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JEFF KOONS - Gagosian, Beverly Hills

by Tom Kummer
Published On: Tuesday, 15, December 2009
There have always been three things you can't take away from Jeff Koons:

1. The consistently high market value of his work
2. The extraordinary influence he's had on young artist.
3. La Ciccolina in porcelain.

But does this all still matter?

Every kid in America knows it by now: We all owe a huge debt to Andy Warhol for making it OK for artists to do many things: to celebrate crap! To enjoy junk! To make money, for fuck's sake! But Jeff Koons picked up the ball and ran with it. He brought the romance and beauty back in - something Warhol maybe would have let go of. Koons work was gloriously hopeful in a world that a lot of the time still looks and feels pretty nasty. Like all great artists he's taken us to a new level, and to me he was once easily as important as Warhol.

But does it still matter? Or, more specific: Does it matter on a Friday night?

It was one of those Friday nights in Los Angeles when there's not a party to go to and no concert around town and everyone's seen all the movies. Most people stay at home and invite friends over and talk on their Iphones. Sometimes someone will drop by and talk and have a drink and then get back into his car and drive over to somebody else's house. It was one of those Friday nights in L.A. and all that nonsense had to be stopped by just saying, "Hey, there is an opening at Gagosian. Let's go there and meet some celebrities."

When we all entered the new show at Gagosian in Beverly Hills on opening night, I was the only one that didn't have a dream. It was all brutal reality and right in front of me. The world had become super cute. Like the most watched YouTube video ever, entitled "HaHaHa," where a baby laughs hysterically when Daddy says in low and high voices DONG and BING. It felt all Cootchie-coo at Gagosian. The crowd, the space, the little puppies, the art, the babies. Cootchie-coo behavior used to be reserved for private moments at home. But now cuteness is everywhere. And while I was thinking about the growing self-infantilization, I suddenly was pushed in front of some kind of gigantic canvas, JKs new works, which could have been the cover for a new hot ambient noise project out of Manchester. I immediately remembered what went through my head when I first met Jeff Koons in 1987. A question went through my head 22 years ago that today's PR crazy art world would never, never even come up. It was, at least in the late 80s, the essential Jeff Koons question: Is his persona a put-on? Hahahahaha. I was wondering whether Koons was amazingly naive or style per formative. I was standing there in front of his hugely disappointing new work. (yes, disappointing like in USC Football, or L.A. Dodgers or maybe Tiger Woods...)

But does this all still matter?

Koons still sounds like a motivational speaker when he addresses his thank you note to Gagosian and his guest. No question, he has made the cutest and at the same time scariest pieces of American art since the invention of Barbie. And when he spends two minutes with me talking about his new work, I once again wonder if I was talking to the real Jeff Koons, or if there even was one. Koons is all-American, sweet-as-pie, and every other down-home cliche you care to come up with - only in his case these appear too earnest to be cliches, and he will tell you something similar about his work. It is not ironic. It is not kitsch. It's definitely not cute. Actually, It's optimistic. It exists in order to make people feel better about themselves. It - and all other objective art from Duchamp to Lichtenstein - is about 'self-acceptance'. Funny how these things work. He talks about how he hates the word "kitsch", finds irony useless, and loves the film "Bambi" (1942) and Goldfinger (1964). And while the boy from the Rust Belt is as American as Hershey's Kiss, it turns out he has more in common with Louis XIV than with Henry Ford.

On that Friday night, 22 years later, party or not, Gagosian himself will use SELF ACCEPTANCE and LOUIS XIV to explain the new paintings of his favorite player. Yes, yes, Jeff's whole philosophy of art might well be based on the money. "You think it's about performance," he says, "and actually art is not about performance. It's about self-acceptance. Jeff is interested in sensuality. He's interested in power. He is interested in the kind of polarities and equilibriums that take place within sexuality and philosophy and sociology. That's why he should show his work in Versailles, in this type of setting, you have a place that is about absolute control, where everything has been thought about."

It's easy to understand that Gagosian is also talking about himself. Why not? All I know is this: Several years ago, Koons developed a color-by-numbers system so that each of his 70 highly trained assistants could execute his canvases and sculptures as if they had been done by a single hand. One team identifies every area of a digital printout that requires its own color - there are no gradations, and no room for interpretation; every distinct shade is identified, mapped out and given a number. Another team then mixes each of these colors, and passes them on to a third team: the painters. No paint leaves the coloring table before being approved by Koons. That's what I' looking at now. Cute.

I remember seeing his work in various states of completion at his amazingly colorful candy factory in West Chelsea, NY: there were enormous, graphic canvases with cartoon characters and found images laid over one another - a blow-up monkey head here, an Incredible Hulk there, a peg-leg pirate collaged over a train colliding with a horse and cart. Plaster casts lie around - of party balloons twisted into the shape of swans and huge aluminum caterpillars are being painted to look like the inflatable toys on which they've been modeled. The casts can take six months to prepare for painting the canvases take up to two years to complete. Fascinating stuff. And yes, we all owe a debt to Jeff Koons. For making it ok to celebrate crap! To enjoy junk! To make money, for fuck's sake! Like all great artists he's taken us to a new level, and to me he's easily as important as Warhol.



And now he's dead.