There are people who love and people who hate the artwork of Jeff Koons, oddly enough I’ve always been on both sides of that equation. I’m less enthused about his place in the canon of the collectors market, but that is a completely different beast. So let’s do something that is tough to do when we talk about Koons, let’s ignore (for the moment) the money and collectors market.
To me the artwork that was made while Koons was ascending to the higher reaches of the art market are still interesting to me. I’m referring to the vacuums in vitrines, the basketballs, and the bronze inflatable’s. To many the inflatable’s is the location where Koons starts to get lost a bit. Unlike other sculptures Koons was making at the time these are not directly out of consumer culture (as a ready-made). These bronzes stay away from the presentation of the real thing – effectively these bronzes would kill the user who, for instance used a bronze life raft as a life saving device. Any of the basketballs or vacuums could easily be used in any other setting.
Staying on the subject of both the Basketballs and the Vaccums, these works have an oddity that takes them from something in a box (of sorts) to something else entirely. This small-scale industrial nature seems to me to echo Donald Judd – his kind of small scale and quirkiness of production. Similar to Judd, his use of color is specific and careful; it is this nature that will eventually be discarded as Koons’ work turns a corner to become focused on spectacle and monumentality. In making this move – away from the quirky, small production feel, Koons finds new territory that is more akin to what Hollywood would make as art.
By the time of the “Made in Heaven” photographs Koons seemed to have lost his way completely (some would also say found his way – as the works that would Koons would make, would be the works that the mega-collectors would start to find most interesting).
The fact is that Koons is loved by the collectors and the few dealers that sell his work. However that love seems to end there (for the most part). Ask most artists and critics and after they stop bitching about the money aspect of the work, and very little gets said about the artwork.
I’m reminded of this last quote from the movie “Patton” when it comes to the bravura around Koons, I think it’s a rather telling quote.
For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.
This show at the Whitney is the conquerors slave holding that crown.