hero of sexual politics? Because this is an autobiography. And his newer collage paintings are boring. And the whole Split-Rocker, and the half-inflatable, half-shiny mutant themes of the later work reek of overproduction and worse, of family life, of making things inspired by your actual kids… for your actual kids to benefit from.
In the end, I’m neither blown away nor humbled, but I’ve met a Koons to miss.
(Photos: Marina Galperina/ANIMALNewYork)