Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jeff Koons at SFMOMA - part of the 75th Anniversary Celebration

Does the path of excess lead to the tower of wisdom?

 Michael Jackson and Bubbles as part of the SF MOMA's 75th Anniversary show, gold polychromed statue that plays up a false aura or allure; kitsch and the Hyperreal; the sacred (?) vs. the profane; 1980's banality.

The gold and white porcelain is oh-so-shiny. Michael is oh-so-famous and his pet monkey is oh-so-cute, but the reflection from the flash bulbs can blind us to what the piece really represents. Koons' "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" could be a poster image for the 1980s. Koons did not make it. There is no mark of the maker's hand in this statue. As with all of his work, it was made by somebody else. It is the logical offspring born out of our mindless worship of celebrity and plastic, a bastard child that shows the deeply corrupt pairing of the art world and the zeitgeist of the decade.

Koons commissioned Italian craftsmen to fabricate the sculpture for him. The slick and shiny surface pushes the tradition of figurative sculpture into kitsch. But the piece also represents Koons' career, made famous through market manipulation. MJ and Bubbles' slick white surface does not have a single indication that Jackson was, in fact, an African-American (and apparently, deeply conflicted about his race).

More than 25 years ago, the renowned art critic Robert Hughes helped to change the way people thought about modern art through his TV series, The Shock of the New. He wrote that "Jeff Koons is an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him."

Looking at the statue, I could hear all the platitudes sprouted in the 80's, the greed is good mantra, the say-nothing speeches of our (then) Teflon president. If the 60's were the decade of the counter-culture, the 70's the decade of the disco, then the 80's were the decade of the grotesque, in which money dominated the gallery system, artists became celebrities for a whole five minutes and the art market was manipulated like soybeans on Wall Street.

The poet William Blake wrote, "The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom." Looking at Jeff Koons work forces to me to point out that it ain't necessarily so. SF MOMA's statue of Koons, on display for their 75th Anniversary celebration is popular. It is the photo-op for the show; there always seems to be somebody posing in front, smiling for the camera. But the excess of gold, glitz and glamor didn't then and hasn't now, led to much wisdom.We might as well be in Disneyland where fantasy is sold as reality and a walk through a theme park passes for the real thing.
Time Magazine

Image courtesy SFMOMA


Anne said...

Great post! Jeff Koons has always eluded me. I thought I must be missing something: how many layers of irony operating? But hey, maybe he *is* simply as crass and vulgar as he appears. Like Damien Hirst's diamond skull, a vaunting of excess.

Carolyn said...

I don't think this piece can excactly be called "fantasy sold as reality," because one could lump basically all art into that category.

I think this piece serves to capture a certain taste and type of craftsmanship (a taste that will appeal to some, and revolt others). As with any work of art, it takes time and thoughtfulness to unravel the surrounding context to uncover what the piece is truly suggesting. I think that people looking at the art and being excited about it is inherently good, and maybe it will get members of the public one step closer to wanting to understand other less accessible art.