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Jeff Koons Clowns Around the Whitney

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

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.

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.

Like high-fructose corn syrup, Koons's influence is so ubiquitous that railing against it can feel futile. Perhaps it's best to cue the artist himself and consider momentarily what he told Carl Swanson of New York magazine last year: "Removing judgment lets you feel, of course, freer, and you have acceptance of things, and everything's in play, and it lets you go further."

Those are the words of a quack doctor, a blow-dried evangelist, a Home Shopping Network pitchman. In clown speak, Koons's art is all whoopee cushion. Maybe for his next trick he'll blow that up and cast it in bronze.


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