Jeff Koons Clowns Around the Whitney

Jeff Koons' monuments to vapidity are now on display at the Whitney.

Jeff Koons Clowns Around the Whitney
©Jeff Koons/Whitney Museum of American Art
Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994 – 2000

The two-year-long drumroll for the Whitney Museum's Jeff Koons retrospective sounds like a nonstop whoopee cushion. The stuttering symphony has included clapper noises from various auction houses, the dueling bongos of twin exhibitions at New York's biggest galleries (Gagosian and David Zwirner), the tom-tom beat of fawning profiles (the New York Times, W, Vanity Fair), and, last week, the bang-the-drum predictability of Split-Rocker, the second giant-planter-as-sculpture to be sited at Rockefeller Center in 14 years. A record-setting sculptor whose price for a single artwork reached $58.4 million this past November — making him the most expensive living artist — Koons has finally assembled most of his big-boy toys under a single roof. The question is: What do we make of his conspicuous four-ring circus? Is Koons the most important creator since Picasso or — as Stephen Colbert smartly skewered him — the world's most expensive birthday clown?

On the strength — or, rather, lameness — of the Whitney's long-awaited survey, "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective," it's rainbow wig and red foam nose, hands down. An exhibition that brings together some 150 objects made over three decades, Koons's current extravaganza features most of the artist's factory-made greatest hits. The Whitney show includes, for instance, fluorescent-illuminated vacuum cleaners encased in Plexiglas; stainless steel- and bronze-cast versions of store-bought inflatable bunnies and Popeye dolls; pixelated photo-transfer "paintings" of the artist having sex with his ex-wife, the erstwhile porn star Cicciolina; serial versions of shiny reflective works that broke auction records; and, finally, a recently spit-polished 10,500-pound, 10-foot-high sculpture made to resemble (what else?) Play-Doh. Much as installing that last work required the museum to take the front doors off their hinges, enjoying this monumental pile of...kitsch requires a similar removal: of one's critical thinking. It's lobotomy by art.

United for the first time in the Whitney's most expensive show ever — it is also the museum's last hurrah at the Marcel Breuer building before it departs for the Meatpacking District downtown — the works in "A Retrospective" resemble less a curated exhibition of radical art than a grown-up's fantasy night at FAO Schwarz. The museum has deployed Koons's items over three floors chronologically but also according to their facile popularity, which makes for uniformly childish viewing. And for his very first outing in a New York institution, Koons and the museum have cranked up the artist's infantile corniness to 11. The results are at once spectacularly banal, superficially celebratory, and cynically cheery. Put in musical terms, if Koons's objects could sing, they'd belt out the "Macarena" and the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song. And then repeat them on a shopping-mall loop.

Location Info


Whitney Museum Of American Art

945 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10021

Category: Museums

Region: East 80s


"Jeff Koons: A Retrospective"
Whitney Museum Of American Art
945 Madison Ave.
Through October 19

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Koons's entire career — like that of Dubya and Honey Boo Boo — is owed to what Bertrand Russell once unflinchingly called "the triumph of stupidity." A set of battles the former commodities trader began waging in the late 1970s, Koons's evolving output progressively stripped away all content from his art until he arrived at his present-day, precisely manufactured, nine-figure monuments to vapidity. While in his twenties, the artist committed to celebrating consumerism in the form of reframed advertisements and signature-series basketballs suspended in fish tanks. He graduated to cast examples of Hallmark statuary that embraced French Rococo ideals of luxury and dilettantism. In the '90s, Koons met his critical Waterloo, and near-bankruptcy — he blames his costly custody battle with Cicciolina; others point to the fornicating series as a professional nadir. He claimed then that those works in blown glass, carved wood, and photography on canvas constitute his most important art — objects, he still insists, that were designed to promote freedom and relieve audiences of "guilt and shame." Whichever the more-proximate cause, the nearly career-killing fiasco taught Koons a lesson, and he dropped all subsequent pretense to visual commentary and originality. As evidenced by what came after — the feel-good balloon animals, the multiple polychrome cartoon figures, the anti-intellectual Trojan horses that are Puppy and Split-Rocker — he never again let an idea, good, bad, or indifferent, get in the way of true north: his shiny, empty, pharaonic art ideal.

Of course, stupidity of the historically successful kind has always found opportunistic handmaidens to game the system. In Koons's retrospective, the identities of those allies are spelled out on the wall beneath the works' titles, clearly identified as lenders to the exhibition (these are not folks who are satisfied with being labeled "anonymous" patrons). A who's who of "venture philanthropy" that includes boldface names like hedge fund magnate Steve Cohen, François Pinault, Eli Broad and Don and Mera Rubell, these global kingpins complete Koons's reconstruction of sculpture as supersized containers for their aspirational bliss. Robert Hughes's excellent line about Koons's work being art that has no purpose beyond its own promotion never rang truer — with an important proviso: Eye candy with zero content is especially good cover for players on the make. Not only does it flatter the mega rich into thinking expensive art is subversive, but it also foments the lie that speculating is collecting and that any idiot can play the game.

Koons's work is all about amputating judgment. His golden ceramic statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the chimp, for example, easily elides high production value with unthinking acceptance (just like Celine Dion's Las Vegas stage shows). There is the artist's repurposing of pool toys into heavy metal objects, a move that is by now as dopily familiar as it is asinine. And then there is Balloon Dog (Yellow), a literal casting of hot hair in stainless steel, which also proves to be our era's golden calf. With this and other memorably vacuous pieces, the Whitney's bombastic Koons survey nails the grand style of our gilded age. False idols in the guise of paint-by-numbers canvases, 3-D-imaged sculptures, and crowdsourced imagery, these and other works give (some) people what they (say) they want: a mirror image of a disengaged, mediocre, creatively impoverished era, when money and entertainment routinely stomp imagination.

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Thank god for the spot on review! I thought Koons was the second coming of the messiah the way he was crowned in the press. Starting with the clueless Smith/Saltz duo, all the ditto head art critics lay down like worshipful dominos at their knees- the same could be said for the chorus of  hosannas greeting that gigantic art farce- the Walker Sugar Baby.

What is it they speak and like an echo all agree- it must be so- all critical judgement is lost.

This is the first critique that had the guts to say- it was crap. Robert Hughes sadly is dead and Jed Perl, a lone hold-out is pilloried for being " conservative'. Since when is saying in ones learned opinion that Koons is crap makes someone somehow conservative. Do the price tags make it any better? Eli Broad (a richie rich  Koons groupie) is nothing more than a fancy real estate agent. Is nothing not art- including someones upchucked dinner outside of a restaurant?

It takes courage to go against the art critic lemmings- you don't get to go to the swellest parties. Good for you!

markie19 topcommenter


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Kerry Goad6 seconds ago via YouTube

LikeLike · · Subscribe on YouTube · SharePelican Brief TrailerPelican Brief TrailerDeleteShareLikeReplymarkie195 hours ago

Read new times uses my stories of the janbrewisms and then writes stories and gets me no help darrow k soll killed no suicide is Steve Lemons dirty or Matthew -google Markerry Soll Mc Night medium so i can get no law enforcement in most states they killed him not crazy 



Sorry CVF this is just plain wrong, however fun yr firecracker prose (you're like a left-wing Jed Perl w this endless string of artful insults). "Critical thinking" is a function of the viewer, not the work, which isn't blank so much as it delivers what could be called the poetry of our all-consuming, Disneyfied capitalist culture. He takes the messages of Mad Ave at face value, and sells them back to us as art-as-wholesome affirmations of American life. For instance, a pile of Pla-Doh is an emblem of endless human potential (in the way El Greco's detail of a trussed lamb in his "Jesus and the Money-Changers" prefigures the crucifixion). It's not really a good thing, your impulse there is right, but it does bring postmodernism to it's crashingly complacent conclusion.


You wrote: "[they] were designed to promote freedom and relieve audiences of "guilt and shame." As if we need JK to relieve us of guilt and shame. What, he's a priest? All I can say, as an artist who has been struggling to frame my thoughts on Koons and feeling that it is futile, you did it for me! Great writing! Thank you.

Lee Wright
Lee Wright

I loved reading this review. It saved me from having to explain why I would not be making the trip to the Whitney.