Return of the Dick—Jeff Koons's Porn Pictures

The artist drips back into sight

Death, taxes, and Jeff Koons. It's impossible to avoid reaching for the word "inevitable" when considering the ubiquity of the hardest-working artist in show business. Whether or not one rates auction house results or believes that banality—in the words of one zealot—is truly "the white elephant of our culture," Koons has been massively successful at one intense pursuit above all others: establishing himself as the world's most recognized trophy artist.

Just a few nights ago, this was confirmed for me when a normally vapid dinner party conversation veered awkwardly toward picking the greatest living artist of our time. After rehearsing a few names, one candidate was deemed sufficiently "huge" to measure up to Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Predictably, it was Koons. Shedding my previous impartiality, I pointed out that our little colloquy reminded me of another group psychosis that led Time editors to name Donald Rumsfeld—or "Rumstud," as W. called him—2003's "Man of the Year" (he turned it down). Gag me with a stainless-steel bunny!

"Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," heinous Henry Kissinger once growled. For Koons, on the other hand, stimulation has always come from commercial success. An artist who employs more than 100 people in his New York studio and famously never touches his work, this ex–Wall Street broker has engineered a career devoted to emptying art of everything except what Karl Marx righteously called commodity fetish. Koons once buttonholed an Italian reporter with the shallow delusion that a person finds "confidence in his position by virtue of the objects with which he surrounds himself." One of his many fair-weather friends characterized his mojo similarly: "Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, 'Let's short-circuit the process. Let's begin with the commodity.' "

The artist's delicate study of butterflies: Hand on Breast, 1990
Courtesy Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery
The artist's delicate study of butterflies: Hand on Breast, 1990

Since coming to this mercenary realization in 1985, Koons's career has accelerated from garage tinkerer of found objects (remember those cute Plexiglas-clad vacuum cleaners?) to titan of a personal empire that shills kitschy, newfangled, high-priced baubles. Working together with an old-fashioned cabal of collectors and dealers—boldface names like Peter Brandt (newsprint magnate), Eli Broad (philanthropist), Dakis Joannou (Greek construction tycoon), François Pinault (Christie's owner), and Larry Gagosian (Wizard of Oz)—Koons has masterminded a conglomerate that funds, factory-produces, markets, purchases, and orchestrates auction results for an extensive line of corn-syrupy products. Ideal Gatsbyesque distillations of middle-American consumerism, his gimcracks echo the ultimate Red State maxim in gold plate: That's QVC, for Quality, Value, and Convenience. But what about his collectibles? Simply put, Koons's slick commercial operation is the Siamese twin of his pieces' gaudy visuality. No mere twofer, Koons's Ram truck and its payload constitute the maximum expression of what Andy Warhol once innocently referred to as "business art."

While most artists typically separate art and money, Koons brings them into ecstatic union with dependable results. Expensively shiny forms leached of all content—excepting their expensive shininess—his Pink Panther statues and cast-metal lobsters mean what they say (and say what they mean) with a daft straightforwardness that his moneyed fans rarely acknowledge. Take his famous polychromed statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the chimp: A perfect example of truth in advertising, the sculpture contains zero discursiveness besides Robb Report product placement. Even Koons's one-ton steel balloon dog and his giant "Puppy"—popular guilty pleasures whose revelations are genuinely child-like—are built empty by design. Trojan pooches, they represent a temporary beauty that is merely passing. Their dumb is forever.

Which brings us to the reason I'm writing about Koons at all: to note the currently asinine rehanging in a Park Avenue townhouse of 10 sexually explicit fables from his 1990 "Made in Heaven" series. Timed to coincide with Sotheby's "selling show" titled "Divine Comedy" (which also includes the artist's work), this porny exhibition of pictures of Koons and his ex-wife—Ilona Staller, a/k/a La Cicciolina—doggin' it proves once again that second and third acts in American lives are entirely proportional to the size of one's (or one's friends') wallet(s).

"Made in Heaven," the original New York gallery display of large canvases and copulating sculpture, was roundly panned—Michael Kimmelman called the artist "an opportunistic publicity monger" in The New York Times. Its failure led to the quick dissolution of Koons and Staller's marriage and a bitter custody fight for the couple's son. The cost overruns on Koons's next works—the inaptly titled "Celebration" series—nearly bankrupted several fortunes (including Jeffrey Deitch's). As a result, the artist's planned Guggenheim retrospective was first postponed, then completely scotched. Looking around at Koons's worst output ever inside the tony Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery, it's hard to believe things could have turned out otherwise.

Featuring pixellated screenprint or silkscreen "paintings" inspired by Eastern European tug mags and a single small glass "ice" sculpture, the current deflated incarnation of "Made in Heaven" proves important only in ways that reflect on the art world's laissez-faire chumminess. There is, to put it simply, absolutely no valid reason besides money to exhibit this dreck today. To dispel any doubt, I accepted a personal tour from the gallery owner—the lithe, smooth, well-connected granddaughter of Moshe Dayan. Besides reconfirming art history's judgments and the weird sense that some rich people still think that price tags measure the cutting edge, the parley lent a particularly Koonsian brazenness to the day.

The polished Dayan identified a picture of reverse-cowgirl anal penetration, Red Butt, as having been the favorite of Koons's octogenarian ex-dealer, Ileana Sonnabend: "She hung it in her office, right at the entrance." You don't say. A second image of cum on La Cicciolina's cheek Dayan compared to Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa: "It's called Exaltation." Of course, what else? The exhibition's last hardcore picture waited: Titled Dirty Ejaculation, it bore a feces-flecked close-up of Koons's dick pulling out of Cicciolina's bunghole. "I think it's radical," Dayan purred. Uh, yeah!, I mouthed archly. And if this load were music, you would be the New York Philharmonic.

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