I spent the past 11 years being disappointed in Jeff Koons. Before then, between 1980, when he began making his first Plexi-encased vacuum cleaner sculptures, and 1992, the year he created the incredible topiary Puppy in Arolsen, Germany, no one straddled the cosmic divide between innocence and cunning, hilarity and insidiousness, as effectively as Koons. In those halcyon years, as soon as I saw a work of his, weak or strong, it embedded itself like a burr in my imagination, then grew like a pearl into something complex and lustrous.
However, since Puppy, which subsequently had a wonderful run at Rockefeller Center in 2000, there hasn’t been much to yap about. As Koons became a celebrity artist, he also became a parody of one—someone known mainly for his prices, his failed marriage to the Italian porn star Cicciolina, and his Ronald Reagan-like cheerfulness. The paintings he started producing in 1995, which resemble Rosenquists put through a Cuisinart, struck me as pretty appalling, and appallingly derivative. I still feel this way, despite the fact that four years ago, someone whose eye I really respect put a bug in my ear. On the occasion of the 1999 Sonnabend exhibition that contained the first American sightings of these Pop-y paintings, aesthetic clairvoyant Clarissa Dalrymple observed, “You know, Jeff Koons has never done a bad show. There’s something redeeming here.” Because the show seemed so irredeemable, I heard but didn’t hear her. For me, Koons—who so revered Dalí that as a teenager he visited him in the Plaza Hotel—had devolved into a caricature of the self-repeating surrealist.
So I wasn’t expecting much from Koons’s current show, “Popeye.” On first sight it didn’t disappoint my low expectations: more glitzy Rosenquist spin-offs, plus some showy sculptures of blow-up toys. After repeated visits, however, I’ve gotten much more out of this exhibition than I imagined I would. This isn’t as good as the old Koons, and there aren’t any genuinely new ideas on view. But it’s the best he’s looked in a while.
Even if you’re not a Koons fan, it’s possible to be wowed by the technical virtuosity and eye-popping visual blast of this work, especially the sculpture, which is cast aluminum and steel painted to look exactly like plastic. If you examine the paintings, you can pick out images of his old work. In Moustache Lobsters, for example, his Jim Beam-J.B. Turner Train (1986) is sandwiched between two lobsters—references to Dalí, who famously walked one of the crustaceans on the streets of Paris. Elsewhere there are allusions to Lichtenstein, Warhol, Pollock, and porn in the form of cartoon characters, paint splatters, naked flesh, and panties. The paintings, which are so scrambled it’s hard to pick out anything, are basically swirling, seductive masses rendered in kaleidoscopic color. They flaunt a near perfect yet adamantly handmade touch. This perfection pulls us in. Still, Koons’s paintings are nowhere near as slick as, say, those of Takashi Murakami, whose work is vividly, aggressively surfaceless, and is, like Koons’s, produced by a team of assistants. By comparison, Koons’s paintings are old-fashioned: The cotton-duck texture and brushstrokes reveal their humanness.
But we don’t look to Koons for his paintings. His new sculpture, while not iconic, has pizzazz. Mostly, we see children’s toys: happy hippos, puppy dogs, dragons, and caterpillars. No one gets the eeriness of kid’s playthings like Koons. His Rabbit is a toy become voodoo doll become demon become idol. In “Popeye,” these beings are suspended like puppets from the ceiling, stuck through an aluminum ladder, or mounted on a chain-link fence. One, a dangling chain of monkeys, has a chair hung from it. Whenever Koons inserts a real element (the chair or ladder), the effect fizzles. He’s best at replicating things, especially things he inflates with his own breath: lifeboats, Aqua-Lungs, or toys. Breath is at the mystical core of his work, and what makes it more than merely “commodity art.” Koons is always trying to get objects to step outside of time and exist in this everlasting never-never land. This is why he preserves things like vacuum cleaners and basketballs in their pristine states, or encases them in vitrines. He wants his sculpture—which I think has been wrongly interpreted as cynical—to exist in a virginal, ethereal state of suspended animation, a place where the pure stays pure and the transitory lasts forever.
Koons’s urge for eternity is echoed in his love of breathing machines (us) and his infatuation with innocence (children). Underneath and within every one of the new “Popeye” sculptures is an old Koons reincarnated in child’s guise. He’s turning back the clock in more ways than one. Rather than the hardcore imagery of “Made in Heaven,” he’s now interested in the softcore of bikinis and hot pants—sexy things that cover up the things that make seeing sexy. The painted surfaces of the sculpture cover the steel as the steel encases his breath. In this way, Koons is rediscovering the thing that turned explicit in his work in the early 1990s, then sadly disappeared from it in 1995: the mystery.