Courtesy of Jeff Koons, the Museum of Contemporary Art currently resembles an elaborate boyhood fantasy that is all grown up. Superheroes, pop stars, and porn stars coexist in this fanciful, sexual world that, despite its whimsy, is rife with motifs of Americana. In his first major U.S. exhibition in 15 years, Koons invites viewers into a world that is part comic book, part porno flick, part Neverland Ranch, and part department store. This masterfully curated retrospective exhibition epitomizes Koons’s trademark kitsch.
The show spans Koons’s career, displaying approximately 60 paintings and sculptures made between 1979 and 2007. In many ways, Koons’s work can be read as both a celebratory and a critical response to a burgeoning consumer culture. In one of the pieces, Koons displays essentially unaltered Hoover vacuum cleaners as works of art, grandly illuminating them with fluorescent lights and elevating them on pristine white pedestals. This work references how technological developments make modern efficiency possible in terms of how easy it is both to clean and to consume. At the same time, the objects’ almost oppressively sanitized display seems to critique a world in which dirty, gritty drives and instincts are condemned.
Other works explicitly celebrate these types of animalistic pursuits. “Made in Heaven” (1991) is a gratuitously sexual piece that depicts the artist in the throes of passion with his ex-wife, Ilona Staller, also known as the porn star La Cicciolina. The billboard, once used to advertise for one of Koons’s exhibitions, resembles the cover of a drugstore romance novel.
Though less contemplative of the tenuous distinction between celebration and critique of commodification, Koons’s stainless steel “Balloon Dog” (1994-2000) is a technical marvel. The piece uncannily resembles the carnival creation for which it was named. The 10-foot-tall sculptural piece is one of Koons’s iconic images, and he has installed various iterations of it in museums all over the world. Even this piece is not as intellectually one-dimensional as some critics have claimed; though obviously inspired by a children’s toy, the work, Koons suggests, is also about how to conceptualize archetypes.
Other highlights of the exhibition include paintings of iconic characters like Popeye and the Incredible Hulk and an infamous sculpture of the equally infamous King of Pop and his beloved pet chimpanzee. Entitled “Bubbles” (1988), this gaudy porcelain piece depicts the tragic figure of Michael Jackson at the height of his fame in a material as fragile as fame itself.
Until last month, Koons held the distinction of being the living artist who generated the most profit at auction. His record of $23.6 million, paid in November for the “Hanging Hearts” sculpture, was surpassed in May by the $33.6 million paid for Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping.”
Koons is a master of tongue-in-cheek appropriation of commodity culture, but his recent collaboration with clothing-store mega-chain the Gap suggests that he also has commercial appeal. Along with other prominent contemporary artists like Barbara Kruger and Chuck Close, Koons has been invited by the Gap and the NYC-based Whitney Museum of American Art to design limited-edition T-shirts to commemorate the 2008 Whitney Biennial, a celebration of the most innovative and challenging work of the past two years. Koons has begun to seriously participate in the consumer culture his work celebrates and coyly criticizes. With Koons’s design available on gap.com and in stores nationwide, fans can wear some kitsch on their sleeves.
From testosterone-fueled self-portraits to ingenious steel sculptures, the MCA’s exhibition offers an expansive survey of Koons’s diverse body of work. While living in this fantastical masculine world would be my personal nightmare, it was a pleasure to visit.