Thursday, 23 April 2015

Jeff Koons at the Pompidou Center

In Paris earlier this month we made a point of visiting the Jeff Koons exhibition at the Pompidou Center. Koons is a puzzlement to me. I want to be able to dismiss him, as several critics do, as vacuous and pandering to collecting fashion, but somehow that seems to dismiss the fact that Koons is so popular with the general public, with collectors, and with some critics. His commercialism and superficiality speak to an aspect of contemporary American culture. But it’s a little embarrassing to think that we embrace that superficiality as eagerly and fully as the market for his work would indicate.

So I wanted to see how the work was presented and interpreted by the exhibition curators. They provided some excellent context that helped me to see what inspired the objects and to understand Koons’s process. But in the end I still don’t feel convinced that I should value his art emotionally or intellectually, because it doesn’t mean much to me, even if it does, sadly, speak to contemporary culture and is occasionally amusing.

I was surprised that the first few objects were simply store-bought inflatable flowers and a bunny set against mirrors. By using mirrors Koons refers to Robert Smithson’s mirror works, although Smithson uses the mirror corner to enlarge or modify the object - usually a small earthwork - set against it. Then Koons set teapots and vacuum cleaners against florescent bulbs, the “found” objects inspired by Marcel Duchamp and Dada and the lights perhaps by Dan Flavin’s florescent works. While the labels indicate that the vacuum cleaners will remain pristine in their plexi boxes, they will eventually deteriorate. Personally I do not find the forms of the teapots and vacuum cleaners to have the design sense or the wry humor of Duchamp’s readymades. Duchamp makes you look at everyday objects aesthetically and see them as sculpture or design: not so much with Koons’s vacuum cleaners.

The first Koons I ever saw was the floating basketball, which left me cold many years ago. We did not see this in Paris, but it is in the catalog, something about equilibrium, in a series about rising and falling basketball stars and bronze aqualungs and lifeboats, perhaps deriving from trompe l’oeil sculptures of the 1970s.

I was very interested in the section where Koons enlarged alcohol ads to monumental size because he says he was interested in how the ads became more abstract as the neighborhood became wealthier. However, although I imagined that it was there, I couldn’t actually see anything about that in the ads exhibited – they were just enlarged booze ads, as Richard Prince had done with tobacco ads.

I thought the 1986 stainless steel model train that actually contained bourbon was interesting (had no idea the artist's proof had sold for $33,765,000 in 2014), but couldn’t really figure much out from it, except that it seemed to reproduce a commercial set of Jim Bean bottles.  I suppose alcohol ads and bottles are always fun. This was followed by multiple stainless steel casts of baroque portrait busts and other sculptures. The labels address the fact that stainless steel is a “proletarian” material and so the busts suggest “fake luxury.” They are shiny and cold and pretty boring replicas. Among them was a stainless steel reproduction of an inflatable rabbit, which the label says ‘transforms this inflatable disposable object into a durable and precious one,’ (albeit of “proletarian” material). Even when the curator offers several interpretations, it still looks to me like a cute trick.

Buster Keaton, 1988
Polychromed wood (Ed. 3/3)
Sonnabend Collection
and Antonio Homem
We used to have a small collection of ANRI figurines, which I sold on Ebay several years ago for more money than I’d expected. Koons’s Banality series of giant versions of cutsey carvings reminds me of those figures. Is making collectibles giant a way of giving them aesthetic value? Or is it pandering to the lowest common denominator? Koons’s comments seem to co-opt the condescension I feel toward these really, really stupid objects. Following these with the vapid pretty-faced images of Koons himself having sex and/or sculpted heroically in marble starts to make my stomach ache. On the other hand, I did sort of want the blue glass version of him having sex for our glass collection.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988
Porcelain (Ed. 1/3)
Private Collecton
Then there’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a huge gilt porcelain sculpture copied from a photograph, made by assistants in a sophisticated technique in an edition of three. Having little personal interest in Michael Jackson, I still find this entertaining in its lush surfaces and Pop sources., not to mention that it has become some kind of icon of both Jackson and Koons.

Balloon Dog (Magenta), 1994-2000
Stainless steel, clear polyester, transparent varnish
1 of 5 unique versions
Pinault Collection
I also loved the giant topiary Puppy when we saw it in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1999. And I can’t help but smile at the giant Balloon Dog that exists in five versions. It’s shiny, looks like a child’s toy, and contrasts the hardness of steel with the fragility of balloons. I think it’s fun and a kind of extension of Pop art, but I can’t take it very seriously. What does that mean? I smile when I see these works and that’s fine, but they don’t cause me to think or feel anything more profound than that initial response. Amusement and delight are valid responses to a work of art, though and more than a lot of art evokes from me.

About this time in the exhibition I learned that all of Koons’s paintings are executed by assistants following a paint-by-numbers system to assure conformity to his requirements. And I find minimal evidence that he draws or paints or sculpts himself. Andy Warhol’s studio concept is fully realized in Koons’s production system, where the ideas are his (I must assume) but the execution is by others, as in a factory.  The effect of this painting system is surprisingly photo-realistic. My snapshot of a detail of a painting looks to me like the actual plastic toy sculpture. And the sculptures are meticulously crafted by the fabricators he employs.

Shelter, 1996-98, detail
Oil on canvas
The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection

There follow quite a few paintings in various series that combine multiple commercial sources (“product packaging, advertisements, and magazine photography,” as well as cartoons and images of toys) in collages that are then significantly enlarged and painted by assistants. They remind me of Frank Stella’s paintings that employed computer imaging; here Stella’s smoke patterns are replaced by fishnet stockings.

More recent editions in the exhibition were Antiquity, monumental reproductions of well-known sculptures in brightly colored stainless steel, so shiny that they are difficult to see and in colors that make me grit my teeth. In fact one effect of all the detailed stainless-steel sculptures is that they are very difficult to see because of the hard reflectiveness of the medium. These were followed by Gazing Ball, mostly oversize plaster replicas of famous classical sculptures,  each holding a blue gazing ball, combining two garden-sculpture types.  (The addition of a mailbox with a gazing ball might be intended to clue me that the works are about things one would fine outdoors.) It’s a way of transforming ancient treasures into contemporary kitsch, so the collector can have it both ways, I suppose, i.e. the ancient object and a spoof of antiquity, but not a garden sculpture, since the plaster would not survive well out-of-doors.
Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules), 2013
Plaster and glass (Ed. 3/3)
Private Collection



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