Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thinking Retrospectively About the Jeff Koons Retrospective

Jeff Koons has two things in common with the great Renaissance painters like Rembrandt and Titian. He maintained a studio filled with helpers and he produced self-portraits. Where Koons differs from a Renaissance painter is in his use of the assembly line approach to both painting and sculpture in which individual artists are only involved in a small part of the final product. Marx wrote about alienation resulting from this kind of division of labor and it is hard to figure out of if many of Koons readymade sculptures can be classified as commodities of the type that are produced en masse in a factory or artistic works that are reflective of a brooding sensibility characterized by a singular vision of the world. This is, in fact, what separates them from Duchampian readymades which never quite seem to attain the status of commodities. However, just when you're about to dismiss Koons, you begin to realize this very dichotomy between commerce and art poses itself as one of the aims or dialectics of the work and you're somewhat calmed into an acceptance verging on pleasure. It’s easy to say that neither the early vacuum cleaners nor the famous "Play-Doh" sculpture are art, but then you become fascinated by the production of a piece which looks like plastic, but is actually heavy metal. One of the guards manning the recent Whitney retrospective of Koons’s work fenced off with a spectator who insisted on her right to touch and test one of the sculptures to make sure that indeed what she was seeing was not what it seemed to be. Koons elicits this kind of theater. “Made in Heaven” is the pornographic series featuring his former wife the Italian actress and politican La Cicciolina (aka Ilona Staller) and comprising paintings like “Exaltation,” (1991) where Koons comes on her face and another “Ilona’s Asshole,” which is self-explanatory. Koons says about the series, “It’s not porn. Made in Heaven dealt with the shame of masturbation in our society. It was a metaphor for cultural guilt. I wanted to reproduce the Garden of Eden, and sexual penetration like a hummingbird encounters a flower.” The series is introduced by poster for the film that Koons was originally going to make with his former wife. She’s in his arms, but he’s staring out at his audience. Again you are caught up short. Could it be that the artist is saying that he cares more about himself than his lover and that the imminence of a potential product trumps emotion? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Narcissism is a much bandied about word, but can we say that for good or bad Koons is caught in the narcissistic delusion that the world is indeed real?

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