Jeff Koons’s retrospective at The Whitney Museum of Art, which opened in July, consumes more space and cost more money than any exhibit the museum has ever devoted to a single artist. For anyone who finds this disturbing–who is left cold by the former Wall Street commodities broker’s shiny, hollow gazing balls, whose stomach has turned at the sight of his balloon dog sculptures plastered on $50 H&M purses, who’s suspected that Koons is a better businessman than he is an artist–art critic Jed Perl over at the New York Review of Books offers some powerful vindication. In “The Cult of Jeff Koons,” Perl perfectly articulates why that cult is an Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon, why the Whitney’s show is a “a multimillion-dollar mausoleum in which everything that was ever lively and challenging about avant-gardism… has gone to die.” He writes:
Koons is a recycler and regurgitator of the obvious, which he proceeds to aggrandize in the most obvious way imaginable, by producing oversized versions of cheap stuff in extremely expensive materials…. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them…. His work is the apotheosis of Walmart. For the sophisticated museumgoing audience, which is inclined to boycott Walmart because of the miserable way it treats its workers, Koons’s supersized suburban trinkets can be a smarmy guilty pleasure.
The Whitney’s curator, in the show’s catalog, asserts that Koons is a successor to Duchamp, that his sculptures of banal everyday objects are a contemporary, exaggerated equivalent of the Dadaist’s readymades. But Perl dismisses the Duchamp-Koons parallels, arguing that whereas Duchamp, with his urinal fountain, was an art world rebel, Koons is a panderer:
Koons’s overblown souvenirs are exactly what Duchamp warned against, a habit-forming drug for the superrich…. The Koons retrospective is a multimillion-dollar vacuum, but it is also a multimillion-dollar mausoleum in which everything that was ever lively and challenging about avant-gardism and Dada and Duchamp has gone to die.
There’s often an assumption in the art world that because many artists now considered great (Van Gogh, Manet, Duchamp, to name a few) were controversial in their time, any art that elicits controversy (like Koons’s) must be somehow great. Perl exposes the fallacy there, pointing out that that dead feeling you get while gazing into a multi-million dollar gazing ball actually isn’t a sign that you’re gazing into greatness:
I would have hoped that by now everybody agreed that not all unease is equal. Why should we imagine that because once upon a time certain gallerygoers were troubled by something that they later came to admire, then it follows that anything that troubles a gallerygoer is necessarily worthy of admiration? Just because it makes you sick doesn’t mean that it’s any good.
Criticizing the Koons cult can feel hopeless, like feebly crying “Fight the man!” since it’s already won over the affections of both the art world elite and the pop culture masses (Lady Gaga loves Koons as much as H&M does). Which makes Perl’s a welcome voice of dissent among an obsequious chorus.
“The Cult of Jeff Koons” is well worth a read in its entirety, here.