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Jeff Koons, the Inflation Artist

Friday, June 27, 2014

Jeff Koons sells his work for more than any other American living artist. And now he's the first to fill nearly the entire Whitney Museum by himself.

Koons' major retrospective is his first in New York City, and also the last for the Whitney's uptown Marcel Breuer building before it moves to its new home downtown next year.

The show includes about 150 works and covers Koons whole career, from his early works using vinyl inflatable toys, to his major balloon dog made of aluminum.  One of the highlights is his play-doh sculpture, which took Koons 20 years to make and stands 10-feet tall.

Play Doh 1994-20014

Koons is not only an artist who can sell his work for millions of dollars, he is also often treated as a rock star. At the preview on Tuesday, he was surrounded by cameras and flashes. “I am enjoying every moment of this, I have to tell you,” he said in his remarks. “And I am enjoying it because I really believe in art, I really believe in the transcendence that it has given me, it has taught me how to feel.”

Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flowers (Short Pink, Tall Purple), 1979.

Art critic Deborah Solomon said she came up with a new name for Koons after seeing the show. She noticed inflatable toys run throughout all of his work.  “I realized that inflation is the theme of his work. It’s one of the prevailing metaphors of our time, and I think he is an inflation artist,” she said.

Solomon was also troubled by what she said is a vein of eroticism that runs throughout the show. From the sexual paintings Koons did with his former wife — the Italian porn star known as La Cicciolina — to replicas of inflatable puppies combined with an image of pink panties, for example. “In that explicit conversion of eroticism and cuteness I found basically the definition of perversion,” she said.

Jeff Koons, Made in Heaven,1989.

Overall, Solomon is disappointed with the Whitney’s choice to close the home it has occupied since 1966. She said her memories of childhood are linked to seeing shows there of American artists like Jackson Pollock and Edward Hopper.

Solomon said Koons is known for making monumental sculptures of balloon dogs and porcelain replicas of Michael Jackson. “He is very much attuned to American taste at its absolute worst,” she said. “Bad taste is always funny and the idea of importing bad taste into a good-taste museum can be diverting.”

Is Koons the American artist that best portrays American culture today? Join the conversation.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988.

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Comments [23]

Cory Reynolds from New York

I am wondering if Ms. Solomon has seen Jeremy Sigler's Koons text in the online magazine Tablet (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/180742/koons-kitsch)? He quotes from her NPR review while pushing way out into unknown territory.

Aug. 07 2014 03:46 PM
albert Koetsier from california

Jeff Koons, the king of Kits, in the Whitney museum?
I thought they were a museum for art.
Albert koetsier

Jul. 08 2014 12:26 AM
Marnie Mueller from Manhattan

I actually don't care how they close the Whitney; I just don't want it to close. It was my favorite museum in this city with the best exhibits, the least hype, in a beautiful, edgy space. Que lastima!

Jun. 30 2014 07:14 AM
Deborah Solomon from WNYC

Hey everyone,

Belated thanks for all your thoughtful comments.

To Mason from Jason Heights: great to know you enjoyed my last book! Thanks.

To Rachel from New York: excellent use of the word "yikes."

To Jessie Henshaw from Way Uptown and MHardy from Manhattan: You say that the Koons retrospective represents an anti-climactic finale to the Whitney's tenure in its Marcel Breuer building. I feel your pain! The building opened in 1966, at which time I was nine years old, and for much of my childhood it offered a definitive vision not only of Edward Hopper & Co., but of New York at its most daring. I especially loved the slanty, trapezoidal-shaped window inserted into the front of the building; it looks like an eye when you are standing outside, while from inside, it presents you with an excitingly off-kilter view of the world.

To William C. Maxwell from Studio A Gallery in Tarrytown: I have always felt that Koons's objets share something essential with the unloved, castoff, bargain-basement merchandise lining the shelves of Dollar Stores across the country. Whereas Warhol elevated popular commercial products (Campbell's soup cans, Brillo boxes, etc) into high art, Koons took his cue from bad-taste objects.

Wishing you many happy art adventures...

xo Deborah

Jun. 28 2014 11:30 AM
arthur elkind from new rochelle, ny

I agree with Ms. Solomon. It's comforting to know that some in our society are disturbed by a "museum" displaying a body of work representing the most degrading aspects of our society. We should remember Mr. Koons work represents a progressive loss of artistic taste. It started a few decades ago, culminating in fantastic value by our Wall Street barons.

Jun. 28 2014 11:04 AM
Tracey Olmsted from Oyster Bay

Koons is nothing more than a glorified project manager with hands that never get dirty - the perfect shill for anyone who falls for his brand of "art". How many true starving artist could have been fed with the funds wasted on his vapid creations?

Jun. 28 2014 08:04 AM
Peter Engel from Brooklyn

I'm no art expert, and I think the Whitney could have closed with something less craven, but I do see value in Koons' work.

As for Deborah Solomon, I completely agree with Greg Segarra -- that is an angry person who is not good for radio. I was one of thousands of people who (successfully) lobbied to get her fired from doing those interviews for the NY Times Magazine. She brought the same snotty, contemptuous and nasty tone to ever pop culture figure she spoke to, and it destroyed what could have been a good page.

It's Solomon's business if she wants to write condescending books about Norman Rockwell, but frankly I'm disappointed that WNYC gives her a forum.

Jun. 27 2014 09:54 PM
Completely Forgot from Brooklyn, NY

Tom Sachs.

Jun. 27 2014 06:24 PM
Mason from Jackson Heights

Jeff Koons is a 21st Century 'art star'. I have seen the some media sources comparing him to the status of Michelangelo's and da Vinci's status during the Rennaisance. Sadly, Mr. Koon's art reputation will be as deflated and limp as a balloon dog in 500 years. I have not seen the Whitney exhibit (but will). I did see a retrospective of Mr. Koon's work a few years ago in Chicago. His work when massed together leaves me feeling sad that this is considered to be some of the best contemporary culture has to offer. This is especially true when you compare Koon's work to the outstanding output of his contemporaries such as Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor or George Condo.

Maybe after seeing this show and work at Rockefeller Center, I will change my opinion on Mr. Koons. After all, I did change my mind about Norman Rockwell after reading Ms. Solomon's biography and seeing his work in NJ.

Jun. 27 2014 01:21 PM
rachel from nyc

Hi Deborah-
On the heels of the Biennial, Jeff Koons seems the only logical choice. The former justifies the later....or the later justifies the former. In short, "yikes."

Jun. 27 2014 12:42 PM
Joel DeWitt from Atlantic Highlands, NJ

I was initially excited when I thought I was hearing a discussion of Willem de Kooning this morning, but after clearing some radio interference there was a big disappointment.

You ask an appropriate question, "Is Koons the American artist that best portrays American culture today?" and not a thoughtful question like "Is the art of Koons an important contribution to American culture today?"

The work of Jeff Koons is uniformly trivial. Perhaps that would mean the answer to your question is "yes."

Thank you for your show. It reminds me of the value I put on the arts.

Jun. 27 2014 12:37 PM
MHardy from Manhattan

A nice goodbye from the Whitney to their Madison site could have been something like "Highlights of The Whitney. A 1966-2014 Retrospective of American Art." Instead,The Whitney decides to promote the biggest self-promoter, the infantile Koons.
Let's call it,"The Total Koons. A Retrospective of American Self-Indulgence." The Whitney ignores all our artists and I'll ignore this shameful exhibition(ism.)

Jun. 27 2014 11:56 AM
MHardy from Manhattan

A nice goodbye from the Whitney to their Madison site could have been something like "Highlights of The Whitney. A 1966-2014 Retrospective of American Art." Instead,The Whitney decides to promote the biggest self-promoter, the infantile Koons.
Let's call it,"The Total Koons. A Retrospective of American Self-Indulgence." The Whitney ignores all our artists and I'll ignore this shameful exhibition(ism.)

Jun. 27 2014 11:53 AM
Jay from New York

The critic is right on! She is not condemning, just providing here perspective. Fun art -- it is similar to a great trip to the amusement park. The whole charade is the manifestation of Warhol and the factory concept of art. The LACK of personal craft, message, or unique personality IS the point. We are living in a manufactured environment -- at least in the minds of some. There are many veins spreading out from modern art in the 60s and 70s and this is the Pop Art branch. Will Koons be remembered 100 years from now? Probably, but in what context only time will tell. Perhaps as a symbol of a decadent culture in the last gasps of self absorption and desperation. Inflation art -- his buyers can relate to all of this -- best funded, highest-priced, but not the most meaningful. Truth emerges over time. When the dominate culture of 2114 writes the revised art history book, this will be an amusing sidebar.

Jun. 27 2014 11:41 AM
thoughtful from mohegan lake, ny

broadly speaking, koons is symptomatic of our era where fine arts painting and sculpture are seeking to be relevant and useful. AT this time, the commodification of art plus the torrent of short clips and instant sound bites has trained and conditioned us to question the value of applying our time to explore the language of visual arts. Our contemporary culture just doesnt think this is important enough to teach. Just like there can be silly stupid people there can be eras of silly stupid ideas. Even Koons, kitchy and even amusing, has stature for at least that slim offering- it just isnt enough! Search around out there and see what I mean. As for the Whitney show---"show me the money!" It is about money!

Jun. 27 2014 11:00 AM
Comnon Sense from New York

Jeff Koons used his connections on Wallstreet and his own financial backing to inflate his art's value (along with inflating his ego). He doesn't create his work, but rather has a team of real artists produce the work. He is a prime example of what went wrong with the art world in the the 20th century.

Yuck.

Jun. 27 2014 10:37 AM
Brian from Jackson Heights

Solomon is the art world's equivalent of a neo-conservative. She wants to return to a time and place in American art that, well, never existed in the first place. Her condemnation of Koons feels reductive and, as others have already stated, seems to take the entirety of his retrospective and commentary at face value.

Koons' artwork---along with his persona----is multifaceted and filled with the kind of self-reflexive and layers of commentary that Solomon dismisses too easily.

More expressly, Koons dramatically collapses those stable notions of the "either/or" binary that has defined aesthetics since antiquity. For the old guard, art must either be earnest or ironic . . . art should aim for beauty or reject it . . . art should be about eternal transcendence or about the times. Solomon struggles with Koons' ability to embrace both positions, a struggle that speaks to the limits of her commentary. Solomon wants beauty to be simple beauty and anything that deviates is well, in her words, "perverse." Her reading of the "Dogpool (with panties)" piece feels overly puritanical.

Suggesting that the Whitney should have looked back to the giants of American art runs counter to the institution's very mission. Plus, Koons is one of the central figures in American art of the last thirty years . . . but Solomon seems bent on returning things to modernism and Abstract Art. It's sad that this is all WNYC had to offer on the final show at the Whitney.

Jun. 27 2014 09:49 AM

Koons' work is mostly playful, silly, and amusing... not majestic or iconic.

Solomon's criticism is (as is her theme) steeped in observations of sexuality and eroticism which she conflated with perversion.

The thing about Koons' success is that it shows artists don't have to be poignant, they just have to be good craftsmen and demonstrative. The same is true of art critics.

Jun. 27 2014 09:48 AM
William C. Maxwell from Studio A Gallery, Tarrytown, New York

Jeff Koons very expensive 99-cent Store at the Whitney Museum.
Bringing this show before the masses, if doing nothing else, confronts the audience with a realization of how in trouble our world is in. For this contribution to our culture and our society, the Whitney and Koons should be congratulated. I
doubt, however, that this is what Koons means by his "transformation." Nor do I think that this was the motivation of Solomon in revealing to the world the degenerate relationship between eroticism and conspicuous consumption. In the end, this exhibition's embodied meaning is about money. The debasement of everything in our world to money, reflected in every institution of every country, from government to education to entertainment and beyond, is our Zeitgeist. So cheers to Koons and the Whitney for reminding us how corrupt and obscene this world has become by way of the real disease creeping through what is left of our planet, the human being, as Nietzsche forewarned us about many years ago.

Jun. 27 2014 09:17 AM
Greg Segarra from Brooklyn

I like the story, I must say that the critic you have hired is very droll and seems to be a throwback to puritanical times.
Instead of telling us about what could be seen at the Whitney museum she complained the whole way though the piece about the artist, the art and her comtempt for popular art was evident when she said" he walks around shaking everyone's and and speaking to everyone"(paraphrase) as if to say artist must be these emo gloomy introverts, who only speak to certain special people,who are in the club. If i did not know koontzs from her description i would not be going to the show. Please replace this woman and put someone on the air who has not already decided what is degenerate art in her mind.
She is the thought police. She hated the pink panties and dog. That is a angry person not good for radio

Jun. 27 2014 08:52 AM
Caroline from Way Downtown

The Whitney has always been an institution that pushes the envelope - at its very core, it is driven by accepting the unaccepted (American art when all anyone took seriously were European masters) and prompting thoughtful discussion over art that challenges our preconceived notions of what art is, or can, or should be.

There is a show on the fifth floor of pieces from the permanent collection (including everyone's beloved Hopper), so if you need a breather from the #KoonsKraze, take a respite up there.

But the museum can't and shouldn't rely on its universally accepted masterpieces for its exhibitions, and certainly not one with such deep historical significance.

Jun. 27 2014 08:37 AM
Stan from Harlem

I think it is interesting, in light of the Whitney's financial situation, to contemplate the place of Koons's work in whatever is considered the art "canon". In the non-art press, at least, Koons's pieces are not discussed in terms of compositional value, but only in terms of selling price. In the skewed economic structure we have created, these pieces are not regarded as art works but rather as the "bit coin" of wealthy individuals. It is perhaps sad, though hardly surprising, that so many would prefer to thus "invest" their assets, rather than contributing to the maintenance of a great public institution.

Jun. 27 2014 08:36 AM
Jessie Henshaw from Way Uptown

I've often been delighted with Koons' works, but I guess I do see them as decorative and childish too. I think in a rich town of a rich society..., the closing of one of the far greater works of art that the Whitney experience has been for New York and the world, deserves more gravitas. For a museum at the very top tier of art museums in history to close for "money reasons", may be the message of our times, that our kind of art has been reduced to the bottom line. You see that in every major museum decision of recent years it seems.

Still, why wouldn't you have a retrospective on the simply fabulous history of the museum itself, and how it opened the eyes and minds of generations to new awarenesses of life, instead of on one our popular "shtick" artists of entertaining excess?

Jun. 27 2014 06:58 AM

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