Jeff Koons’ art has been claimed by so many different camps to mean so many things: the emptiness or artifice of culture, middle-class wish-fulfillment, relentless consumption, the production of desire, the triumph of the trite—what’s left? The art itself rarely strains to push these critiques or commentaries; it rather simply (or not so simply, as each piece is a feat of engineering) introduces itself as if on a parade route, happy to be here. The work seems to say that if you cannot delight in an oversized balloon animal made from shiny stainless steel, then you are likely deficient in the sense of joy. Has Koons succeeded in finding universal beauty?
The objects, most made of steel, are going to last forever. Universal and eternal. (A bit like God, eh?) It’s difficult not to become enthralled by the technical craft of each object. Nothing looks like it was made by hand, not even the paintings. Each object professes the ingenuity of technological mastery. Size matters, too. The scale of each piece—overblown—adds to the rapture. Koons is in the business of manufacturing the sublime. His products consistently try to fix the ephemeral in time. A cracked egg, a balloon, antiquated commodities, even sex, all made permanent. They will age well, too, like how Renaissance putti or primitive idols score a ten for charmingly dated. Their nostalgia is inbuilt.
Most of the objects are beyond-perfect reproductions. The toaster is a real toaster, but the inflatable pool toys and the flower arrangement—those are master works of trompe l’oeil. Ripples in the seam of the plastic inflatable lobster are transcribed into painted steel. The illusion is precise, much like the idealized body of an ancient Greek sculpture or the ornately textured robe of a Flemish Renaissance Madonna. Koons surely knows that everybody loves a little illusionistic trickery. Does this make him much different from a primetime TV magician? Does it make you like him less knowing that his “high” art panders to a low, common denominator? He’s just so damn likeable.
Chicago is currently the only stop for Koons’ retrospective. What does the work say to Chicago, or about its contemporary-art scene? His workshop currently produces hyper-realistic painting to an airless degree, beyond Chuck Close, and much like Damien Hirst, yet owing much to the pastiche style of 1980s David Salle. This isn’t the sort of painting that is in love with itself. Surely it is compositionally considered, but the paintings act as advertisements or illustrations for the sculptures on view. It is likely that Chicago’s best painters, most of them dealing in the abstract, will find little hope in Koons’ painted vision.
The city of Chicago features briefly, although importantly, on Koons’ resume. He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for one year, assisted artist Ed Paschke and also worked as a preparator at the MCA, the site of his current retrospective. Many of the new paintings feature iconic Imagist works in the background, but they also feature Popeye and a pretzel. These appropriations barely function as homage, and they mostly seem random. Yet if Koons’ painting style may not jive well with painters, surely his themes will. Curious associations and lighthearted humor appear as fresh as anything coming out of our art academies today.
Koons’ sculptural wonders are of a caliber rarely seen. Some of us have become very comfortable with abject sculpture, scrappy art and re-used materials. It’s a celebrated local style, like Old Style or dirty snow. How refreshing, then, to partake on a Disney-like trip among such wondrous, otherworldly statuary. Likely Koons will come to be resented for being so perfect.
Jeff Koons shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago, (312)397-4010, through September 21.