Friday, July 04, 2014

Jeff Koons At The Whitney Museum

When I was a young boy, maybe 6 or 7 I had a friend, chubby Freddy Adler who lived in the apartment house next to mine. I would love to visit him because in his bedroom there were wall-to-wall shelves that held his amazing toy collection. These were not to be played with, and his mother and grandfather stood guard by his bedroom door and watched me as I gazed on these treasures. I thought of Freddy and his toy collection as I took in the sprawling Jeff Koons retrospective now on at The Whitney Museum that at times takes on the look of a very expensive toy store. Shinny and colorful and very expensive toys to be looked at but not played with. That said I can say that at times I was pretty much taken by this show.  Of course not everything pulled me in and held my attention and admiration but I found a lot to be charmed by. The strange and sterile looking clear plexiglas displays of Vacuum cleaners that open the show greet the viewer with their display cases lit below by fluorescent lights and take on the appearance of slumbering robots in a sci fi movie ready to be sent into outer-space on some 2014 space odyssey, are too perfect and beautiful to elicit much excitement from me. However the more interesting wall reliefs near by and constructed from everyday objects like teapots and toasters and placed on colorful vertical lights with their wires hanging down are marvelous dada inspired pieces. Also eye catching are the now iconic basketballs that magically float in clear tanks of distilled water & sodium chloride. They may be tricky and gimmicky but are wonderful objects just the same, they entertain and kids love them. They also serve as Koon’s tribute to the allure, fascination and commercialism of sports and athletes but his series of posters that feature professional basketball players with added slogans are very weak, which is pretty much the problem with most of his 2-demensional work and paintings and the same can be said about some of his sculptures. The small pieces using sponges and mirrors are dreadful works, conceptually weak and visually dull, but in the same gallery are his small series of inflatable flowers with mirrors that are sweet, funny and very eye catching in their bright and shiny colors no doubt these are the kind of pieces that might drive some purists up the wall. Also quite wonderful are his large mirrored glass pieces in pretty tinted colors that take the simple shapes of various animals and are probably his most Disney like pieces. Many of his pieces while complex in the making (a show or book documenting the process of the fabrication of his work would be fascinating) but his concepts or ideas are usually simple and not very deep which makes them so appealing and accessible to so many people. Another gallery is devoted to the commercial aspects of alcohol presented in stainless steel gleaming objects that are used in the sometimes-dangerous business of booze in objects like ice buckets and miniature trains that are used to store liquor. As nice as these small things are they look like they could be pieces in a Monopoly game, and I could envision a special Jeff Koons edition of the game with a go directly to jail card replaced with a go directly to the Gagosian Gallery, and do not pass go. Surrounding these shinny costly objects are weak large ads for booze that are on canvas, thus giving the impression that they are important when they are not. There is also a small gallery with a warning sign for parents that the work inside is not suited for children, and this is where those heated and controversial photo-transfer paintings of Koons having explicit but tasteful sex with his ex-wife, the Italian porn star Cicciolina, which are the height of narcissism and might be the worst pieces in the show, but there are very few of them, so we should be grateful for that. Also controversial are his large fabricated figurative sculptures of animals behaving like humans, and humans behaving like animals with the star of these polychrome wood and porcelain statues being his Michael Jackson with his pet monkey Bubbles. Displayed on a long and narrow platform which allows the viewer to walk around them taking in the fronts and backs they are if nothing else marvels of fabrication literarily and figuratively. I can’t really get excited as I said of his photo-transfer and photo shop manipulated paintings that are riffs and take offs of that champion Pop artist James Rosenquist. These big things are colorful, fussy and attractive but are not very compelling. The same can be said of his “Play-Doh” piece that is hardly the “almost certain masterpiece” that one critic recently swooned over.  I took more kindly to his large “Balloon Dog” placed in the same gallery, which is big, pretty and happily vapid, and both these works are favorites of the selfie picture takers who are having a field day at this exhibition. This is a big fun house of an exhibition, a carnival, an easy afternoon stroll with the kids that is neither the outpouring of a great artist or that of a hustler and a fake as some critics would have us think. Believe me there are worst artists out there than Jeff Koons who are also cleaning up, and in fact I have never read or heard so much hatred tossed on an artist in all the years that I have been making art. What is it about Koons that warrants so much distain, disgust and anger? Is it the bags of money he makes, his overuse of fabrication and his use of others to make his art, the attention paid to him by collectors and art dealers his brashness and touting of his persona? Whatever Koons has in terms of wealth or fame has nothing to do with me; it doesn’t take away from my own achievement as an artist. I left the show feeling neither inspired nor angry but pretty much delighted with the day, and I suddenly noticed how the fancy and expensive window displays along Madison Ave all looked like his work.  


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