One thing that comes to mind with Jeff Koons’s work is not what makes it good or bad, but a genuine curiosity about the nature of its perception in his fan base. It goes without saying that brilliant and redoubtable self-promotion has played an essential part in Koons’s career. He is an international celebrity and one of the highest-paid artists of all time. But what if anything else do people see in his art? If it’s love, can they count the ways? In an interview with Charlie Rose, Koons embeds in his conversation some ready-made answers. More than once, he mentions “transcendence” and “enlightenment” as inherent aspects of his work. Would an average visitor to the Whitney retrospective, standing in a line that winds around the block—or for that matter a collector of Koons’s art—say this? Would they be capable of diagramming the condition of transcendence in a given piece? But transcendence, as Koons would be the first to point out, doesn’t need explaining. When Rose asks Koons for his response to a critical comment that his work “lacks intellectual rigor,” Koons replies, “Well, I care in that I never want to lose anybody.” It’s a remark whose evangelical sheen is as polished and perfected as one of his sculptures.
Like Warhol, his most cited and celebrated predecessor, Koons entered the art world as a precocious bumpkin from Pennsylvania. Warhol, the king of Pop, constructed an unprecedented career and a public persona to go with it, which retained, in quaint parts, his hometown naivety. Koons has done the same, with updated modifications. Warhol’s charm was in his deadpan performance of the artist-as-comedian, while letting the seriousness of his work speak for itself. Less irrepressible, Koons runs the logic of jest to the ground, and speaks for his work with the pioneering leverage of taking it more seriously than anyone else. (To transpose a basketball and its jocular associations of pregnancy into a work of art, by suspending it in a quasi-amniotic fluid, with Richard Feynman in the delivery room, is exactly how serious.)
In his work, Koons comes across as smart, goofy, and fun, with the ancillary conceit that he operates from an irrefutable position. There is a kind of hard-edged glee in everything he does—in the boyish humor that lurks in the sanitized existence of kitsch objects, in “Balloon Dog” and the inflatables, with their condom rhymes and titillating erections (and the comic potential of their deflations), and in the surface graffiti of the “Antiquity” paintings (2009 – 14) where a few crude brushstrokes depict a sailboat coming into a harbor with a low sun in the sky, a drawing that flips optically into a schema of Courbet’s famous head-on crotch shot, “The Origin of the World.”
The “Made in Heaven” series would benefit by being seen from a similar adolescent, or at least earlier, mindset. It involves Koons and La Cicciolina (Ilona Staller), an Italian porn star and politician, whom Koons later married, in a sequence of kitschy erotic photographs shot by pornographer Riccardo Schicchi. The work, which in 1989 represented perhaps a daring act on the part of the artist, supported by tensions set up between self-exposure and fictional reality, has more or less lost its fizz to time and to a postscript of divorce and custody battles.
Warhol’s art came into being with a sui generis quality that shaped a new sensibility in the viewer. Koons’s work on the other hand evokes a number of connections to earlier artists and movements. His originality is like the illusion of the moon’s size on the horizon: it appears larger, but isn’t. Oldenburg’s outdoor public commissions and his uninflated-looking soft sculptures are immediate precursors. The busy layered imagery of many of Koons’s paintings bears a resemblance to James Rosenquist’s work of the ’60s and ’70s. Donald Judd’s hieratic reduction of content is seen and raised by Koons, with a wit that introduces objects with a negative content. Look at an inflatable plastic flower beside a perfect cube. The idea of treating kitsch banality with artistic seriousness is, in Koons’s vision, a tool—a supererogatory event that works like physics in the result it delivers. In that spirit he extends the breadth of Duchamp’s “readymades.”
The incidental beauty in Koons’s work surprises. It clings to surfaces, to inhospitable environments, with a presence of triumph. In the “Luxury and Degradation” paintings, 1986, which reproduce liquor ads in oil-based inks on canvas, “Stay in Tonight,” for Frangelico Liqueur, is a good example. Despite the sleazy double entendre and a subliminally aimed airbrush hint of female nudity, the abstract composition and the relation of its colors catch you off guard, with an aesthetic impact. Something similar happens in the darkly tinted magenta of the heart balloon, 1994 – 2006, hanging by its gold ribbon. The hue has a minor-key lilt that stays in your head. In the beguiling, nearly nine-foot-tall knick-knack, “Metallic Venus,” 2010-2012, the blue of its seamless, undulant surface shimmers like light on deep water as you move around it.
One thing that can’t be overlooked in the mass appeal of Koons’s art is the skill with which it is made. Next to it, Warhol’s work looks personal, intimate, expressionistic. Koons not only satisfies the traditional criterion of skill, but by employing hundreds of assistants, he has produced work at an extraordinary level of technical perfection. Nothing is fudged, nothing blurs, or wobbles. Exact verisimilitude is matched by a control of content that is close to absolute. Its glee greets you.