In the run-up to Jeff Koons's first New York museum solo, opening this month at the Whitney Museum of American Art (June 27-Oct. 19), A.i.A. offers some of our writers' observations on the artist from the archives. Here, Roberta Smith's feature article from our May 1988 issue.
Of all the artists supplying the current demand for conceptually based art-about-art-about-consumerism, sculptor Jeff Koons has the most developed, convoluted, and at times, problematic program. Now 35 years old, Koons has been submitting manufactured goods to various processes of enhancement since the late 1970s, long before it became so fashionable. He carefully selects categories of objects, using their forms as sculpture, their function and social significance as subject matter. And, adding his own special brand of psycho-visual fine-tuning, he increases their allure while redirecting their inherent meaning.
So far, Koons has given us vacuum cleaners in light-filled vitrines and basketballs suspended in water-filled ones. He has cast a variety of sports equipment in bronze, and certain luxury bar accessories and "objets de kitsch" in gleaming stainless steel. Koons's forte is a dazzling visual and conceptual equilibrium in which a recognizable object is drastically transformed, its social function interrupted and supplemented by an esthetic one so that we are forced to weigh both anew. His objects are simultaneously pure and perverse, innocent and irritating, thought-provoking and mind-boggling, and have understandably been accused of celebrating as much as critiquing consumer culture.
Koons is part of a phenomenon sometimes called Neo-Geo or neo-Conceptual; he is one among a growing group of artists whose coolness, intellectuality and disdain of the handmade are seen as directly opposed to Neo-Expressionism. But actually Koons's best work has an accessibility and psychological intensity that characterizes the strongest art of the 1980s, be it Neo-Expressionist, Neo-Geo or otherwise inclined. It could be argued that, just as certain Neo-Expressionists—Francesco Clemente or Eric Fischl, for example—deal with the psychologically charged, even neurotic nature of human relations, Koons delves into the peculiarly intense relationships people have with consumer objects—the simple attraction we can feel for them, the way they come to represent goals or achievements, the way they enhance or inhibit our lives.
The objects Koons uses in his work represent activities—elaborate rituals, really—that are already loaded with connotations, good and bad, and inextricably bound up in media. These rituals include consumerism, sports, social drinking and art collecting, and it almost goes without saying that they can and often do become substitutes for human relationships. This is consistent with the anthropomorphic aspect of some of Koons's pieces and also with the way he talks about wanting his transformations to bring out the "personality" of an object. His work seems to presuppose that every object has a second nature, a substrata of meaning that is waiting to be revealed.
Koons himself is an artist of total self-consciousness who dresses like a slightly Bohemianized Yuppie (much is made of the fact that he once worked as a stockbroker); he talks about art being able to change society, but he also seems to the love the media. "I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based on it," he said in a recent interview in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Contemporary Art (Spring 1988). Talking about his art, Koons tends to speak his own rather jargonistic, idealistic language, as if he's attended too many EST seminars. His avowed desire to reach many sectors of society can also come across as classist (as when he talks about some pieces appealing to the proletariat and others to the upper classes), but it's not entirely inaccurate. Still, while Koons's work can be seen to point up the ways in which art, consumer goods and advertising each reflect and appeal to the tastes and values of specific sectors of society, there's not much evidence that these distinctions are apparent to any but a highly informed art audience. Ultimately, though, Koons's work is more engaging—and its meaning fuller and more flexible—than most of what he has said about it. It helps to keep in mind that he is first and foremost a sculptor—an artist who works with three-dimensional objects, and whose art work best conceptually when he actively, and simultaneously, manipulates space, volumetric form and iconography.
Like his Minimalist forebears, Koons knows how to make the sculptural supremely optical. His is particularly adept at finding Minimalist-type forms—hollow, thin-skinned and factory-made—in the world at large and returning then not only to the realm of art, but also to the land of the living. In addition to being sculpturally satisfying, the weightless volumes-within-volumes of his boxed vacuum cleaners and tanked basketballs exude a decidedly animated presence that the Minimalists would never have tolerated. The basketballs cradled in their tanks resemble carefully protected aquatic creatures. The white canisters of the Shelton Wet-Dry vacuum cleaners he has used suggest abbreviated robots: alien, yet anthropomorphized.
While Koons's work was known and occasionally seen in group exhibitions in New York throughout the early 1980s, he didn't have his first one-person show until the spring of 1985. In a sense, he emerged full blown as a more or less mature artist; he has been running through ideas at a fairly rapid clip ever since. It's as if he'd been poised, waiting for his chance. His career has unfolded like a series of carefully orchestrated advertising campaigns, each with its own name, themes and formal qualities. Until recently, every suite of objects had been accompanied by related advertising posters that Koons appropriates with the consent of the companies concerned. In order of appearance, "The New," "Equilibrium," "Luxury and Degradation" and "Statuary" have fed into one another, sometimes clarifying, sometimes clouding Koons's ideas.
"The New," Koons's principal series of the early 1980s, was dominated by gleaming vacuum cleaners—stacked or paired side by side and displayed in fluorescent-lit Plexiglas vitrines. With titles like New Shelton Wet/Dry Triple Decker, these works made ironic yet visually effective use of Minimalist compositional schemes. The repeating rectilinear forms, Plexiglas containers and fluorescent tubes evoked Judd and Flavin; the soft optical glow recalled Robert Irwin's white-on-white installations from the mid-70s and his emphasis on purely phenomenological visual perception. These ostensibly workaday objects, their functions suspended, were usually accompanied by wall-hung Duratran lightbox advertisements selling such luxury items as cigarettes or big cars and often using the word "New" in their slogans.
In all his works comprising "The New," Koons equated consumerism's object-lust with modernism's compulsive pursuit of the newest in art innovations, and compared the semi-esthetic (if not semi-religious) aura of a brand-new household appliance with the "presence" of the art object. Newness for Koons seemed to be a state of perfection, of completely uncorrupted integrity; for him, a thing is most powerful when it is new. Proving that even people could qualify for this standard of excellence, the series also included The New Jeff Koons, a back-lit treatment of one of his own childhood photographs—the artist as a squeaky-clean kindergartener equipped with a new set of crayons.
Koons's "Equilibrium" series was introduced in his first solo exhibition in the spring of 1985 at the recently defunct International With Monument Gallery in the East Village. Here, Spalding basketballs were suspended in aquariumlike vitrines filled with water. These pieces were accompanied by various flotation devices—a rubber raft, a snorkel vest, an aqualung—meticulously cast in bronze down to the last, minute detail. On the wall hung framed posters, in the spirit of The New Jeff Koons, advertising Nike basketball shoes. These showed famous basketball stars, most of whom are black, in a number of roles, but always wearing new Nikes and surrounded by new Spalding basketballs. Washington Bullets' forward Moses Malone, outfitted with a robe over his uniform and a shepherd's staff, and with a flock of basketballs at his Nike-clad feet, appeared as the biblical Moses.
The "Equilibrium" series saw a sharper treatment of media myth, and also of class difference, both of which has been hinted at in "The New," where the contrast between household appliances and luxury items implied a distinction between the people who cleaned the houses and those who owned them. Now the focus seemed to be the individual's survival in the face of life's various, but mostly social, adversities, a theme that was subtly reiterated from piece to piece. The epiphanic optimism of "The New" was now undercut by a pessimistic tone. The floating basketballs, with their resemblance to innocent unborn beings suspended in amniotic fluid, seemed to symbolize natural equilibrium and new, untried life. The posters testified to successfully lived lives—equilibrium regained—reminding one of the multi-level social function of basketball, not only a form of entertainment but also the black kid's ticket out of the ghetto. But there was more: the posters also implied a kind of sellout—basketball stars as product themselves, mere media flunkies.
The three bronze flotation devices symbolized more expensive, non-professional and upper-class forms of recreation—and therefore greater success and security. But they also suggested equilibrium lost. Implements of actual physical survival, their function was lethally suspended by their being cast in bronze. Far from helping you float, they would take you right down to the bottom. They somehow underscored the ambiguity of the basketball players' success.
The bronze flotation devices offered a thematic coup de grace to the "Equilibrium" series, and, in being cast in bronze, showed how "The New" could be permanently stabilized. But they also signaled a significant shift in Koons's work. With them, he began to move from ready-made to "re-made," from the provocative, sculpturally exciting presentation of real things to their hyper-realized, drop-dead simulation. Gone was the magical yet easily deconstructed transformation of the everyday. Koons's wonderful found-in-the-world volumetricity was being encroached upon by a dense and expensive materiality.
Koons's next series, "Luxury and Degradation," which opened at International With Monument in the fall of 1986, focused on the ritual of liquor consumption, and on the way it is glamorized through advertising and its serious consequences disguised by status-conscious drinking accessories and paraphernalia. These objects, shining stainless steel, included a Baccarat crystal set, a briefcase travel bar, an ice bucket and a bar caddy in the shape of a leering kitschy golf caddy. On the walls were lush advertisements for various liquors that Koons had printed in oil ink on canvas, producing instant, ready-made paintings. Like the drinking paraphernalia, these seemed aimed at different audiences or kinds of taste. For example, the gold monochrome "abstraction" of the Frangelico ad might be matched to the relatively restrained and tasteful Baccarat set.
The show's tour de force was the model train—engine, five cars, caboose and tracks—that had been cast in stainless steel from porcelain decanters that are custom-made by James B. Beam Distilling Co. Like most of the other casts in this series, these were exact replicas which could be used. Koons had the trains sent to the Beam Distilleries where the decanters were filled with whiskey and sealed. Here, the continuation of function was as frightening, and as potentially fatal, as its suspension had been in the bronze flotation devices.
In the "Luxury and Degradation" show, survival and success were again the prominent themes. The series was an allegory of society's relentless pressures to get ahead and acquire the look, accoutrements and habits of luxury. Here, death was more insidious, destruction more self-induced. The question raised was could we hold on to our liquor—maintain our equilibrium—in the face of success, or would alcohol take us to the bottom? Was success itself a threat to survival? Was luxury ultimately anything more than a form of degradation?
Taken as a whole, this show was an elegant, insightful installation piece, and it functioned as a single work of art. In a sense, Koons had converted the entire gallery into an equilibrium tank in which the viewer—mesmerized and suspended—slowly drifted. The objects, unified by material, had a leaden, conspiratorial quality, a feeling of dead weight. The ads were all invitations to inertia and passivity. "Stay in tonight" coaxed Frangelico liqueurs. "Lay down the Law" was the message from Hennessy in an ad showing a beautiful, scantily clad black woman, drink in hand, interrupting her bookish mate, an apparent law student on the way up.
Striking as it was as a whole, the "Luxury and Degradation" show was also problematic. It seemed unlikely that the subversive intent of the objects would survive when seen individually, or in a collector's home. Removed from the ensemble, these pieces tend to look like the latest Photo-Realist sculpture; worse yet, they are dangerously close to the real thing—resembling nothing as much as pricey den equipment or conversation pieces. Ironically, the liquor ad paintings may have worked the most lasting change on our perceptions. Conceptually, they illuminate the media's constant barrage of mixed messages to both strive and indulge, achieve and give up control. Visually, they have given certain liquor ads a strange double life. For me, the gold "abstract" Frangelico as encountered in a magazine or subway station still registers initially as a Jeff Koons painting gone AWOL from its usual context.
In Koons's next recycling effort, the "Statuary" series, the focus shifts to life and death of the art object. The series consists of a group of figurines, dolls, portrait busts and the like—exhausted sculptural clichés one and all—cast once more in stainless steel. It includes some of Koons' most bizarre and thoroughly self-sufficient sculptures, and also the most effective cast pieces he has yet made. Unaccompanied by posters or wall works of any kind, these adamantly durable stainless-steel objects come complete with their own pedestals. The best of them—especially a life-size bust of Louis XIV—wear their contradictions right on the surface, which is where they belong.
The "Statuary" series is, of course, an exegesis on the devolution of kitsch. The series shows art stripped of its esthetic purpose and used to fulfill all sorts of purely social functions and common human desires. Copies of copies of copies prevail here, their originals long lost to sight and consciousness. The bust of Louis XIV, and a second portrait bust of an Italian gentlewoman, count among the series' standouts. Cast from mass-manufactured marble-dust copies of the 19th-century table sculptures, they represent art in the service of the monarchy and aristocracy as well as the 19th- (and 20th-) century infatuation with same. In a bare-breasted mermaid troll and Doctor's Delight, a lascivious encounter between female patient and male physician, we see sculpture at the service of sexual titillation—although the mermaid also represents the degradation of an ancient myth. The small but big-headed Bob Hope statuette shows sculpture reduced to celebrity memorabilia. More genteel are a decorative vase of flowers and the romantic, seemingly Rococo French Coach Couple—a courting scene actually cast from an early 20th-century copy intended as a lamp base.
In short, each object represents a sliding descent through historical epochs, levels of taste and endless perversions of use and meaning—a fall to some extent halted, even occasionally reversed, by the conversion to stainless steel. Koons called the material "proletariat silver," and it is especially lumpen here. In fact, it usually appears to be nearly solid.
Each of the "Statuary" objects translates differently into stainless steel, being variously coarsened or exalted, generalized or newly specified, by the switch. The French Coach Couple is reduced to a mass of shimmering ripples—it seems almost to melt—that makes it all the more frivolous. The intricate draperies of Louis XIV and the Italian Woman are dryly, impeccably detailed and contrast dramatically with the statues' smooth faces, whose slippery steel surfaces set their expressions in motion, making them mercurial and hard to read. (The conversations do not always go far enough: it's easy to imagine the originals of Bob Hope and Doctor's Delight as made of metallic-surfaced cast plastic, a substance not unlike stainless steel in effect.)
The "Statuary" series both departs from and amplifies the concerns of Koons's previous work. For the first time, "the old"—the irredeemably used up—is converted into "the new." With one notable exception—the wonderful cast of an inflatable rabbit—Koons's signatory hollowness is no longer a part of the sculptural experience of the work, nor are circulating air or liquid part of its iconography. If anything circulates within the "Statuary" series it is value itself, its loss in the original dramatized by its very reinstatement in the stainless-steel copy. Yet, in this emphasis, the "Statuary" series extends a theme that has figured in all of Koons's work, for these works may also be seen as an allegory of the individual's struggle to balance personal worth and market value.
These anthropomorphized objects do more than critique or celebrate the mechanics of kitsch. They lay bare its emotional secret: they have been loved naively (almost mindlessly), but they have been loved, despite their lack of esthetic value. The simple emotions they elicit and symbolize—love of authority, naughtiness, celebrity or romance—are not always attractive, but they have their own kind of "value," especially when monumentalized in stainless steel. Taken as a whole, the "Statuary" series both reveals and dignifies a broad spectrum of human weaknesses.
In redeeming these objects for art, in restoring their long-lost esthetic equilibrium, Koons comes full circle, retrieving the optimism and innocence of "The New," but with greater flexibility and wisdom. Gone is the virginal perfection of the encased vacuum cleaners, the dormant inexperience of the suspended basketballs. Gone as well is the pessimism of the "Luxury and Degradation" series. The characters of the "Statuary" series are deeply flawed but exonerated, their pasts revealed and their futures reignited. They ask nothing more or less than the impossible demand that most of us make on life: to be loved as we are, yet seen as perfect.