Jeff Koons: Now – Newport Street Gallery, London
Hallucinating On The Surrealist’s Pillow
Everyone is in high spirits. This includes the young gallery attendant who approached voluntarily and engaged in conversation about the generosity of Damien Hirst’s venture into gallery provision (free entrance for all); the restaurant manageress (in Pharmacy 2) also started up a conversation readily and we soon got on to great music of the 1960s and ‘70s (she remembered it all, as she had not been there – but her father had); so too, the bearded hipster in the gallery shop, who also thought the catalogue was a bargain… What’s not to like at the Newport Street Gallery?
This selection of Hirst’s collection of Jeff Koons’ art has a retrospective feel, as examples from throughout a 35-year period are on display. An initial impression, on entering Gallery 1, is that everything has its space. There’s plenty of room to stand back; and a lack of barriers allows viewers to get up close (the security team are both vigilant and trustful), making for comfortable viewing. These virtually unrestricted conditions continue throughout the whole show, in a space that is light and airy and accommodates all sizes of work. Despite the gallery protocol of not touching (it’s in our DNA by now), you might be in a department store. But whether this is the Pound Shop of Anytown, or Asprey of London, you cannot be sure.
Gallery 1 – Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Victor Mara Ltd. Artwork © Jeff Koons
The very notion of display, visual punch and spectacle is an important aspect of Koons’ oeuvre. Images and objects exude a sense of saying, “look at me – I’m a Jeff Koons”. There’s a strong feel of the ‘kitsch’ on show, especially when the transformed inflatable toys, the Jim Beam bourbon (train set) containers, or the Statuary are encountered. But, to make an oblique reference to Clement Greenberg’s ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ essay (written way back in 1939), the boundary-pushing, avant-garde, pose of much of Koons’ artwork is now comfortably neo-pop mainstream and highly revered by aficionados of ‘high culture’ (as in the most affluent of collectors). There’s certainly no more of what the late Robert Hughes termed ‘the shock of the new’. For a contemporary audience aware of the YBA phenomenon of the late 1980s and the dissolution of painting and sculpture into appropriated and the installed, Koons might be the American Godfather of Kitsch – especially for Hirst. Interestingly, this post-modern facet of the avant-garde is not detached from society at all (as Greenberg warned us). It’s poptastically Warholian more than Duchampian, in the sense that Duchamp was in critical discourse with his fellow artists, and the media-savvy Warhol engaged more widely with a broader, celebrity conscious, public (and collector fan-base). Koons’ neo-liberal (as opposed to socialist) vision implies the aura of a malformed shamanism – capitalism and materialism forming a disingenuous and avaricious spirit world in the increasingly globalised culture we constantly hear of.
Koons is certainly a controversial figure, and he has as many detractors as supporters in critical circles and the art press. But despite the initial garishness of much of his output, Koons presents his ideas to provoke or induce the viewer to think with and through these images and objects. There is an implied permission to engage in a celebration of living and to be ‘in the moment’. At least we are invited to do so: the choice is ours. It’s dangerously spiritual.
With their various associations (cultural and personal; adult and infantile), his mini-spectacles of fun, absurdity and digression intrigue and annoy in equal measure. So, how seriously should we take this artist? Koons’ language of communication is constructed by the appropriated images and the insistent impact of objects: re-made, re-imagined and reproduced, albeit with the involvement of teams of manufacturing specialists and technicians. The work appears equally celebratory and mocking of the subject matter – including the audience. There’s a certain respect for craftsmanship and material excellence in most of the works: but is this apparent visual and material refinement no more than superficial display? There is often great attention given to surface, with depth implied by reflection, but this does not mean that the work is shallow – far from it. From the first view of the various types of Hoover cleaners, via various pneumatic forms (painted, printed and in stainless steel or polyethylene), enlarged toys, enlarged Jeff… the viewer is invited to get pumped up and to enjoy, nay, celebrate this wonderful, material world. Again, what’s not to like?
Throughout the show, colour and form, dominate – whether the meaning of the work is grasped readily or not. Electric colour, curvaceous reflection, smooth, baby-bottom, surfaces leave a lasting impression. If you choose not to intellectualise the work, you can simply enjoy the spectacle – which might just be the point. But Koons dumbs-up, not down.
‘New Hoover Quik Broom, New Hoover Celebrity IV’, 1980. © Jeff Koons
To take a stroll through the six galleries at Newport Street and pick out a small selection of the exhibits, the scope and homogeneity of Koons’ work is apparent. On the whole, it’s explicitly fun to look at, even if the meanings offer a dialectical paradigm of cultural questioning and interrogation; contrasted with a sense of celebrating alive-ness (being human) and of an acceptance of the often kitsch nature of commercialised, aspirational societies. There is no space for the abject.
That said, ‘Snorkel Vest’  and ‘Snorkel (Dacor)’ , both bronze casts of ‘readymades’, appear as the odd couple in the exhibition. Perhaps this is because of the use of a traditional material, or due to a disheartening sense of death, as these items are denied the necessary air required to operate correctly. On the other hand, this phallic and vaginal pairing might be some kind of joke that Koons is inflicting on the erudite viewer who is looking for some deeper meaning in the work. Gravitas is superseded by witty crassness.
‘Balloon Monkey (Blue)’ [2006-13], at almost four meters high and six metres in length, occupies a room by itself. The metallic, blue-wow factor hits the eyes immediately; “fantastic”, is the initial response heard from a Japanese tourist, who’s partner follows from behind, already preparing his camera for another shot. In fact, many of Koons’ pieces are overtly photogenic, and there are no restrictions on photography, apart from in the next gallery displaying two sexually explicit images, which ironically, would be effectively photogenic in a pornographic context.
Back in the ‘sixties, on the classic psychedelic-rock ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ album, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane sang about a ‘plastic fantastic lover’ – well here was Koons’ reflective, inflatable monkey, with extended phallic tail, giving any itinerant Freudians a great day out. Manufactured from mirror-polished stainless steel with a transparent colour coating, this is a sculpture made to be seen ‘in the round’, inviting viewing from all angles, including from an upstairs balcony that this great space (in both senses of the word) enabled. But the inherent eroticism of ‘Balloon Monkey’ is countered by a sense of naive fun and the reference to innocent play.
‘Bowl with Eggs (Pink)’, 1994-2009. © Jeff Koons
As mentioned above, in Gallery 3 photography is forbidden. There is in fact no need to record the moment, as the two photo-silkscreened prints, ‘Exultation’ , and ‘Ice – Jeff on Top Pulling Out’ , will stick in the memory anyhow (and they are reproduced in the catalogue if you really must have the images). Incongruously, these two pictures appear after the initial confrontation with ‘Bowl with Eggs (Pink)’ [1994-2000], a polyethylene enlargement of a child’s toy that looks like it craves symbolic meaning. It may have been a calculated curatorial decision to juxtapose a child’s artefact with images of adult behaviour as a startling contrast, or as a form of visually blocking the explicit works. Or perhaps there is a closer connection between the sculpture and the prints. Whatever the intention, suggestion is often more potent than outright, ‘in your face’ imagery (literally for ex-wife Ilona Staller); and so the bowl of eggs might ultimately have more staying power than the photographs selected from the artist’s ‘Made in Heaven’ series. One could easily argue that a work of art that plants a seed of thought, for germination at a later date, has greater longevity than the type of image that provokes an immediate response.
But a Koons gets under (or into) your skin as, leaving the ground floor, the handrails of the ascending stairs are experienced as rounded off as the bowl and its eggs we have just been taking in. This satisfies a tactile urge established from viewing, ‘Inflatable Flowers (Short White, Tall Purple)’ , that chronologically opened the show, to most of the sculptures already seen and still to be viewed.
Interlude in italics
Now the hallucinogenic fun finally kicks in. Every visitor seems drawn to ‘Play-Doh’ [1994-2014], and spend time circling this megalithic monstrosity. Initially, it looks like the biggest multi-scooped mountain of ice cream you could ever wish for. But it’s not melting, it’s freeze-dried. This is a facsimile of Play-Doh. D’oh – it’s a Homer Simpson moment too as the colour is cartoon tinted. Nothing is real. Everything’s distorted and stupid; is this where the American Dream has taken us?
Gallery 6 – Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Victor Mara Ltd.
Monumentalism in sculpture does not always have to be realised as bigness. This work is not imposing and nor is it made for a permanent public space – it’s gallery fodder – but fucking big nonetheless.
Most of Koons’ work would be categorised as sculpture, but there are many examples of print and painting too. There is something more convincing about his sculptures (which might also be said of Hirst). At the NSG the three-dimensional works make the biggest impression (even when they are suspended from the wall – such as the Hoovers), which emphasizes the realisation that Koons is neither a painter nor a photographer really. Appropriated Nike posters are framed and displayed like they should be returned to the company boardroom from where Koons seems to have acquired them. There may be some social, racial and cultural commentary going on here – but any due credit for the images should surely go to the advertising agency that conceptualised and produced these adverts.
‘Girl with Dolphin and Monkey’ , is perhaps the most memorable painting on display. An oil on canvas, the image demands attention like an advertising hoarding (it’s 3.5 metres wide) and it’s colourful and brash. The imagery of the pin-up girl riding the dolphin, about to kiss the monkey (potentially with a ‘monkey kiss’), lacks any serious sensuality. She’s a tease. Two Hulk cartoon figures roar in the background. Is that a train carriage drawn in white paint? Whatever narrative can be discerned can be as simple or complex as you wish. The image is trite, but if you look close-up, you see that it is painted so expertly, that even the grain of the canvas pulls you in for inspection. Is the dolphin smirking or smiling?
One of Koons’ most well known works, ‘Three Ball 50/50 Tank (Spalding Dr. JK Silver Series)’ , provides a tantalising link to Hirst’s own work (e.g. the unforgettable tiger shark in the formaldehyde filled vitrine). Of course, artists have always influenced each other and Hirst’s devotion to one of his heroes has probably paid off well for both of these purveyors of good taste.
‘Three Ball 50-50 Tank (Spalding Dr. JK Silver Series)’, 1985. © Jeff Koons
Koonsism raises issues: as appropriation hi-jacks anything and everything, with the context of fine art operating as a field of critical thought, albeit linked to the production of engaging objects. This is understandable if we accept that the artist is to be defined as director, or product manager. The giving over of the making process to others negates any necessity to learn the craft of making for the artist. This is an abdication of production that has ethical consequences and, effectively, leads to the end of the Artist as we traditionally envisage him/her. Just as the Novel has been pronounced dead at various times over the past 100 years or so (how slow can death be?), does the example of Koons (and Hirst et al) lead to the same conclusion? Do we blame or compliment technology for this? For, despite the sophistication of mechanical, and now digital, reproduction techniques, the gallery becomes a sort of Madame Taussauds showroom for visual art forms. Simulation replaces originality – but, damn, this is reality.In his Richard Hill memorial lecture in 2014 (an edited version appeared in the Guardian – and is still on-line for free, no printing necessary), Will Self proclaimed:
“I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” (Will Self, 2014)
Substitute novel for painting or sculpture and Self’s assertion might be applicable to the kinds of artwork that Koons’ work supercedes. Fine-arty seriousness becomes inverted; as new images are generated, produced and manufactured from a mass-media, design aesthetic.
Can you enjoy a show and yet feel deflated afterwards? Can you feel confused, yet certain? Much of the work oozes, and reflects, Koons’ self-confidence. The Guru Jeff spreads happiness. The Shaman of Appropriation is the smiling wise-guy and he invites His audience to swallow an entertaining elixir of joyful vulgarity, which is both gratuitous and excessive. This nightmare vision of our world might be a warning. And that’s why Jeff Koons is an artist not to dismiss too readily.
So, rest your head on Koons’ pillow and enjoy the Sleep of Reason.
‘Titi’, 2004-2009. © Jeff Koons
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