Tumescent Follies, Inflated Money, and Kitschy Sexby Robert C. Morgan
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven, Luxembourg & Dayan chose to present a redux edition of one the most scandalous exhibitions ever held in SoHo. This was the 1992 hardcore version, for which visitors lined up around the block, shown two years after its soft-core counterpart at the Biennale di Venezia in 1990. The most recent iteration of Made in Heaven—currently on display in uptown Manhattan through January 21, 2011—includes the infamous series of oil-based inks mechanically painted on large canvases, in addition to a single ultra-kitsch glass sculpture titled Violet-Ice (Kama Sutra), all professionally editioned likenesses previously shown at one of the two preceding exhibitions.
The works were fabricated between 1989 and 1992. Originally coordinated by the artist in association with the official Italian porn star, Ilona Staller (a k a Cicciolina), these incendiary, coarsely-grained “paintings” stole the show at Sonnabend Gallery in New York at the outset of the ’90s. At the time, Koons was the high plains drifter riding his way to the top. Cicciolina was the co-star whom he would betroth in the process. As art historian Alison M. Gingeras explains in her incisively written, earnestly portrayed, and cautiously researched essay, commissioned for the show’s catalogue:
Made in Heaven is a gesamtkunstwerk that unfolded in real time over several years. Limiting our focus to just the works themselves misses the fact that the most radical aspect of the entire project is the way it encompasses not only the works, but his [Koons’s] life. The couple’s complex, often conflicted yet truly amorous relationship, the birth of their son, Ludwig, in 1992, their very public breakup and bitter divorce, and subsequent (and ongoing) legal battles are as much part of the “art” as the paintings and sculptures.
If understood correctly, the implication of Koons’s magnum opus is that real art and real life run together in a “radical” manner never previously known. Does this further imply that the avant-garde works by those motley artists affiliated with Dada, Fluxus, and Happenings were much less radical than Koons? Moreover, does it pronounce that media reportage—whether accurate or gossip—becomes investment-worthy if one believes that these quips constitute an important aspect of the art? And that hypermediated documents and discretionary artifacts relating to the couple’s breakup, divorce, and legal battles should be sold along with the paintings at auction like any other legitimate piece of conceptual art? Assuming Made in Heaven is a groundbreaking work that deserves the attention it has received, and that its antecedents in contemporary art (less so the Italian Renaissance) are important in contextualizing Koons, then what constitutes the argument as to the artist’s total market value? Although we may know economic derivatives can be shaky in terms of investment—an idea perhaps familiar to the artist from his days as a stockbroker—one may only speculate as to what minor role they might play as part of his promotional enterprise. Like other media events, such as the hypothetical existence of WMD arsenals, one might inquire as to whether derivatives transmuted into intentional support for an artist’s work actually do exist. In such cases, one might inquire: Was Made in Heaven truly made in heaven?
Whereas the critic Clement Greenberg separated the avant-garde and kitsch in contemporary culture 70 years ago, the avant-garde has now become kitsch, and with it a distortion of reality has entered into the realm of both culture and finance. Either way, the hybrid doesn’t work. While Koons has pronounced his concern in interviews that his art is made for the masses and that “God has always been on my side,” the tone of his messianic endowment may raise further questions as to the precise intention of this “born again” verbiage. Take the ad for Artforum (1988–89) where he poses as a grammar school teacher before a blackboard that reads: “Exploit the masses!” Or the statement inscribed in a notebook in which he declares: “By some I am viewed as a sinner, but I am really a saint.” Whether delusion or deep irony (as the case may be), cynicism easily slides into hopelessness. On this count, I recall a conversation last year with an art investor who insisted on forcing the issue as to why Jeff Koons was the great artist of the early 21st century. Upon voicing my disagreement, his language quickly turned indiscreet, as if withdrawing into the dark lure of fanaticism. Clearly his target was those who might influence people not to invest, and thereby lower the predictable returns guaranteed by brokers, for whom the difference between Eros and pornography appears negligible.
It would seem that Koons incorporates pornography as a ploy to insinuate his paradigm of image production into an international market. Any moral argument over who is on the right or left of this pornographic controversy would appear ultimately irrelevant. The case is merely too obvious. The larger-than-life desire to project his pornographic model goes back to the multiples from the early 1980s—back to the vacuum cleaners, the basketballs in water tanks, the sports posters, the chrome-plated whiskey decanters, the balloon dogs fabricated in anodized aluminum, the audience-friendly garden puppy dog in Bilbao, or the giant digitally carved stone gorillas based on children’s toys. Here we discover the underlying structural basis of the pornographic model as mysterious replicant, as a seductively petulant and sentimental intervention into art. Here the aristocratic few left over from the storming of the Bastille invest their hopes in re-invigorating the market.
One might say that Koons’s narcissist voyeurism is the psycho-sociological aspect of his aesthetics, as if he is seeking to disguise some hidden adolescent fantasy behind a screen of divine sorcery. While sex is not often discussed in terms of critique, it inevitably becomes a quasi-scandalous, if not welcome, intrigue. The pictures appear scrupulously overacted by Cicciolina and somewhat under-acted by her smiling, protracted collaborator. The wetness of petal-like genitalia as a compliant counter to the happily tumescent male member cannot be easily faked, which is a requirement in pornography else the scene falls flat, and the curtain closes without effect. And so, shall the financial markets continue to move through turbulence heedless of any cause-and-effect relationship between rich and poor, between the antics of repressed bourgeois desire and struggling, mind-wrenching poverty? And who rings the death knell? Such questions would appear outside the venue of our protagonist and his coy narcissistic rival, but maybe not.
The luxuriant folly of one is the moist grotto of the other. Whose mind will succumb—the one or the other? Or what if the calamity of coitus twixt the two should suddenly re-awaken at teatime after a muddy croquet match? Jeff reckons: “We are the contemporary Adam and Eve. I believe totally that I’m in the realm of the spiritual now with Ilona. Through our union we’re aligned once again with nature. I mean we’ve become God. That’s the bottom line—we’ve become God.” As these soporific mural-sized images insinuate, the lady’s arse may froth with unctuous poesy as the steed buckles from her clitoral bait—but is there something more to be reckoned with? Is the artist truly bent on delivering us from self-loathing and repressive politics? Or have Adam and Eve suddenly been transformed into a more potent incestuous version of Hansel and Gretel in hopes of manifesting the Great Puritanical Exorcism?