Thu, Nov 16, 2006 - Page 15 News List

Jeff Koons:subversively normal

Drawing on advertising, pornography, and the media, Jeff Koons' art is about aspects of entertainment. His latest work is an assault on the shiny, happy surface of contemporary culture

By Gordon Burn  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988).


"So much of the world is advertising, and because of that, individuals feel that they have to present themselves as a package." It is one of the most-quoted things Jeff Koons has said.

Fresh off the plane from New York (and back on it again in under 12 hours), he had clearly given some thought to his self-presentation for an eight-hour stretch that was going to take in a picture session, interview, a private view of his latest work at the most bijoux of the American dealer Larry Gagosian's several spaces in London, a public grilling at the Serpentine Gallery, followed by a dinner at which he would be expected to, if not scintillate, at least give value to the assembled collectors and museum people in an impenetrable, Warholian, Sphinx-like manner. One of the great showman self-promoters of the past 20 years, the bridge between Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, Koons is aware that, in a world geared to the shock of the new, spooky ordinariness — wife, children, a gee-whizz love of life and the everyday vulgar and unexceptional — can command garrulous attention.

The persona Koons had chosen to come packaged in was, like the work that has made him one of America's most influential living artists, fugitive and particularly difficult to read. The neat business suit, the clubman's tie and the salt-and-pepper brush-cut hair suggested both the head buyer in the men's apparel department at Bloomingdale's and a retired astronaut still out of joint with life on Earth.

"I believe in advertisement and media completely," Koons has said. "My art and personal life are based on it." In an interview many years ago he described his idea of pleasure: dining with a group of friends, he recalled, he was moved to propose a toast. How lucky he was, he announced, to be in a beautiful place, surrounded by people he liked. As he stood there, he remembered, in a state of bliss, it was like being in an advertisement.

Koons had already brought ad campaigns — for alcohol and Nike trainers — into his work, and with his factory-fresh vacuum cleaners in neon-lit Perspex cases, and luxury objects switched straight from showroom to gallery, he seemed to equate artworks with commodities directly. Some critics interpreted his work as a critique of consumer-capitalism: he had returned the Duchamp-inspired readymade to its status as a product. For others, such as Benjamin Buchloh, Koons was "only pretending to engage in a critical annihilation of mass-cultural fetishization." In reality, he was acting out what Walter Benjamin had predicted for capitalist society: the cultural need to compensate for the lost aura of art and artist with "the phony spell" of the commodity and the star. By 1992, after marrying the Hungarian-born Italian ex-porn star Ilona Staller (known as La Cicciolina), he had achieved the kind of crossover celebrity only previously experienced by the artist with whom he has most in common, Warhol.

Show Koons a camera and an audience, and he effortlessly snaps into "Jeff Koons" mode. He is disarming, shy, eloquent, charming, intriguingly wacko — preternaturally knowing, yet awkward and alarmingly innocent; the whole package. Produce a notebook, however, and ask him about his work in a conventional interview situation, and something within him freezes, a light clicks off.

The Gagosian Gallery in London's Mayfair is a tiny space, no deeper than a department-store window. From the street, Koons's newest piece, Cracked Egg (Blue), looked like the beginning of an up-market window display that would be completed with bewigged mannequin models later. The sculpture is made of high chromium stainless steel that has been engineered to standards no less precise, and to a finish even more reflectively immaculate, than on the cars in the Porsche showroom a few doors away. The new work is in two parts — a 1.8m-tall, mirror-laminated egg and its jagged "lid" — and is a continuation of the Celebration series that Koons began in the mid-1990s. Previous works in the series include kitschy inflated Valentine hearts and fake satin ribbons and bows, as well as Koons' signature sculpture, the balloon dog — "like a balloon that a clown would maybe twist for you at a birthday party."

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