At the press preview for Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, more than one member of the Whitney Museum’s curatorial staff urged visitors to dispense with “preconceived notions” about Koons and embrace the exhibition as an opportunity to view the artist’s perhaps too-well-known oeuvre with fresh eyes. One of the largest retrospectives the Whitney has ever mounted, Jeff Koons sprawls across three floors in ascending chronological order, lucidly mapping the artist’s career as he progressed from wunderkind art-school grad, to cultural provocateur, to the Mylar man we have known and either loved or hated for past twenty-odd years.
Those who revile Koons often do so on the basis of his later works, like Balloon Dog (or, more recently, Balloon Venus of Willendorf), the production and sale values of which have soared while their meaning has seemingly become ever more surface-deep. Admirers, meanwhile, employ a modernist-inflected rhetoric of materiality and monumentality to elevate this work on much of the same bases. Wall text at the Whitney describes how Cat in a Cradle required Koons to push the limits of a worldwide network of specialist plastic fabricators, suggesting that the work owes the “sense of wonder” it supposedly inspires to this insistence on medium and scale. On similar grounds, New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith hails Play-Doh (1994–2014), a towering mound of brightly colored globs that uncannily resemble the matte tackiness of the titular children’s putty, as an “almost certain masterpiece.” Those who agree with such a statement will be delighted by the playground of huge, shiny, pneumatic-looking things that is the Whitney’s top floor. Those inclined to see Play-Doh as little more than a colossal waste of time and money may find a surprising protagonist two floors down: Koons circa 1985. Believe it or not, Koons’ artistic practice was once pointedly critical and anything but insular. Jeff Koons: A Retrospective is most interesting (and encouraging) when it reminds us of this.