1988: Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons (American, b. 1955) organizes his artistic production in series defined by abstract themes—The New, Equilibrium, Celebration, Easy Fun, Antiquity, each one having the aura of a new dispensation. The component works in each grouping are fashioned by a team of artists and manufacturers using the same materials, which gives the series a high degree of visual coherence. At the level of subject matter the groupings seem less crisp—almost all of Jeff Koons works are engaged with the new, the banal, the celebratory—and many works could be reassigned to a different series without any conceptual damage.

The Banality series was first exhibited not in a gallery, but at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1988. The series is introduced by an outsized Hummel-style bisque group of two angels and a boy in modern dress, leading a pig, entitled Ushering in Banality (Koons commented that he thought of himself as the boy in back pushing the pig). The banality (which is both an era and a condition), that ensues is tremendous. Among the large-scale, polychromed and gilded, precision-made cast-porcelain figures are representations of a pure white Michael Jackson holding his pet chimp, Bubbles, a semi-nude woman embracing the Pink Panther and Leonardo’s shiny, leering John the Baptist. Sickeningly cute bears abound. One hardly knows how to react to this high-key spectacle of finely-wrought bad taste.

Koons brilliantly combines fine materials worked by highly-skilled mastercraftsmen and artists with cutesy, saccharine kitsch and soft porn subjects to create objects that are highly seductive and highly repellent in equal portions (equilibrium being a central epistemological construct in Koons’ work). One feels embarrassed to look at the Banality works too closely, yet ineluctably drawn to do so. Koons frontloads his subjects with potentially incendiary topics—racism, beastiality, sanctity, cultural decline, self-degradation and delusion, but holds them all in perfect suspension. It is impossible to decide if works like Michael Jackson and Bubbles are intended as sincere tributes, examples of catastrophic bad taste to be derided, or critiques of the culture that produces and consumes the imagery from which the work is derived. At the same time, one feels the need to try to sort these issues out because nothing less than the state of western culture is at stake. Extracting all that out of a reproduction of a gift-shop teddy bear is no mean feat.

Unlike conceptual art, these highly-intellectual issues are expressed purely in visual terms that require no specialized knowledge or priestly cast to decipher them. For Duchamp, the demi-urge who instigated Koons’ career, art was either conceptual or merely “retinal,” an instance of intellection or something just to look at, substance or decoration. Koons squared that circle, framing philosophically-inclined, aesthetic and moral content in gorgeously-realized, oppulently-appointed terms (Koon’s monumental, expensive and entertaining balloon-animal sculptures showed well at Versailles). This is all done with a lightness of touch and without any of the pretention and preening (although just as much self-promotion) of other top-drawer ’80s artists – and – Koons, the artist who stirred some of the most acrimonious re-hashings of the middle-brow is-it-art debate, has incredibly enough become a popular favorite of the masses whose tastes motivated the his work in the first place.

After an unexpected hiatus, The Higher Inquiètude is back.

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