Jeff Koons and the Whitney
In the final
exhibition to take place at the Whitney Museum before it moves
downtown in 2015, a retrospective of Jeff Koons’ career—the
artist’s first major museum presentation in New York—will
run through October 19th. And on a weekday afternoon, two
weeks into its run, the line was out the door and down the
Considered by many to be one of the most popular
and influential artists of the Post-War era, it wasn’t
until the mid-80’s following a lucrative short career
on Wall Street as a commodities broker at Smith Barney (among
other companies), that Koons could more fully realize the
artistic vision that he had first formed in the late seventies.
When you have the sort of vision, that for
example, involves taking a toy balloon animal—like one
you might see twisted into shape at a kid’s birthday
party by, ugh, a hired clown—and reconstructing it as
a 12-foot tall mirror-polished stainless steel piece, with
transparent color coating and weighing almost a ton, well,
it can get expensive. Hence the Wall Street detour.
Ah, but the return on investment.
Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie’s
last November for $58.4 million— the highest price ever
paid for a work by a living artist.
Koons is not shy about self promotion and
building his brand, which never hurts when trying to make
a sale. And the work is rather stunning when witnessed up
close. But fifty-eight mil? ‘Nother topic; ‘nother
The concept of taking the banality of everyday
life, common household items (Koons loves vacuum cleaners),
commercial and pop culture icons, and putting them in a dramatically
different context, is of course nothing new. Guy named Andy
Warhol pretty much took ownership of that idea. He is what
might be called the godfather of Pop Art. (He made us a soup
can we couldn’t refuse). His influence on Koons (and
59 other artists), was addressed a couple of years ago in
a show at the Met. (Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty
2012 Muse-letter). It doesn’t seem possible
to view any Pop Art really, without invoking the context of
There are of course substantial differences
between Koons and Warhol in style and certainly in personality
(can you imagine Warhol ever being a commodities broker on
Wall Street?). And because their art is “produced,”
—Warhol actually called his studio a factory…Koons,
with about 120 assistants, will not—what you get is
their artistic concept, which is then mainly executed
by others. Though Warhol was much more hands on in the process.
Another key difference that jumps out at one
in this exhibition, is that Warhol would never have exposed
himself —he was a voyeur, not an exhibitionist—
as Koons has in a series of artworks in 1990 entitled “Made
in Heaven.” It was controversial for what was considered
pornographic imagery. And he actually promoted it with an
One man’s take: this series is not pornography, nor
erotica, but more a spoof on sexual indulgence. And in some
of its posturing, suggestive of that stilted style of silent
movie acting. Which may be the point of it all.
Warhol was essentially about silkscreening
…Koons is essentially about sculpturing. Their different
approaches never more evident than in their interpretations
of Michael Jackson at his height of his stardom. How could
This showing of 150 of Koons’ works dating back to ’78,
is like walking through a fun house, with surprising discoveries
at every turn. It is playful and entertaining and doesn’t
beg to be deciphered.
Like Warhol, Koons has said that his art harbors
no hidden meanings. What you see is what you get. And maybe
that’s another reason why so many families with young
kids in tow, have come to check it out (though warnings are
posted about the explicit nature of some parts of the show).
After all, what’s not to understand about inflatable
animals, cartoon icons, basketballs submerged in water, and
a bigger than life facsimile of a blob of Play-Doh in the
middle of a room?
Koons obviously likes kids. He’s got
six of them under the age of fifteen with his current wife,
and two others from former mates. He sees things in a way
other adults don’t. He sees the world through kid-colored
As a means of capping off the experience, a stop by Rockefeller
Center offered “Split-Rocker,” a piece featuring
over 50,000 flowering plants. It is made up of two halves:
one based on a toy pony of one of Koons’ kids and the
other, on a toy dinosaur. It serves the dual role of environmental
art and promotion for his show.
Over thirty seven feet high, it suggests something
“dinosauric,” as it curiously observes a now seemingly
tiny Prometheus, en route to bringing fire to mankind. It
is the personification of whimsy.
Ultimately though, in the expansiveness of his work, Koons
is more than just whimsical or a maker of cutesy art that
even kids can love. Sections in his show with sub-titles of
Statuary, Antiquity, Pre-New/New, the aforementioned Made
in Heaven among others, are decidedly suited to a mature sensibility.
Of course there are passionate Koons detractors, as a long
New York magazine piece noted a few months ago: “Jeff
Koons Is the Most Successful American Artist Since Andy Warhol:
So what’s the art world got against the guy?
Many view his art as kitsch. Yet, if kitsch induces emotional
connections, if it alters perspectives— getting one
to look at old things in a new light—is that not akin
to what all art, fine or otherwise, tries to do? That is what
Koons’ work does. Though with time, one can see where
its impact might wear thin.
Will the balloon dogs never get old in the same way Warhol’s
soup cans never seem to? I doubt it. But Koons and the Whitney,
in a well conceived curation, have really nailed it with this
Quote of the
House on Un-American Activities had the power to cage
the singer, they did not have the power to cage the song.”
Where Have All the Flowers
They’ve gone to a 5-day festival with
a stop off at a three-and-a-half hour concert in the Lincoln
Center Outdoor series, in memory of Pete Seeger and his wife
Pete died in January at age 94. Toshi, at
91, passed on six months prior; nine days before their 70th
wedding anniversary. She was a big force in helping to guide
her husband’s career, as well as being a filmmaker,
producer and activist in her own right.
Where Have All the Flowers Gone recorded
in 1964, is but one of Seeger’s signature songs. And
on a pitch perfect summer day last month, Judy Collins kicked
off the show with another— Turn, Turn, Turn.
(Boomers will readily recall it being a big hit for The Byrds
back in the day.).
Collins was dazzling, dressed in white to
match her flowing hair, her voice defying the visual of a
legend in her 76th year. She sounded every bit the woman I
remembered from a concert nearly fifty years ago.
Awareness of aging and time passing permeates
the day. Seeger, having lived so long, can’t help but
have colleagues, friends and fans, who come as if from what
seem like alien worlds: The Sixties, The Fifties, The Forties.
Many of those inching along with their walkers,
postures like question marks, are here to pay homage to a
man remembered as much for his social activism, as for his
songs. Going back as early as 1940, if there was a cause concerning
social justice, Pete Seeger was there.
Harry Belafonte, age 88, and with cane in hand, suddenly appears
stage left. He will recall Seeger’s appearance before
the House on Un-American Activities in 1955. He will tell
us that it was Seeger who first introduced the old slave song
We Shall Overcome, to Martin Luther King. It would
go on to become the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. And
it is the song we will all come to sing at the end of this
long Sunday afternoon here in the summer of 2014—hands
enjoined as if at a revival meeting. What is it we shall overcome
now? The injustice of infirmity and mortality I guess.
But Belafonte’s reference to 60’s
activism, made me recall watching Seeger’s controversial
appearance on the The Smothers Brothers Show in ’68,
when he sang Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.
It was an obvious metaphor for the quagmire
Viet Nam had become, and CBS had originally cut the song as
being too controversial. They finally yielded to protests
by the brothers, and reinstated it in a later show. It’s
all there in that techno-heaven we call YouTube,
where nothing ever dies. (Albeit immortality often being interrupted
by 15-second commercials.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXnJVkEX8O4.
All afternoon, the overflow audience of 3,000
will be urged to raise its voice in song, joined by the throngs
beyond the barricades who had been unable to gain entry to
a seat at this free event. We will be given lines and cues
as to our parts. But when Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul
and Mary fame begins a spirited rendition of Seeger’s
anthem, If I Had A Hammer—which he told us
he’d sung to Seeger on his death bed—we need no
prompting. We know the words. And it is— at least for
the length of the song— the 1960’s all over again.
Woodstock with walkers and folding chairs… Woodstock
without the heads of hair.
The memorial and homage to Seeger and his
wife, ultimately becomes as much a memorial and homage to
our youth. Which like them, has died.
"Killifishing” on Staten
In the apocalyptic classic novel 1984,
every citizen is under constant surveillance and perpetually
being reminded that “Big Brother is watching you.”
its publication in 1948, the phrase has entered our lexicon
to become synonymous with governmental prying, abuse of power
and infringement on civil liberties. And in the last year
or so, it has become a particularly hot button issue as we
now have learned that the government has listened in on private
phone conversations, and read private emails, for the alleged
purposes having to do with national security. It has many
outraged and concerned that they could be the next victim
of U. S. government snooping. I am not one of them.
I do not fear that Big Brother —our
government or Obama himself— will find my life intriguing
in any way as to eavesdrop or look in on what I might be up
to. But I do fear all the Little Brothers who actually
have invaded my personal life, now so accessible through
new technologies and unsecured data banks. I experienced three
more incidents of this just last month; one of them particularly
unnerving for its sheer audacity.
The first and most benign, was an email notice that something
I ordered for $128.38 was on the way and required my clicking
a hyperlink to process it. Not recognizing the sender and
not having ordered anything recently, I ignored and deleted
the email. Which if I hadn’t, might have resulted in
a hard drive crash or who knows what. No doubt you too have
gotten something similar at one time or another.
The second, involved credit card hacking.
This too might have happened to you, or someone you know,
as it now has become such a prevalent practice. With much
time spent on the phone with my credit card company, I was
able to eliminate almost $4,000 in fraudulent charges. Then
had to go a couple of days without a card until a new one
Regarding the third incident, many if not
most of us, have heard of the scam whereby you receive an
email from a recognizable name of a “friend” who
has lost a wallet while travelling. He/she is now stranded
somewhere out of the country, with no financial means to get
home. If we could send them $1,500, they would repay us as
soon as they got back. I experienced a dramatic variation
on this theme.
A phone call to my mother’s house—
she is elderly, becoming infirmed, and living with her sister—
informed her that: I was in a California jail having been
arrested on some criminal offense having to do with drugs.
In the hysteria that such a call induced in
her and my aunt, they notified my uncle nearby, who is also
elderly. The details on his subsequent call back to the “jail”
are too long and convoluted to go into, but it resulted in
his being poised to send $3,000 in bail money for my release.
When he was able to contact me on my cell to tell me the money
would be on the way, I was at Starbucks here in New York ordering
a Tall Bold. The scam had been stopped at the goal line.
No, my concern is not with Big Brother intrusion,
it is with all those Little Brother intrusions. They are the
ones undermining my sense of security and safety, not the
government. They are the ones who literarily,
not theoretically, had enough private information
on me, and a motive, to boldly go ahead and contact my family
directly—by a piece of old technology no less, a landline
phone. Not the government.
There doesn’t seem to be much outrage
in the national conversation about Little Brothers. Only Big
Brother. Who so far, hasn’t called my mother’s
Tight pink rubber ball high
Sputnik launching off a stoop
downward turning orange growing
pebbled swishing through a hoop.