Jeff Koons, November 14-January 9th, Gagosian Gallery
“To live outside the law you must be honest,” sang Bob Dylan in 1966, in his brash classic Absolutely Sweet Marie. It’s a line Dylan presumably appropriated from Don Siegel’s dark 1958 noir, The Lineup, a fact Jonathan Lethem insightfully pointed out in his 2007 essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence.‘ Siegel’s film used the more unwieldy “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” No matter which way it’s said, the sentiment rings true. It’s honesty that distinguishes the unlovable, often spineless villain from the law-breaker who nihilistically disregards conventional morality and candidly embraces his renegade status.
For two decades, Jeff Koons’ has been a lovable villain precisely because of his lawless honesty—a certain purity of motive has run through his otherwise amoral oeuvre. His art ads, made in the 1980s—in one, a bathrobe clad Koons surrounded himself with nearly nude models whose perfect skin compliments the brightly colored foliage—were insouciantly crass, so self-contained as to be unaware of the institution they were teasing. Later, the bust of his porn-star/diplomat wife and himself also seemed completely sincere as a floozy: as sultry as a romance novel and as pristine as any classical Greek statuette might have been in its hey-day. Then there were those oversized stainless steel keepsakes, like the Hanging Heart valued at $20 million, and the overstimulating collage-like paintings with surfaces as slick as Vogue’s ad-space.
At its best, Koons makes contrivance brazen; at its worst, he makes a world too carefully executed to question, something that, like a newly made car, is so familiar and commoditized that you feel (though perhaps wrongly) that you know it inside out after only a passing glance. But, up to now, his work has always been straightforward about its own empty audacity, and refreshingly so.
Strangely, Koons new show at Gagosian Gallery falls into neither the “brazenly contrived” nor the “too familiar” category. The ten large paintings maybe recognizable—they cull from a well-established vocabulary of layers and dots and ab-ex eruptions—but they veer out of Koons’ typical territory. Instead of being candidly, banally over-the-top, they indulge in faux complexity and instead of feeling newly minted like the BMWs in the dealer’s showroom, they feel old, as if they’re remakes of a previous model that never quite existed but easily could have.
Each of Koons new paintings uses a photorealistic image as its backdrop—sexy, fleshy poses that recall Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris. Over the bodies is a screen of Polke-inspired pixels. Koons calls them dots and they cover whole of each canvas, making the bodies beneath discernible only from certain angles. Next come the Twombly-inspired gestures that sometimes veer into riffs off of Christopher Wool’s characteristic swooshes and smears. Sometimes these swooshes and smears land in the middle of the picture plane, becoming sexualized orifices that could give Georgia O’Keefe, queen of the vaginal, a run for her money. In Girl Woods (Dots), an ovular bouquet of purple, yellow and blue crinkled marks hover over the womb of the pixelized girl who has curled up in a bed of green. In Waterfall Couple (Dots, Blue Swish, Red Stroke), the images scrawls, blurs, and loops of unbridled paint take over so completely that the couple in the background disappears.
All of the “layers” in Koons’ new paintings are, in fact, not layered at all but flatly and perfectly painted on one continuous plane by the many highly skilled assistants that populate Koons’ studio. A man who employs a specialist in spray painting inflatables, Koons rarely touches his own painting these days. Instead, he digitally designs them and creates the systems for their execution and, even with multiple assistants working, one painting sometimes takes months to finish.
The craft of the work at Gagosian is impeccable. Each element of each image seems part of a calculated symbology, as if Koons said to himself, “A red line here will represent virility and the blue squiggle there will embody the freedom of the soul.” Yet, for an artist who has so long stayed away from such needlessly complex systems of meaning, this new venture into the over-wrought language of expressionistic omniscience seems at first naïve and then exasperatingly dishonest.
Koons has been called a charlatan before, usually unfairly, but that label finally fits. In this show, his sampling from his lineage—a little Courbet here, a little Twombly there, a little Polke, a little Oehlen and Wool—is too obvious and dastardly to be provocative. Nothing is wrong with sampling, of course; there are many things right with it. But Koons abandoned the minimalism of his usually overblown contrivance in an effort to borrow his way into the rawer, more emotive and sensual side of art (in his epithet to his press release, he says, romantically, “The gesture that you end up making in the world happens through instinct and all these desires for procreation”).
The need to swish and gesticulate and layer in order to get at instinct and primordial desire not only underestimates Koons’ own artistry—honest contrivance is a skill that Koons mastered so well it became emotionally provocative, repulsive and seductive at once. It also underestimates us, his viewers. We’re smart enough to know that vulnerable, evocative, gut-spilling art doesn’t have to arrive in a neo-expressionist package. And when it does, it feels like a cheap trick.