Jeffersonian Koons


It’s finally here. Eight years after its debut in Arolson, Germany; after a 1996 stint in Sydney; its installation outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao, where Basque guerrillas threatened to blow it up; a recent spider fumigation by Australian shippers; who knows how many false starts and delays caused by the perfectionism of its maker, one of the two versions of Puppy, Jeff Koons’s inflorescent topiary masterpiece, has reached Manhattan. And it’s the cutest, most purely pleasurable public sculpture I’ve ever seen.

But it’s really more movie than art object. That’s because Puppy does what movies do: wows people, makes them stare at one thing for a long time and experience wonder. It sneaks in under their radar, disarming fears of art. In some quintessentially Jeffersonian way, Puppy renders all who see it equal. It is the rare work of art that laymen can talk about with the same degree of confidence and authority that those in the art world bring to it.

That’s something, given that—as I’ve said before—99 percent of all public sculpture is shit. The reasons for this are complex. Art and the public have been strange bedfellows for some time; public art and the public barely speak. On top of that, a gaggle of politicians, bureaucrats, art administrators, and community groups have brought this once august art form to a low point. Here, the Public Art Fund and developer Jerry Speyer got it right. Puppy doesn’t remedy the plight of public art, but it’s a fabulous break in the action, and it hints at what’s possible.

Puppy is a 43-foot-high, 44-ton West Highland terrier constructed out of stainless steel, swathed in nearly 70,000 petunias, marigolds, begonias, impatiens, and lobelias, which are potted in 23 tons of soil and kept alive by an internal irrigation system. It sits in front of the GE Building—where the Christmas tree usually stands—like a watchdog, or a pooch waiting for a walk. Initially, it looked too small for its site, but then I realized its location is part of the magic. Puppy fits right in with Rockefeller Center; it’s just as classic, utopian, sincere, and silly. Puppy is the landmark’s best friend.

Like much of Koons’s work, Puppy deals with equilibrium. In this case, we see that played out on a phenomenological level. With its coat of many colors, Puppy straddles a cosmic fault line separating the hilarious and the insidious, the architectural and the organic, the temporary and the timeless. In some Machiavellian way, Koons splits the difference between innocence and cunning. Call it “Dog Star” or “Puppy Love,” it’s a one-float Rose Bowl parade, a botanical Buddha, an animalistic nursery rhyme, and an Edward Scissorhands apparition. Koons makes us all lost children found by this loving pup.

What Puppy does is please. It surrounds itself with a metaphysical force field that wards off judgment and deflects attempts to fathom it. It just is. As is its maker. Koons is like an artistic Ronald Reagan; always cheerful, polite, and pleasant, he speaks in platitudes (“Puppy is a contemporary Sacred Heart of Jesus”). What you see is what he is: a creature whose core and surface are the same thing. Occasionally, however, there’s a flash of anxiety or neediness. In a friendly conversation, he might break into an explanation of why he didn’t exhibit in New York for most of the ’90s or ask if you’re really “supportive” of his work.

This, too, connects to Puppy, and helps explain why it’s a canine and not a bunny or a guitar. Not being a dog person, I called Nancy Ann Schoch, of the West Highland Terrier Club of America, who told me the breed “wants to be loved, is spunky, extremely intelligent, affectionate, independent, barks a lot, and was bred to hunt and kill small creatures.” Except for that last bit, it sounds a lot like Koons. This, plus the fact that Puppy isn’t an adult but an unpredictable pup, suggests this sculpture is a self-portrait: a monument to Koons’s insecurity and independence, a tabernacle to himself as the prodigal yet obedient son.

It’s also a monument to us. The main emotional hit you get from Puppy is joy—oddly, an emotion we Americans give off when we’re insecure. You can see this especially abroad, where we wear joy on our sleeves, probably as a way to avoid judgment or offset nervousness. Outfitted in fanny packs, we’re the annoying, noisy, worried ones—the terriers of tourists. Strangers misread this joy as friendliness, when we don’t really want to get to know anyone; we just want people to like us—like doggies.

Sitting in the midst of Rockefeller Center, Puppy is like a new Statue of Liberty; it receives and redeems. People love it. It should be left where it is; imagine the Puppy lighting ceremony every December! If not here, Battery Park would be good, or Columbus Circle, in back of the Met, in front of the Brooklyn Museum. If it were on Governors Island, people could take a ferry to see it. It could sit beside a LaGuardia runway, where it would always be waiting for our return. If you build it, they will come.