George Lindemann Journal - "Confectionary Overload" @wsj by Peter Plagens
'Play-Doh' (2014) Jeff Koons/Photo by Ron Amstutz
You can give the Whitney Museum's Jeff Koons retrospective due diligence in about 35 minutes. Without pausing for the wall texts and explanatory labels (which read like advertising copy), that amounts to 10 minutes per floor plus a little orientation time in the basement café level to look at posters for Mr. Koons's early exhibitions, where his shtick of trumping Andy Warhol with slickness and production values first caught the public's attention.
Of American Art
Through Oct. 19
The beginning and end of the show contain the good stuff. The vitrined vacuum cleaners, such as "New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue; New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue; Doubledecker" (1987), lighted à la Frankenstein from beneath, exude a harsh morbidity. "Play-Doh," a technical and aesthetic masterpiece of conjoined, painted aluminum parts 10 feet tall and weighing more than five tons, mimics a random pile of the kids' playstuff, and took from 1994 until this year to realize. It's a better Claes Oldenburg than many Oldenburgs.
Otherwise, the exhibition has, as Dave Hickey once said about Las Vegas, lots to see but nothing to look at. It consists of approximately 150 objects, ranging from (early period) framed Nike basketball posters and dime-store inflatable flowers; to (middle period) enlarged porcelain replicas of Bavarian-American kitsch statuary such as Buster Keaton astride a tiny pony; (turning point and nadir) X-rated "Made in Heaven" paintings of the artist having sex with an Italian pornstar, whom he subsequently married; and (comeback and late period) very expensively produced and defiantly shiny sculpture such as a giant candy-box heart and a thyroidal, hideously blue metallic enlargement of a kitsch copy of a Renaissance Venus. 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.
The real subject of the exhibition, however, is not Mr. Koons's bright, empty, perhaps ironic and ultimately numbing art, but his persona. Or rather, the mystery of it. Make no mistake: Mr. Koons is and has always been a very nervy fellow, willing to risk his bank account (considerable now, but empty after the "Made in Heaven" fiasco and an awful custody battle over the son from that marriage) and what one critic calls his "fan base" (a peculiarly appropriate term regarding a serious modern artist) with every deadpan-titled series, from "Celebration" to "Banality" to "Easyfun."
Mr. Koons is nervy and cool enough, in fact, to have in effect played, for 25 years or so, a kind of character common to early television situation comedies. The loud, madcap Lucille Ball played somebody known as "Lucy Ricardo," the loud, madcap wife of a Latino nightclub headliner, "Ricky Ricardo" (played by her real-life husband Desi Arnaz). Closer to Mr. Koons's modus operandi, Bob Cummings played a bon vivant commercial photographer named "Bob Collins," who viewers assumed was pretty close in personality to Mr. Cummings himself. The few times I interviewed Mr. Koons, and every time I've heard him speak in public or in a video—in that voice that seems to emanate from HAL 9000 giving a Chamber of Commerce presentation—I could easily believe that he's really an actor named, say, Jeff Cook, playing in a sitcom about an artist named "Jeff Koons" who truly believes that a saccharine but military-industrial-grade Pop Art redux is the path to a contemporary Renaissance, not to mention the healing of our national psyche.
Mr. Koons is also nervy enough to occasionally subvert his bland Mister-Rogers-goes-to-the-Biennale manner. He nibbles—if not actually bites—the hand that's feeding him this great big exhibition, with an overlay component in a couple of his "Hunk Elvis" series paintings that a label tells us is a "marker drawing of a sailboat." It's also clearly a cartoon of female genitals similar to those of his ex-wife and sex partner in one particular "Made in Heaven" picture. And if the outsize, nauseatingly cute sculpture "Cat on a Clothesline" (2001) isn't a mocking crucifix, then none of those statues in any of the world's Catholic churches are sincere ones. There's no reason for the daisies on either side of the piece other than to extend the horizontal clothesline so that it and the sock in which the kitten resides form a cross. And the clothespins are an obvious metaphor for nails.
While Mr. Koons's "Bob Collins" equivalent isn't afraid to put the museological parallel to a TV network at risk of a little embarrassment, the Whitney does a fair job of embarrassing itself in the show's wall texts. The museum credits Mr. Koons's every stylistic move with the profundity of a Richard Rorty philosophical tome. The text concerning Mr. Koons's mid-'80s small, stainless-steel sculpture series simply called "Statuary" (which includes a big-headed small figure of Bob Hope) says: "By transforming his lowbrow readymades into highbrow art and making his historical sources more contemporary, Koons achieved a kind of democratic leveling of culture. Taken together, the 'Statuary' works evoke a panoply of emotions and styles—melancholy or joy, realism or caricature—and demonstrate Koons's keen manipulation of ingrained ideas about art and taste."
You want to respond that nobody, but nobody, has yet democratically leveled culture, that we'll be the judge of what Mr. Koons's work evokes, thank you very much, and that "manipulating" an audience's allegedly ingrained ideas about taste is patronizing in the extreme.
The big question, of course, regards Mr. Koons's intentions in creating the garishly greeting-card and tourist-shop oeuvre that's been his stock in trade for more than two decades. If he means his art sincerely—no giggling into his shirt collar—then most of the works in this retrospective are, gigantism notwithstanding, as vapid, treacly and dumbed down as any of those Kate Middleton commemorative cups and saucers advertised in the supplements of middle-market American Sunday newspapers. A few art-world people I know think Mr. Koons is sincere. They think that even if he was snideness personified in his 1980s work, after "Made in Heaven" he saw the populist light and simply wants to make art that, as the artist himself has said, "is a support system for people to feel good about themselves."
I disagree. A mature artist does not acquire arrested development in taste unless somebody pours too much Everclear into his vernissage Sancerre, or an international art dealer clubs him over the head with a two-by-four and he wakes up experiencing a blissful epiphany about the sublime beauty of tchotchkes. No; once an artist is a wiseguy doing a love-hate sleight-of-hand with the artifacts of cheap popular culture, and follows that up with pulling the legs of art-world insiders by pretending to really like such artifacts, he's always going to be a wiseguy. The Jeff Koons who speaks in never ending bromides like "Wherever you come to with art, it's perfect" appears to me to be as much a created character—a work of performance art, you might say—as "Bob Collins" was.
Mr. Plagens is an artist and writer in New York.