Is Jeff Koons the art world’s ur-Buddhist?
As a strategy for understanding his work, the artist suggests deposing both judge and jury — dismissing the entire inner judicial branch, really — in exchange for nonadjudicated communion with shiny objects, be they bunnies or vacuum cleaners. Koons envisions the “removal of anxiety and the removal of all judgments,” because “removing judgments lets you feel…freer,” as he told New York magazine in 2013.
The notion strikes many a critic as self-serving and has infuriated more than one. But as every Buddhist knows, judgment equals suffering, and suffering, well, suffering sucks. Our indictments of others likely obscure nasty feelings inside us — feelings of grief or helplessness, say — that we’d sooner not face. (A revealing notion when applied to art critics, but that’s another column.) Why suffer so, when we can stay in the Now of a Koons?
So rather than simply reacting, let’s unpack the Koonsian proposition to find the fullness of its Meaning. And what better opportunity than in the Presence of his latest series, the “Gazing Ball Paintings,” on view at Gagosian?
And what a challenge Koons lays before the Mindful Gallery Goer! To say that his new works, in which copies of Old Master paintings sprout aluminum shelves upon which rest bowling-ball-size glass orbs, present the Scylla and Charybdis of Judgment is to inadequately acknowledge their power. These works, with their sky-blue lawn ornaments meant to reflect the viewer’s Presence, offer Koons’s highest challenge to Judgment yet.
As we enter Gagosian, we encounter room upon room of like-made models that differ, only barely, in color and size, as at a car dealership. The Mindful Gallery Goer may be tempted to frown. Instead, we stay in the Moment, accepting what’s right here: 35 works, each a seemingly inkjet-printed rendition (they were painted by hand, says Koons) of a work selected from an Intro to Art History text. (And by “text” we mean Janson’s History of Art, first edition, the one before they sprinkled in the lady artists. Mindful Gallery Goers accept that Reality.)
Here is a van Gogh wheat field, there a Titian and a Manet. Here, blown up to several times its original size, is the Mona Lisa (titled, per Koons, Gazing Ball (da Vinci Mona Lisa), a reference to the artist any art historian would find laughable — if they weren’t being Present, that is).
Indeed, someone held in the prison of their own Reactivity might deem these Outright Insults to Art (to the gallery-going public, to humanity in general). They might also say that a blue ball plopped on a shelf on top of a Courbet is a slander on the original, a fat cerulean middle finger. Or at the very least, an annoyance that obscures what is effectively a dorm poster.
But if we stay in the Now, we see our reflection in the ball, and with it we join into a Oneness with the work and with Humanity.
A lesser-evolved person might suggest these works were teases. We are not in the National Gallery admiring the impastoed brushwork of Rembrandt’s Lucretia. Nor are we at the Louvre, taking in the full breadth of Géricault’s much-larger-in-real-life Raft of the Medusa. We are in a room with Koons’s Gazing Ball Paintings. And shortly we will be leaving.
A wise teacher reminds her students that, though judgment may be discouraged, discernment is OK. This is a fudge, really; a matter of semantics. With Koons, do you shut it down with a hasty verdict or take your time to come to the same conclusion?
Jeff Koons: ‘Gazing Ball Paintings’
522 West 21st Street
Through December 23
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 24, 2015