The latest leg of the Artist Rooms on Tour sees a collection of Jeff Koons’ greatest hits, assembled together for a major display at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in the East of England. This show is an important landmark not only for the region, but also an event of national interest, in that this is the sole museum outing of the artist’s work scheduled for 2015 in the UK. To the Castle Museum’s credit, the display of this offering of Koons’ work is probably the best it has ever been, and the Museum’s Curator, Harriet Loffler, certainly takes much credit for the hang and thoughtful juxtaposition of works, with some choice sightlines across the spaces.
The galleries within the Castle Museum’s near 1000 year-old Norman fortress provide a magnificent setting for Koons’ works and the exhibition features some of the highlights of his artistic output over the period 1981-2003; a productive and significant timeframe in this most celebrated, and occasionally notorious, artistic career. Although touring exhibitions are often something of a package deal, this manifestation, courtesy of D’Offay, Norfolk and Norwich Festival et al, has been cleverly curated and the works are displayed to maximum effect, enhancing some of the lesser pieces in the assembly.
Instantly recognizable amongst the collection of works is the familiar statuary, vacuum cleaners aggrandized in illuminated cabinets and risqué self-portraits with former porn star/politician/wife (you choose), Ilona Staller. In fact, the works present in the exhibition are all very well known, so describing them in detail is redundant. That being said, Koons’ sculptures almost always seem to be more convincing than the two-dimensional works. As an indicator of quality, the production values of the sculptures are, on occasion, as accomplished as anything from Richter; so good are they in fact, that notions of the made collapse in the face of objects that transcend manufacture and appear to have simply materialised into the space, untouched by either artisan or machine.
In common with many Koons’ shows, the works on view range from the jaw-droppingly good, to the astoundingly daft; Koons is certainly an artist whose output runs the full gamut in terms of quality and selectivity; on the one hand, Koons stands as the perfect iconoclast whose work - at best - engenders a level of conceptual disruption only rivalled by the likes of Warhol and some of the better Surrealists.
On the other hand - and at worst - we are subject to a few works that come across as monotheistic, glossy and vapid. Extracts from the Easyfun series perhaps embody such adventures in quality, but of course with Koons there is always the elephant in the room: in this case the Elephant sits literally on the wall of the gallery, sandwiched between the colored glass, steel and plastic silhouettes of the Hippo and the Pony. I mention this series in particular because, between the self-evident spectacle of Koons’ work and the artist’s disclaimers about hidden content (WYSIWYG), we, as an audience, can find ourselves rather with our art appreciation legs taken from under us: after all, what was he thinking?
There is no doubt that Koons’ works are, in the main, seriously impressive on a number of levels, but his own lack of content ownership – “Art is great, it proves that there can be no judgement…”1, does little to reassure us about the cultural, moral or financial imperatives that may, or may not, underpin his ‘practice’. Koons’ works have proven a museum pedagogues dream: his sculptures, photographs and vitrines provide neat visual soundbites - perfectly suited to the education arms of galleries and the art departments of schools. The adjectives rolled out by both Koons and his advocates over time account partly for his digestible produce, with critics frequently characterizing works as ‘fun’ and ‘accessible’, as well as ‘democratizing’ and ‘engaging’. In the tilted world of ‘open’ educational resources and unbridled googling, Jeff Koons ranks highly as an unlikely ‘teacher’s friend’.
Perhaps more than any other living artist, Koons’ calculated dalliances with controversy and empty narrative render the work particularly susceptible to contextual, political and social re-examination, but however the works stand up to aesthetic/conceptual scrutiny, there is an almost entirely separate set of considerations with Koons that relate to the world’s art and money markets.
Lest we forget, the ‘bottom line’ really is the bottom line with Koons: His works are consummate consumables and perfect repositories for the wealth of oligarchs, tycoons and patron-rich museums. A couple of years ago, Koons’ Balloon Dog (orange) sold for a whopping $58.4 million at Christie’s in New York – needless to say, a world record price for a work by a living artist. This made the trifling $23 million paid in 2007 for Koons’ Hanging Heart look like relative pocket lint.
Speculation on Koons’ motives is rife and painfully overwritten, but his recent retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris stands testament to the seemingly endless global draw of his work; recent showings have elicited a series of timely and appropriate re-evaluations of his contribution to the art world over the past thirty-something years. The Koons backlash is long-gone, but is more appropriately replaced by critical fatigue and unanswered questions over the political and social ramifications of an art fabricated in factories by waged artisans – an art whose net stock value is greater than the GDP of some modest nation states.
Koons’ appeal is undeniable for a raft of reasons; it is blue chip for investors, spectacle for audiences, footfall for venues, and he delivers artworks with impropriety and ambiguity in just the right measure, allowing museums to bask or disown depending how the reviews play out. Equilibrium2 then.
Koons: Love him or hate him, you really shouldn’t miss him.
Jeff Koons: Artist Rooms is at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, UK, from 9 May to 6 September 2015.
1 Jeff Koons: Beyond Heaven, documentary, ©Working Pictures, 2009.
2 Jeff Koons: Equilibrium is a name given by Koons around a series of works created in the mid-1980’s, including the seminal One Ball 50/50 Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series) and Aqualung.