August 2014


Jeff Koons and the Whitney Nail It



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 block.


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 day.


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 Years OCTOBER, 2012 Muse-letter). It doesn’t seem possible to view any Pop Art really, without invoking the context of Andy Warhol.


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 outdoor billboard.


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 they resist.


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 glasses.

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 show.






Quote of the Month



“Although the House on Un-American Activities had the power to cage the singer, they did not have the power to cage the song.”


                                                               — Pete Seeger








Where Have All the Flowers Gone?




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 Toshi.


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.)


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 Island: 1956



  What sits on the banks of inclinations?
A longing to go fishing, even for killifish,
from the Dutch word "kilde",
meaning small creek, pond.
  One starts out small
casting beads of bread upon the water
to feel even the tiniest of tugs
on threads and hooks homemade
  from a box of mother’s notions.
Through a surface dappled by algae
and a twinkle of rhinestoned ripples,
the point of it all remains in view:
  there is no catch to the catches that are certain
in the continuum of schools passing through.
Leave the painted oceans and what lies between
the devil and the deep blue sea
  to the ancient mariners
the Ahabs and their Moby-Dicks,
done in, un-waked, remorse remaining;
thunderclouds off some cape of good hope.


Ron Vazzano








Little Brothers Are Watching



In the apocalyptic classic novel 1984, every citizen is under constant surveillance and perpetually being reminded that “Big Brother is watching you.”


Since 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 arrived.


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 house.











Tight pink rubber ball high bouncing
Sputnik launching off a stoop




downward turning orange growing
pebbled swishing through a hoop.


                                          —Ron Vazzano






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