Is Jeff Koons Influential?

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This is a repost from my old blog. Enjoy!

That’s a question I asked on Facebook and Twitter a while back, spurred by the media flurry around Koons’ Whitney Museum retrospective, plus my thoughts on Koons that are part of this Big Red & Shiny essay. The responses I got could be summarized as “yes, but only a little, and the artists who are Koonsian tend to be mediocre.” That’s the impression I got as well.

It seems odd that an artist could be omnipresent yet without any discernible legacy. Is he unique, unrepeatable? That seems unlikely, as so much of Koons’ art is drawn from other artists or groups of artists – Rauschenberg, Warhol, Sevres porcelain, Hollywood.

His giant balloon animals, puppies, the sort of pieces made to sit on the lawn outside a museum and serve as the backdrop for photos of the family, are a conundrum. Koons didn’t invent the idea; public parks and small arts institutions often have something eye-catching out front. It can hardly be said that Koons does it significantly better than his lesser-known colleagues, though he has the cash to make them larger and flashier. The key to the mystery is that “lesser-known” in the last sentence. This sort of decorative lawn art is usually produced by second- or third-rate artists, whose claim to fame might be the cute cat sculpture in the park that the kids can climb on, something like that. A Koons sculpture lacks the straight-faced qualities of a Claes Oldenburg, who must be one of Koons’ inspirations in that regard. Koons had the sense to build a reputation before trying this trivial sidelight. It has brought him a great deal of attention, without being the sort of thing that will have any lasting impact on the art world.

Even his series with his ex-wife “la Ciccolina” (Ilona Staller), though ostensibly pornographic, are tame yet creepy. They disturb far less than one thinks they ought to. There are many more visceral yet less explicit, depictions of sex. As porn goes, this is as close as you can come to “family friendly” – which is creepy in a whole lot of ways.

Koons has a very good eye for surfaces. He chooses excellent associates and companies to manufacture his objects, and he is careful about quality control. If you were building a cathedral or princely palace, he might be a good man to oversee the operation. His designs are modern, unsuited to the solemnity of “old money,” but flashy enough for the wealthy and shallow enough not to dominate the scene – he uses scale, not content, to stand out.

In the end, Koons is a Hollywood blockbuster of an artist. Money shows everywhere, but too often so much of the money is spent in surface and gloss. The story doesn’t last as long as it takes to eat the popcorn. (Wandering through a Koons exhibit with a bag of popcorn sounds like a great protest; in tune with the art, yet dismissive.) Everyone says I should like Koons more, or like his work more than I do. In the end it just feels like my time has been wasted, and I paid too much to get in.

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