In 1980 the young artist Jeff Koons presented his first major solo exhibition, a window installation at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, titled, appropriately, The New. Alongside hermetically sealed vitrines showcasing “ready-made”1 household appliances like a New Hoover Deluxe Rug Shampooer and a New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon, there were images: meticulously reproduced advertisements of debuting products like “New 100’s! Merit Ultra-Lights” and the “Rooomy! Toyota Family Camry.” Central to the exhibition was a blown-up grade-school photo of the artist himself, dutiful and earnest, posed stiffly with a Crayola crayon set. Like that of any young child, Koons’s face here appeared soft, embryonically indeterminate, full of promise; his arms were smooth, perfect, tiny, symmetrical cylinders; his hair was perfectly shiny. The photo was titled The New Jeff Koons.
Nearly eighty years earlier, the German art historian Alois Riegl coined the term newness value to describe a special kind of appeal some objects have for human viewers. For the art historian Sebastiano Barassi, Riegl’s newness value is, ultimately, “evidence of the triumph of human ingenuity over nature’s destructive forces.”2 It indicates a kind of immortality or imperviousness to decay. It reminds us of Eden, it provides comfort, and it suggests stability in a world that is always crumbling. This is the newness Koons’s New exhibition celebrated—and not entirely ironically, as the lowly subject matter might suggest. What else besides small children and shrink-wrapped consumer products can even capture this sense of inviolability? By including his own grade-school photo, Koons showed that even in his mid-twenties he was mindful of a sort of lost innocence. The New was not only about the dazzle of freshness, but also about the fact of mortality.
The New shows us something else, though, that is particularly germane to this issue of The Other Journal. It shows us that by 1980 Jeff Koons was objectifying himself—making his own persona of a piece with artifacts like cars, canned drinks, and of course, Andy Warhol’s “superstars” (decades before, Warhol had shown that celebrity personae are just as pre-fab as paste jewelry and false eyelashes). The New’s stacked vacuum cleaner sculptures (like New Shelton Wet/Drys Tripledecker) might be the most iconic pieces to have emerged from that early exhibition, but The New Jeff Koons, a token of a unique kind of self-consciousness, reveals more about the artist’s true mania. This is because all of Koons’s work (believe it or not) is really an attempt to recapture childhood—the way it feels, the way it casts a sort of glamour over everything, the way it accepts promises at face value, the way it finds heaven in a mood ring or a Happy Meal toy.
In fact, The New Jeff Koons could be the visual opening chapter in the story of one man’s single-minded pursuit of an idea, an idea best explored not through objects, but through a life-as-performance. So who was the little boy in the photo, head cocked and shirt buttoned to the top? And who is the sagging Cheshire Cat we see in the media today, unveiling a BMW Art Car or talking to Tom Ford on TV? Who, in other words, is the Real Jeff Koons?
The Bad Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons might be best known as the slight, jaunty, shark-mouthed, young fellow who, in the 1990s, married the Italian adult movie actress Ilona Staller and immortalized her (along with himself) in a series of life-sized, Technicolor, numbingly literal pornographic sculptures and photographs. In the sculpture Jeff and Ilona (Made in Heaven), measuring roughly ten by six by five feet, the artist and his wife lie prone and rapturous (and basically naked) on a big rock encircled by a gigantic golden snake. Koons’ face has the grotesque circular rouge marks and cherry lips of a German porcelain doll. Ilona is wearing a garter and some rather superfluous high heels.
That Jeff Koons—the Koons of the 1990s—said things like, “I’ve made what the Beatles would have made if they’d made sculpture”; “[my works] are in the realm of the Sacred Heart of Jesus”; and, when discussing his marriage, “She’s a media woman. I’m a media man…We are the new Adam and Eve.”3 This was Koons at the peak of his early fame, a prototype of today’s attention seekers and celebutantes. Most of us thought of him then as someone “famous for being famous,” someone who didn’t do anything useful or elevating, but whom cameras followed everywhere. His early exhibitions like The New (and later, Equilibrium and Banality) were widely regarded as crass, exploitative, and (worst of all) derivative celebrations of consumer culture. The critic Robert Hughes spoke for millions when he wrote:
[Koons is] an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida.4
For people like Hughes, the baffling prices commanded by Koons’s works (e.g., $1.8 million for Pink Panther in 1999) seemed the final link in a perfect, localized, circular movement of escalating, artificial supply and demand, whizzing off the earth and spiraling into the airy realm of the Spectacle, where being is having, and having is merely appearing.5 For Koons, it seemed, the mysterious appeal of the marketable, useless and depthless though it might be, was everything.
In the exhibition photos accompanying this article, the reader will see the “title image” of Koons’s pornographic venture with his wife Ilona, whose stage name was “Cicciolina.” (It should be noted that Koons denied these works were pornography at all; they didn’t “invite participation,” he said, but simply showed two people in love.6) Collectively titled Made in Heaven, these works had, and still have, the addictive quality of certain kinds of potato chips or drug store candies. It’s hard to look away, and it’s bizarrely hard not to fixate on the gaudy colors, the shiny surfaces, and the soft-hard textures of the expertly carved wood.
And this is how Made in Heaven connects with The New and with the little boy holding crayons. It’s in this weird appeal of colors and surfaces, as if the virgin gloss had leapt off the vacuum cleaners and landed on two people having sex. Made in Heaven might not be pornography (if we take Koons’ word for it), but it is porn in a different way. In recent years (thanks in part to Koons) the notion of “porn” has begun to transcend its sexual roots. Several months ago Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwartzbaum called the movie It’s Complicated “middle-aged femme porn,” thanks mainly to the heroine’s Dwell-worthy bungalow. New Yorker columnist Bill Buford has recently recounted falling prey to the food porn of cooking shows, where squirting lemons and piled pecans seduce in radiant close-up.7 When it comes down to it, we realize, the sexual content of Koons’ Made in Heaven pieces is almost beside the point – it’s there as a pointer, not a destination, grabbing our attention and then diverting us to something more basic. What is important, we find, are the visual signifiers of fantasy-land: the pre-sexual or super-sexual bliss captured in that porcelain clarity; those red lips; those sinuous lines; that piggy-pink flesh; that radiant, nursery-style interplay of pastels and whites; and those delicious, layered, al dente excrescences of lace. Something about this crispness without pore or blemish, these absolute colors without gradations, takes us Somewhere Else and makes us want to stay there—somewhere welcoming, comprehensible, safe, soft, and free.
Jeff Koons’s foppishness, cheek, sexual adventurousness and questionable work ethic (many of his early works were ready-mades, after all) made him a perfect foil for Protestant Middle America in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This was the flip side of his early persona: not youthful opportunist, but cynical villain. It was as if the artist himself was simply trying to symbolize everything white, church-going, patriotic Americans hated to love. Because of this almost perfect harmony between Koons’s hallmarks and middle-America’s taboos, Koons’s oeuvre became a go-to “ordinary-American” proof of the “suckiness” of modern art and the wickedness (or stupidity) of the cultural intelligentsia. He was a man for all seasons, or at least, a scapegoat for all seasons: a favorite target of curmudgeons everywhere. Even today, a quick Web search reveals loads of hostility: charges of sacrilege, poser-dom, and talentlessness.8
But was this the real Jeff Koons? On some level most of us understand, in this age of dueling news networks and “point of view” reporting, that most knowledge is story. Our vast media class selects and filters signifiers from a mass of data and then links them—sometimes with a careful, existential-topographical attention to real phenomena, but mostly with a politician’s instinct for hokum—into narrative chains that more often than not verify prejudices or stoke an audience’s pride. The moment anyone becomes a media star, she becomes a character or stereotype. The best a discerning audience member can do is read between the lines. In early articles about Koons in publications like Vogue and even the more specialized ARTNews, one can almost feel (unpleasantly) the journalists and essayists salivating; Koons provides them with one good line after another, and he models exactly the kind of reckless, consumerist brio they (in the ‘80s and ‘90s) had been longing to find crystallized and ripe for the shattering.
The Other Jeff Koons
But there is another Jeff Koons. A man is made by his circumstances, and this second Koons might not always have been aware of himself, but he was “in the making” just like his slick alter ego. This second Koons is a quietly desperate man, consumed by longing. He’s a man for whom kitsch is a transcendent thing: a good in a world of filth, pessimism, and daunting complexity. Koons is a man for whom there is nothing sly or threatening in the obvious or the candy-colored. All that stuff is what it is: matter that makes delight. (“I’ve always tried to be sincere in my work, to make art that enriches people’s lives,” he told a reporter in 1998.9) In interviews, Koons recounts how, as a kid, he was captivated by the bright colors and simple, dynamic designs of cereal boxes.10 Koons’s father, a successful interior designer in York, Pennsylvania, had transformed part of Koons’s childhood home into a pristine showroom for potential clients; for the young Koons, these sparkling spaces—spaces you probably couldn’t play in or even walk through, full of shiny new appliances, plush sofas, shag rugs, and velour lamps—must have seemed like Wunderkammers or family chapels, paradoxical in a sacramental way that was close but forbidden; fleeting but timeless; hushed, haloed, and hovering just on the edge of sight.
In other words, as I hinted when describing The New and Made in Heaven, the real Jeff Koons is a seeker on a quest for wonder, or what “wonder” means to him, thanks to the witness of his past. Maybe we can all remember, from our own childhoods, the nervous reverence surrounding those unlived-in things you couldn’t touch: the furniture you couldn’t sit in, the new car your dad washed every week even though it wasn’t dirty, the boxed toys you couldn’t reach on the Kmart shelves. Remember that first bicycle, or that first lunch box, or (if you’re a church-conditioned female) that first Easter dress? That sense of awe at being in the aura of pure, ever-renewing preciousness—Easter giving way to Christmas, summer giving way to fall, each with its own fetish objects, its own ceremonial embellishments—is what Jeff Koons has never given up. Instead, he has been reenacting it, maniacally and evangelistically, for over thirty years. Philosophically, most of us are dead set against the kinds of economic strategies—planned obsolescence, media manipulation, supply that creates demand—that have begotten our perpetually “new,” shoddy, and simplistic material culture. But buried beneath the artifacts of consumer society (Koons seems to suggest) there may be a sort of Neoplatonic archetype—an avatar of the Holy —that today’s consumers are, amazingly, best poised to see. This is an archetype of perpetual freshness, of Edenic perfection, of pleasure without guilt and life without end.
Integrity and Virginity
In an August 2002 interview, Jeff Koons spoke with Thomas Kellein, director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, about the “integrity” of his objects, particularly those in the New exhibition of 1980.11 Earlier in the interview, Koons had described the sealed vacuum cleaners as “virginal,” and had elaborated that “when they do function, they suck up dirt. The newness is gone. If one of my works was to be turned on, it would be destroyed!” Suddenly the manifold vacuum cleaners make perfect sense for the 1980 exhibition. These “breathing machines,” so anthropomorphic, are arguably unparalleled among human-made objects in their equipoise between antiseptic angelism and charnel filth.12 Mouth to the ground, they suck blemishes out of sight and violate themselves in the process. Unused, they hold onto a kind of Messianic promise, without the degradation redemption of that promise entails.
If inviolability is one characteristic of the holy, self-sufficiency is another. In Koons’s second major show, Equilibrium (1985), the beginnings of a serviceable formula emerge: (1) identify a Transcendent Value, (2) seek ready-made objects showing that Value, and (3) make sure your objects come from an unexpected and lowbrow place. In Equilibrium, which focused on sports paraphernalia rather than household appliances (making it a masculine counterpart to the more feminine New of five years before), basketballs are perfectly suspended in the centers of glass tanks. Then on the walls, personalities like Darrell Griffiths (“Dr. Dukenstein”), the soccer superstar Steve Zungul, and George Gervin (“Ice Man”) are shown—in perfect, poster-sized copies of real advertisements!—poised justice-like between balanced spheres: spheres like basketballs, soccer balls, or in Griffiths’ case, a basketball cut in half and held aloft like two cups.
In Equilibrium, Koons proved a good amateur anthropologist: he identified a real pattern, obsession with balance in sports advertisements, and named it. And then he teased it out, revealing its elemental power. Griffiths, Zungul, and Gervin were people who had achieved, through their simultaneous athletic and media savvy, a special kind of restfulness. This was the restfulness of the supreme or the sovereign: they were beings who had arrived and needed no longer to strive; they were beings who could remain in place. Putting a point on it, another segment of the exhibition featured cast-bronze pieces of sporting gear—tools and weapons rendered weighty and timeless, fixed like constellations or funerary monuments.
In what was arguably Koons’s most successful exhibition, Banality (1988), the mystique of precious objects was explored further, but this time without a link to a specific value (like balance or freshness). Instead, Koons created objects that exemplified their own unique quality, objects that were somehow each “archetypal,” to use the artist’s word.13 Koons has said that before launching Banality his interest had shifted from the expressive potential of ready-made objects (like existing vacuum cleaners and basketballs) to the ready-made attitudes of his audience.14 That’s why Banality is a big departure from Koons’s earlier shows.
All of us have deep memories of sights, sounds, feelings, and scents that made us happy, that were linked to a happy time, or that transported us to a place of joy. Because we live in a mass-market, culturally standardized society, many of us have experienced similar things and therefore share the same positive memories. But our brains aren’t often linear or literal; our sense memories tend to get stored selectively and then jumbled together, creating weird, patchwork archetypes that on some level most of us share. It is these deep-seated memory-creations that Koons aimed to bring to life in Banality. As a result, the objects in Banality, ranging from wooden sculptures to porcelain figurines to gilded mirrors, are original creations, cobbled together from things like Cabbage Patch Kids, Care Bears, religious trinkets, and popular crafts. One famous object, the porcelain rainbow-critter Popples, was so dead-on in its echo of juvenile appetites that it anticipated the Furby craze of 1998. Banality also included the notorious Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a blowsy, gilded porcelain sculpture of the singer and his chimp that sold for $5.6 million in 2001.
And where was the character “Jeff Koons” in all of this drama? Jeff Koons as “Jeff Koons” had been front and center in The New, but his presence was only implied in Equilibrium (inasmuch as he, like any American man, probably subconsciously worshipped the sports stars on display there). In Banality, “Jeff Koons” again came to the fore—and in a way that associated the artist with the “sports hero” advertisements of the 1985 show. Before Banality opened, Koons issued a series of his own ads promoting the exhibition. But these ads didn’t feature works from the collection; instead they featured Koons himself posing in triumph and, yes, equilibrium, in different environments: amid Fawcett-haired, bikini-clad models, alongside prize farm animals, seated poolside in a hideous monogrammed robe. The final ad in the series depicted Koons instructing a classroom of children to “exploit the masses” and embrace “banality as saviour.” For some viewers, these ads were so over the top that they amounted to an admission of charlatanry. But maybe there was something else going on here. Maybe this was a performance that was really part of the exhibition itself. In the final ad, in particular, it seemed as if Koons was announcing, “You can’t say anything about me that I haven’t already said about myself—and that I haven’t already proudly owned.”
The title Banality was not especially positive like the titles The New or Equilibrium. And with pieces like Michael Jackson and Bubbles or the gleaming, Bible-bookstore-via-Hallmark St. John the Baptist,15 viewers might be forgiven an instinct to laugh—or to gag. But Koons’s ads suggest that along with the religious kitsch, truck-stop ephemera, and parlor tchotchkes in the gallery, Banality-As-Such was being re-evaluated. “Maybe,” Koons seemed to be saying, “the banal really isn’t so terrible.” What, after all, does the word “banality” mean? It means “common,” yes, and “ordinary” and “hackneyed” (to take a dip into Roget’s), but maybe those are actually good things. Maybe they’re important traces of our collective human condition.
After exhibitions like The New and Equilibrium and Banality Jeff Koons became our unofficial bard of consumer culture. He has been called a Pop artist, but his work simply isn’t like that of Robert Rauschenberg or Warhol. There is no implicit sarcasm, no smothered prophetic fury, no proletarian shabbiness, no gallows humor. Instead, his work is reliably and proudly infantile, in keeping with the artist’s desperate goal. Even when it depicts gritty stuff, it’s not actually gritty. The sex scenes of Made in Heaven, for example, are weirdly sweet (“Victorian,” according to one writer, who liked them surprisingly well16). Made in Heaven was maybe Koons’s one thoroughgoing attempt to update his childish mania for adult audiences. After all, when you’re grown, and bikes and baby dolls no longer dazzle, what could be more wonder-inducing than sex? Most critics couldn’t make the transition from chaste consumer products to graphic sexual images; the sanctified porn didn’t sell, and Koons’s career suffered a brief downturn. It’s no wonder that in recent years, in collections like Easyfun-Ethereal (full of cereal-box-inspired paintings) and Celebration (featuring the ubiquitous balloon dog), Koons has returned to his childlike roots.
The Real Jeff Koons
The Real Jeff Koons, then, isn’t highbrow or truly populist; he’s not establishment-intellectual or blue-collar-hokey. He works from a developmental point where things like power struggle, identity, community, and duty don’t yet exist as concepts. There is nothing heroic, macho, or rebellious about his work, nothing rarefied or esoteric, and nothing like the thumping, swelling, yodeling exuberance of folklife. There is no tilting pursuit of pictorial logic and no strain of need or compromise. There’s only a plaintive echo of want, the most abstract kind of want, want only incidentally linked to things like sex or food. Any happenstance thing—any little bit or morsel, fetish or knickknack—might have been the vehicle for the kind of experience Koons tries to provide.
The transcendence that provides the experience alights upon all sorts of earthly things willy-nilly. Koons knows that many of us haven’t felt real joy, real transcendence, since childhood, the time when we were most open. Koons’s work is tacky, yes. And even he might agree it’s a pity that our childish objects of worship—felt-and-sequin tiaras, jumbo scented stickers, graphic deluges of chocolate milk—were so tawdry and dumb. But to return us to those associations, that stupid delightedness, is Koons’s goal, and the vehicles he chooses are simply the vehicles of our shared experience. Which is why, incidentally, his work will slip into history as a record of how Longing (with a capital L) was clothed in our moment, not all moments. In an episode of the Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts, Koons told interviewer Tom Ford that his work will help the future understand our turn-of-the-century dreamscape. I believe he’s right.
Europeans receive Koons’s work differently than Americans do. Whereas the American press has enjoyed pointing out the decadence of Koons’s work, European commentators (in, frankly, what seems like a sweetly geriatric sort of way) have been quick to lap up the comfort food. The same Thomas Kellein who interviewed Koons in 2002 for an exhibition in Cologne noted that Koons’s work dispels anxiety and lifts guilt in a society still coping with the moral ramifications of World War II and the fact of a difficult future: “[Koons’ work is] a general amnesty for the negative dialectic that was rife above all in Central Europe,” he wrote.17 Koons’s art is like therapy, and Kellein, for one, is not too proud to turn down the help. Curator Francesco Bonami, an Italian now heading Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, wrote in 2008 that Koons conjures “a presexual and preliterate world that is kinder and more attractive than the world as it is now.” He further noted (alluding to Fatima kitsch) that we can enjoy Koons’s work as if we were “simple-minded young shepherd[s] struck by a vision of the holy virgin floating above [our] flock[s].”18 Sometimes the best thing an object can do is give us an emotional sponge bath and wrap us in a warm towel. Especially if we’re so covered in existential grime that we can hardly open our eyes.
Yes, Jeff Koons is a celebrity, and yes, he has placed his personality at the center of his oeuvre in apparently egotistical and exhibitionist ways. In his first solo show, in his Banality advertisements, in his Made in Heaven cycle, and in his media appearances he has been unmissable. But this performance, this constant reminder of the man, isn’t incidental to the body of work. Jeff Koons is a man with a dream, and his work is his dream, only comprehensible alongside the image of the tall-talking, wide-smiling, gimlet-eyed evangelist pushing the “moral” and “pure.”19 In his quest for something undiluted in its sweetness (even if it’s a saccharine sweetness), Koons could not—and cannot—choose his language; he can only wield the symbols of his native visual culture. There’s something melancholy here, something true in the aim of its striving if a bit improbable in its means. Maybe Jeff Koons is a kind of medicine man (some call him a self-styled “shaman”20), but if so, the chthonic energies he channels have, sorry to say, been filtered through toy-littered landfills, the graveyards of collapsed tract houses and subterranean caverns of nuclear waste. As a prophet and healer, as a man giving “goodness” as he understands it, Koons is doing the best he can do.
Images in the photo gallery are courtesy of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.
1. “Ready-mades” are real-life objects selected and presented, but not radically modified, by an artist. Marcel Duchamp is best known for having widely used ready-mades, including the inverted urinal he dubbed Fountain in 1917.
2. See Alois Riegl, Der moderne Denkmalkultus, seine Wesen und seine Entstehung, Vienna, 1903. For an English translation, check out The Nineteenth-century Visual Culture Reader, Routledge (New York, NY, 2004), 56-60; and Sebastiano Barassi, “The Modern Cult of Replicas: A Rieglian Analysis of Values in Replication,” Tate Papers 8 (Autumn 2007), http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/07autumn/barassi.htm.
3. See D. Kazanjian and K. Lagerfeld, “Koons crazy,” Vogue 180, no. 8 (1990): 338.
4. Robert Hughes, “Showbiz and the Art World,” Guardian, June 30, 2004.
5. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, NY: Zone Books,  1994), thesis number 17.
6. See David Littlejohn, “Who is Jeff Koons?” ARTnews 92, no. 4 (1993): 90.
7. See Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of It’s Complicated, Universal, Entertainment Weekly, December 30, 2009, http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20326478,00.html; and Bill Buford, “TV Dinners: The Rise of Food Television,” New Yorker, October 2, 2006, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/02/061002fa_fact.
8. See, for example, Angela Doland, “Koons’ Outlandish Sculptures at Versailles,” Welt Online, http://www.welt.de/english-news/article2427869/Koons-outlandish-sculptures-at-Versailles.html.
9. See Laurie Attias, “A Kinder, Gentler Koons,” ARTnews 97, no. 3 (1998): 158.
10. See, for example, “The Way We Live Now: 6-25-00: Questions for Jeff Koons; Puppy Love,” New York Times, June 25, 2000, http://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/25/magazine/the-way-we-live-now-6-25-00-questions-for-jeff-koons-puppy-love.html.
11. See Jeff Koons, Jeff Koons: Pictures, 1980-2002, ed. Thomas Kellein (New York, NY: Distributed Art Publishers, 2002), 16.
12. See “Interview with Anthony Hayden-Guest,” reproduced in Jeff Koons, ed. Angelika Muthesius (Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, 1992), 16-17.
13. See, for example, Daniel Sylvester, “Jeff Koons Interviewed, New York City, February 6, 2000,” in Jeff Koons: Easyfun-Ethereal (New York, NY: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2000), 36.
14. See Muthesius, ed., Jeff Koons, 96.
15. Seattle residents can view this sculpture at the Seattle Art Museum.
16. See Kazanjian and Lagerfeld, “Koons Crazy,” 341.
17. See Koons, Jeff Koons: Pictures, 11.
18. Francesco Bonami, “Koons R Us,” in Jeff Koons, ed. Francesco Bonami (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 15.
19. See, for example, Kevin Nance, “American Optimist,” Artnet, June 9, 2008, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/nance/nance6-9-08.asp.
20. See Kelly Devine Thomas, “The Selling of Jeff Koons,” ARTnews 104, no. 5 (2005): 117.