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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons poses with his Mylar inflatable
Rabbit, 1986, at the Tate Modern in London.
When you mention the name Jeff Koons, anyone who knows anything at all about art likely has an opinion, either positive or negative, about the man and his work. You either love him or hate him or perhaps love to hate him, maybe even hate to love him. I mean, how can you not like a guy who built a forty-three-foot-tall terrier puppy in front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza made of stainless steel, 25 tons of potting soil, and 70,000 flowering plants all watered internally for the amusement and delight of natives and tourists alike this summer. Yet here is a man who friends and enemies alike freely admit will do anything artistic for a buck. Here is a man with few if any of the traditional skills of an artist. He doesn't paint or draw with any skill, and in fact has nearly all of his work fabricated by others. Here is a man intent upon shocking the world with his art yet ends up amusing us instead.

Koons' Puppy, 1981, Rockefeller
Center, New York
The art world uses artists. It manipulates them, manipulates their work, manipulates their thoughts. And in return, if they behave themselves and play by the rules imposed upon them, it bestows a token degree of fame and some degree of wealth, maybe even a modicum of independence, albeit on a relatively short leash. Jeff Koons reverses that. He uses the art world, some would say even abuses it, toys with it, amusing himself with its pretensions. This is why so many critics so readily try to dispose of him as any kind of serious artist. And not satisfied with manipulating the art system, Koons takes on the rest of the world too. And the effect is the same upon those outside the art world who take art seriously. Yet the paradox here is the Koons belongs to both worlds and insists he takes art seriously. And to add irony to paradox, Jeff Koons' work is at its best when not taken seriously--when it's simply laughed at and enjoyed.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles (and Koons),
1988, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Koons is relatively young--born in 1955. He has little or no art training, his background being business, advertising, a senior representative for the Museum of Modern Art, and a commodity broker on Wall Street for six years. He freely admits to lacking art skills, but then too, he knows where to find such skills, and how to work with those who possess them in making that art which he "imagines." His work has variously been compared to Duchamp, Warhol, and Milli Vanilli. All three are apt. From Duchamp and Dada, he borrows from a long tradition of making art from appropriated objects--it's art because I say it's art. From Warhol, he takes the shallowness of the pop culture and applies it to that which he makes into art. And from Milli Vanilli he reaps the aura of being "fraudulent" for seeming to have no talent and only slightly more social relevancy. His enormous, ceramic sculpture, Michael Jackson with Bubbles, is certainly beautiful, but about as socially relevant as Michael Jackson himself (a black man who looks like a white woman embracing a near mirror image of himself in the form of Bubbles, the chimp). A shallow lack of social relevancy is the whole point of the work.

Hand on Breast, 1990, Jeff Koons' painting featuring himself
with his (then) porn star wife. His Made in Heaven series
of nine soft-core works left little to the imagination. Though
controversial at the time, today they seem rather tame.
So, what kind of artist is Jeff Koons? A con artist with little talent and even less depth; or a pro artist with an uncanny knack for adroitly using the system to make snide comments about the system? There's little doubt he's an art icon, a worthy successor to Andy Warhol. He's also a self-made artists, but one skilled not in manipulating art media but in manipulating the mass media--an artist who underlines again and again that it is imagination and intrigue that define the artist, not a mastery of technique. Technically adept artists are a dime a dozen. Koons is an artist who dares to "imagine" art,  and then dares to depart from our imagined image of an artist. And that, love him or hate him, makes him justifiably controversial; but also a unique artist, perfectly embodying today's Postmodern art ethic.
Koons' BMW Art Car, 2010. Koons joins a long line of 18 artists who have
decorated cars for BMW. Koons used, not paint, but vinyl wrap. The car ran
at Le Mans but did not finish the 24-hour-long race.

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