Were Percy Bysshe Shelley alive today, he might have Jeff Koons’s art in mind while writing “Ozymandias”: Koons’s Brobdingnagian tchotchkes, toys and other signifiers of a middle-class left for dead have become the default monuments of our plutocratic moment. With their pumped-up scale and delusional air of historical importance, they dovetail neatly with the overblown self-regard of the so-called “makers” of our rigged economy, as well as with their contempt for grasping “takers.” When and if people in the future look back on our time and wonder whether our elites could have really been that vapid and hollow, Koons’s work, assuming it’s still around, will offer a resounding yes.
In the meantime, there are two heaping helpings of Koonsian stuff to slog through. On West 24th Street, Gagosian Gallery serves up an assortment of paintings and sculptures typical of the product Koons has been cranking out over the past decade or so. A trio of gargantuan mirrored balloon animals, tinted primary colors, stands under spotlights, glinting like Lamborghinis at a dealership in Dubai. Nearby, a giant Incredible Hulk inflatable, pushing a wheelbarrow filled with flowers, squares off against a similarly sized dime-store effigy of King Kong. These monstrous phantasms of boyhood distraction glower at each across a pyramid of large plastic balls, stacked on the floor.
Needless to say, Koons’s objects aren’t made of plastic; they’re made of stainless steel, bronze and black granite. There’s no mistaking where on the spectrum of commodities these things fall, and this self-evident truth, along with a phoned-in quality, blunts whatever provocation Koons intends.
Ditto for his miasmatic, sub-Salle canvases, in which images of classical statuary and ancient fertility idols are juxtaposed with their contemporary analogs: Superman’s chest shield, for example, or Bettie Page astride a blow-up dolphin. The entire exhibition manages to reduce art’s millennia-long quest for meaning into one big circus.
Much the same occurs in the show at Zwirner, titled “Gazing Ball,” albeit in a more restrained manner. There, Barnum meets the white cube, as larger-than-life unpainted plaster reproductions of Greco-Roman sculptures are grouped together with similar iterations of Hummel-like figurines. The leeching of color represents a different sort of attempt at dazzling the eye, though viewers are spared total snow-blindness by the titular lawn ornaments, finished azure blue, that are paired with each figure.
Absent a point to any of this, the business dealings behind these simultaneous spectacles seem far more compelling to contemplate. In December, when word leaked that Koons would be showing at Zwirner, it was widely assumed that he was leaving Gagosian, which seemed plausible. Koons is above all an astute judge of deflection points, as investment bankers call them. It doesn’t take a slide rule to figure that Gagosian’s global gallery empire has been stretched thin, and as a result, the demands on the dealer’s time impact his ability to stroke titanic egos like Koons’s. On top of which, megarivals like Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth aren’t just mounting museum-quality exhibitions for their artists, a form Gagosian has made his own; they’re building fucking museums to put them in. How else to describe Zwirner’s new location on West 20th Street? Or Hauser & Wirth’s recently launched venture in Los Angeles with former L.A. MOCA curator Paul Schimmel? Koons no doubt noticed this, and watched as prices for the work of stablemate Damien Hirst went down the shitter (Hirst has since departed Gagosian). It would be only natural for him to eye the exit, especially when a bona fide “classy” dealer like Zwirner beckons.
But surprise! Gagosian decided to open his own showcase of Koons odds and ends concurrent with his Zwirner debut, a move that looked suspiciously like a deliberate attempt to flood the market for his work. I couldn’t help recalling how, in the 1980s, collector Charles Saatchi torched the career of Italian painter Sandro Chia by dumping his art at fire-sale markdowns because Chia had insulted him somehow. I suspect Koons remembered also, because it was suddenly announced that he had a hand in organizing the Gagosian extravaganza. Cue sassy drag queen going, “Mmm-hmmm.”
Granted, such rampant speculations are just that, a hazard of judging celebrities like Koons. But I wouldn’t insist, as others have, that Koons isn’t an artist (though I may have expressed as much at certain moments). He’s indeed an artist, even a perversely interesting one; he’s certainly made himself impossible to ignore, and his take on the Pop lexicon is as disturbing as it is strange.
The latter is especially noticeable in the way Koons’s sentimentality erupts into episodes of curdled nostalgia: It suggests a pathological relationship with his source material, which, after all, traces back to his origins. By his own telling, Koons enjoyed an idyllic baby-boomer upbringing in Pennsylvania, a childhood his work often alludes to. Yet contrary to the art’s supposed populism, Koons’s pieces actually celebrate the trampling of the egalitarian America he grew up in.
Koons shares the same jaundiced view of pop culture as other artists of his generation, such as Richard Prince, a reflex that evolved, perhaps, out of the countercultural rebellion against suburban conformity. But Koons points us deeper into the weeds of American consciousness, and not in a good way. Recall that the equitably distributed prosperity of postwar memory was predicated on a tacit agreement: no blacks allowed. Once the Civil Rights movement unraveled this rancid bargain, white Americans began to vote against their economic interests in droves. Much like the soldiers sent to Vietnam, they burned down the village in order to save it.
If I thought Koons were the least bit self-aware, I’d submit that this rage of white aggrievement—this irremediable whiteness of being, which has grown only more dangerous under a black President—was a subtext to something like “Gazing Ball.” But he’s not, so it remains unexamined, festering under the shiny surface of his work. —Howard Halle