Friday, 26 September 2014


Living in London, I've not seen the major Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney, but I've felt the reverberations. Every few days, I'd notice another review, many of which were very positive. Jerry Saltz was as good as always, but I was more interested in a couple of very negative reviews, by Jed Perl and Travis Diehl. This was because they seemed to share one belief: that you can damn Koons' art without really saying anything about it as art. There is next to nothing in either piece about responding to Koons' art in any particularity, no sense of anything beyond a disgusted flick through the catalogue. And in a sense, maybe it's not needed. Koons' art is about as well-known as it gets, and Diehl certainly takes the position that it's up to the essayists in the exhibition catalogue (who he takes to task one by one) to convince him that Koons is worth all the fuss. At this juncture, the combination of David-facing-Goliath pluck and Emperor's New Clothes certainty seems as good as any, and the conclusions don't surprise me. What I think deserves a mention, however, is their open hostility whenever the matter of engaging with Koons' art as art objects arises.

Take Diehl disregarding neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's essay on Koons and our fascination with shiny surfaces. Without having read the essay, I thought the passage quoted sounded like a promising approach to what happens when we look at Koons' work. But no, 'although his [Damasio's] essay may have something to say about the nature of creative activity, it adds little to our thinking about Koons'. But Perl is much stronger in disregarding individual responses to Koons' art. For instance:

"In the very first paragraph of his catalog introduction, Scott Rothkopf quotes the late Robert Rosenblum, a distinguished student of nineteenth-century neoclassicism who doubled as a critic of contemporary art, declaring in 1993 that “Koons is certainly the artist who has most upset and rejuvenated my seeing and thinking in the last decade.” Later in the Whitney catalog, the art historian Alexander Nagel recalls his first encounter with Koons’s work—the “Banality” series at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1988—and explains that it “made me a little sick, even as I felt an almost irresistible invitation to submit to it.”
I would have hoped that by now everybody agreed that not all unease is equal. Why should we imagine that because once upon a time certain gallerygoers were troubled by something that they later came to admire, then it follows that anything that troubles a gallerygoer is necessarily worthy of admiration? Just because it makes you sick doesn’t mean that it’s any good. I am not saying that either Rosenblum or Nagel, both scholars widely admired for their erudition, would take this view. But there is no doubt in my mind that Koons is alert to a tendency on the part of the art audience to submit—to submit to something (to anything) that exerts a certain discomfiting power. This is the S&M of the contemporary art world, with the audience angling for an opportunity to grovel at the feet of the superstar."

So Rosenblum and Nagel (who is also treated condescendingly by Diehl for his catalogue essay) are basically shot down for trying to articulate something specific, and it seems to me that, while being terribly polite about it, Perl is saying that they have been duped by someone with a grasp of what people want, as if Koons were the porn baron of the art world. All of this is pretty exciting, because it really invites questions about our responses to artworks and where the meaning lies. The passages I've quoted both touch on the question of how much our feelings about these works should be interrogated or even trusted- how much in doing so we would be simply participating in 'the S&M of the contemporary art world'.

But of course there is a Sylvester connection here, as Sylvester interviewed Koons twice 2000 (the interview was published in Sylvester's Interviews with American Artists). Naturally, for a critic whose writing on art spans from World War II up to the start of the 21st century, Sylvester saw many changes in the art world, and his enthusiasm for Koons surprised me at first. This from a man who learnt about sculpture from watching Moore and Giacometti at work! The author of a perhaps the most famous series of artist interviews ever (with Francis Bacon) wanting to interview Jeff Koons?! (In fact, as Perl reminds us, the curator Norman Rosenthal has just completed a book of interviews with Koons 'in which the artist at moments imagines himself a sort of philosophe of the twelve-step program'.) But Sylvester, who had interviewed Duchamp, had co-authored the Magritte catalogue raisonné, knew what he thought. Reading a review of Interviews with American Artists somewhere, I distinctly remember how, in a generally very positive article about the book, the author picked up on Sylvester's comment to Koons that 'The chocolate-chip cookies [in Hair] are a very erotic image or an alternative to a very erotic image' was a sign of how the interviews became a little ridiculous in places, or something to that effect.

But actually, reading Sylvester's interview after these 'conservative harangues' (to take one of James Elkins' seven categories of art criticism) it was comments like these that I enjoyed most. Sylvester wrote that one of the most important things about an interview was that the interviewer shouldn't be afraid to look silly, and it's his engagement with the works rather than an idea of the works which is what sets him apart. Not that I'm a particular fan of Koons' work (although I thought his Bear and Policeman stood out a mile from most of the work in the lacklustre 'The Human Factor' exhibition at the Hayward Gallery recently), but if he is to be critiqued, it ought to be more specific than the sort of criticism that takes him as a symbol of all the art world's ills.
But I did enjoy the question of 'acceptance' which comes up in Diehl's review (he uses the word fourteen times) and which does seem to relate to something more widely. Because Sylvester had written early on about the acceptance, the democracy of vision in Rembrandt and Cézanne. This, you could say feeds into Pop Art and its exponents looking to use the most striking visual material around them and in Lichtenstein's words 'to accept its environment, which is not good or bad, but different'. Now for Diehl, 'acceptance' is synonymous with 'uncritical', it means that Koons work short-circuits criticism by implicitly mocking its refusal to accept. This is the language of self-help books. But I think there must be more to it than this. Look up how many senses of the word there are in a good dictionary. I particularly like the duality of accepting in an active sense (I accept your invitation) and in a more resigned sense (I accept your criticism was valid). If there is something to be said about Koons and acceptance, I think it lies somewhere in this strange double meaning.

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