And then Koons
entered the building.
Culture, it can land like a dark hard meteorite.
That must have been what it was like when in 1966 Marcel
Breuer’s design for the Whitney hit the ground. That brutal geo-cluster
imbedded itself into Madison Avenue obliterating the southeast corner of 75th
Street. Its bulging ocular windows promptly stared down its architectural
neighbors and a deep, waterless moat separated it from the street. The only
access from the sidewalk was a footbridge that stopped just short of touching
the building, further distancing itself from pedestrian matters. On its southern
and eastern sides concrete walls, physically part of the building, abutted the
diminutive townhouses that shared the block. Not common walls, but rather blinders
or partitions, they additionally drew a line, declaring ‘this is culture, that
is not’. It was more than a simple hi-low dichotomy, it was an unconditional pronouncement:
‘this is art, that is not’. Nothing could be more simple or direct.
And then Koons entered the building.
The Whitney has had a troubled past with exhibitions
I remember a Jasper Johns exhibit that made him look like an artist who long
ago managed to run out of ideas. A MOMA retrospective latter corrected that.
But the Whitney often misrepresents even the best of artists. Part of the
problem has been curatorial, part of it was the physical inability to spread
things out and tell a story like the Modern can. The Breuer is a great building,
but stubborn. Flexibility is not really a part of its program. It can
intimidate and confuse curators. Perhaps even artists. It took Richard Tuttle
two retrospectives to get it right.
In ‘Koons World’ the twain shall meet.
At a talk at Hunter College a couple of years ago Koons recounted
a fond childhood memory. He was sitting on the floor, watching his father
smoking cigarettes. There was an ashtray with a small naked female figurine
sitting at its edge and when the heat from his father’s cigarette got near her,
her legs would spread open. This fascinated the young Koons to no end. One
could label such experiences lowbrow, kitsch, goofy, trivial, meaningless. But
for Koons his experience could not, and he insisted should not, be diminished
by any such labeling. For Koons the world is full of such wonders and should be
embraced as such. They are what we live for. He also spoke of his fondness for
Unfortunately the Whitney is abandoning ship. Over the years
it has tried to expand around and on top of the Breuer building, but failed to
do so. The kitsch pastiche proposed by Michael Graves thankfully tanked and
plans for expansion never seemed to recover from that misstep. So it’s
constructing a new building at the end of the High Line.
Did someone say kitsch pastiche? Not Koons. Never. All the
world is open to him (and his 129 assistants)
Of course Andy Warhol is the guiding spirit of this ‘Koons factory’. But where
Warhol was always elusive and clever, Koons can come off as self-satisfied and
His talks are like a 12 Steps to Loving Jeff Koons Workshop
Thus the hate mail
, it’s not just
a reaction to the work (cause it has its moments, doesn’t it?) it’s a reaction to
the whole Koons phenomena (the outsized studio, the outrageous prices, and the
fact that he’s just too happy).
His early work often had a psychological pull. The bronze
life raft and aqualung (life saving equipment that would drown you if used),
the equilibrium tanks (relationship dynamics). The New Series was also an
attempt at that; virginal vacuum cleaners sealed in Plexiglas
Strong work, but not breakaway. It was when his work truly embraced popular
culture (including porn) in a way that his peers did not that he pulled away from the pack
Everyone makes bad work
Koons has made his share, but there is no question he has produced some
signature pieces that captured a moment, a zeitgeist perhaps. Specifically some
of the shinny metal works, the artisanal polychrome carvings or ceramics and
the flower dog.
And the paintings? Can they be seen as something more than
an attempt to refresh the ideas of James Rosenquist? Maybe, but successfully?
It’s all technique. Shinny happy paintings. The work is too content with itself.
There’s no other
there, they’re just there
|Big and Shinny|
A fair amount of simplistic eye candy is sprinkled
throughout the Whitney (lots of shinny stuff and big bold paintings everywhere)
Funny thing is after seeing the giant pile of Freudian Play-Doh poop
and the over-sized poodle balloons, Koons’s signature Bunny
sculpture looked diminutive, tiny even and its surface comparatively
dull. It’s still a classic piece but wasn’t given the space it needed.
Is this the infamous Ashtray?
I went on a Friday, three hours before ‘the pay as you wish’
thinking the museum would be relatively empty. No such luck. As I arrived the
line out the door forecast bumper-to-bumper traffic. Once inside it was obvious
that the crowd was digging it. Selfies and group portraits were being taken everywhere
(I’m probably in the background of a thousand Instagram posts). Obviously it
was part of Koons’s plan to not prohibit people from photographing his work, or themselves
with the work. The mantra here is: Have fun; you paid to get in, enjoy.
|Happy Shinny People|
I’ve probably never seen so many happy young adults enjoying
themselves at a contemporary art exhibit
and it was child friendly as well. No attempt to shock, even in the porn
section. It was soft porn really, no cum shots, no anal penetration (actually I
don’t remember any
just Koons and his wife to be, naked and frolicking about. When this body of
work was first exhibited I recall it having some shock value. But that was in
the late 80s and early 90s. In today’s world of Internet porn and celebrity sex
tapes Koons’s images of the artist rolling in the hay with a porn star have
become something the whole family can enjoy.
On the ground floor is a small room of recent work. With
these Gazing Ball sculptures Koons
has discovered that plaster is indeed the material of the future. Anyone who
has seen Rodin’s plaster version of the Gates
of Hell at the Musee D’Orsay knows that it is superior to the bronze versions. Koons works this material to perfection (loved that mailbox/engine/compound
|Plaster makes perfect|
But back to the paintings, the later ones have been executed
in a paint by number manner that want to impress but they’re too technical to
exploit the joyfully dumb ‘anyone can do it’ approach to painting and still be fun.
And maybe that’s a problem. Koons’s work has become all about making large complicated
perfections of simple things. He couldn’t make a small copy of a multicolored
clump of Play-Doh that his son made and leave it at that. He had to turn it into a grander gesture.
Where’s Richard Tuttle when you need him?
It used to be the norm that creative people became artists
because they found doing anything else intolerable, or simply impossible. Not
so with Koons, his success on Wall Street has been well publicized. But perhaps
the most remarkable Koons trait is the absolute absence of the ‘artist as
alienated individual’. The modernist posture of alienation, difficulty and
resistance is entirely absent in Koons World, replaced by art works beckoning
to be embraced, wanting to be loved. Certainly there’s nothing unsettling or
disorienting in an exhibit that has the atmosphere of a colorful and over-sized
gift shop. Except for it to be in this building.
The populist stance of Koons World underscores the discriminating
toughness of Breuer’s museum. It’s an incongruous fit. If this show had opened in
the soon-to-be Whitney of Renzo Piano it would have been a different experience
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
At the Hammerstein Ballroom Nicole Atkins opened and set the
stage for the Sturm und Drang of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Her vocals plus the
workings of her minimal band (just a drummer and guitarist) powerfully filled the theater.
It was a performance that reminded me of those female led California rock bands
from the 60s and 70s. Atkins possessed the bust it out tempo of Lydia Pense
and Cold Blood, the lung power of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding
Company, and the songstress acumen of Barbara Mauritz and Lamb. She was great.
However if misfortune and extreme emotions are what you
want, go no further than a Nick Cave concert. Banging darkness, driven orchestration
and opera like tragedy were ever-present. His rendition of Stagger Lee
alone was all that and beyond, way beyond. I’ve been to
Nick Cave concerts before but here Nick nailed it, no doubt. Theatricality,
song choice, lighting and the tight workings of the Bad Seeds were all consuming.
Cave’s movements on stage were a fusion of Mick Jagger and
Jim Morrison. But largely Jim Morrison, especially in the way he held a
hypnotic presence over the audience. Apparently when Morrison got arrested for
exposing himself on stage the band claimed that he had performed in a manner
that made his fans believe such things had happened, but didn’t. Morrison’s
performance put the crowd in a suggestive state of mind they said. He made them
think he showed them his dick. They
were spellbound, mesmerized. In actuality the trouser snake stayed in his
pants, never to emerge from its leather housing.
Cave moved about in a Lizard King fashion. Engaging the
audience up front in an undulating open crotch stance, he touched them, they touched
him. He clearly had them in his spell.
As I left the building I thought I overheard one fan say, “I
saw it”, and her friend respond, “I touched it”.
I later wondered if someone
was able to document this supreme event (other than with those ubiquitous
iPhones). But what filmmaker could possibly possess the requisite skills to
record such melodrama? If Douglas Sirk were still around he would be a candidate.
But in reality this evening was truly Abel Ferrara territory.