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Whitney Curator Scott Rothkopf on How to Understand Jeff Koons's Artistic Achievement

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Whitney Curator Scott Rothkopf on How to Understand Jeff Koons's Artistic Achievement
Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf

A titanic presence in American postwar art, Jeff Koons is an icon whose popular fame, instantly recognizable sculptures, and consistent status as the most expensive living artist ensure that he will be remembered for a long, long time to come. And that's not even considering their value as works of art, an appraisal that will have its most fulsome expression to date in Koon's long-anticipated career survey opening at the Whitney Museum this week—the first time that the artist's extremely diverse and challenging series will all be displayed in the same place at the same time. The first single-artist show to fill the Whitney's beloved Marcel Breuer building before the museum moves to a new state-of-the-art space downtown, the exhibition is certifiably one for the history books. 

Adding to the excitement, the retrospective is curated by Scott Rothkopf, a wunderkind specialist in contemporary art who joined the Whitney from an editorial post at Artforum to become the museum's youngest-ever curator. On the eve of the show's opening, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Rothkopf—who previously organized the Whitney's acclaimed Wade Guyton survey—about the themes running through the show, Koons's fascinating life in art (NB: he was a former Wall Street commodities broker before becoming a professional artist), and how, exactly, to understand the immensity of the artist's achievement.  

Considering how vast and important Koons's career has been, how did you conceptualize putting together this exhibition and make use of the whole building?  

There are a few ways of answering that question, but the first premise I had for this show was to present a chronological narrative of Jeff’s work, reconstituting all the major bodies of work in order for the first time. Although there have been a number of shows of Jeff's work at museums recently, whether at Versailles or at the Beyeler or even the wonderful show at the MCA Chicago, they never reconstructed his series in totality. Jeff thinks of his series in a very specific way. For example, if you look at a body of work like "Equilibrium," you have the bronze floatation devises, the equilibrium tanks with the basketballs floating in them, and the Nike posters [which Koons purchased from the apparel company]. Those three different kinds of objects are very dissimilar from one another—it would almost seem as if they're made by different artists. But when you put them all in a room together, you start to see these connections. So I wanted to retrieve the original contexts for these bodies of work and try to imagine how they would they would form a heterogeneous but in some way coherent whole. 

Sculpture is the most famous part of Koons's career, and one could argue that he is our Praxiteles, sculpting perfect apotheoses not of the human body but of commodities, as a reflection of our age. Where do you see him fitting into the ancient lineage of sculpture prior to Duchamp and then afterward?

I would say that his work picks up on so many different threads of the lineage of sculpture, both in contemporary times and more historically. Certainly in terms of Duchamp you see this interest in the readymades, with Jeff picking up on something that Duchamp suggested in his use of found, everyday objects that are unmanipulated. You can see this with Jeff's Nike posters, which are unmanipulated readymades, and to a certain extent the vacuum cleaners or the early inflatables that he simply positioned on mirrored tiles. So in a way the readymade took him to these consumer objects, but then very soon thereafter he started reproducing readymades by fabricating them himself. 

At the same time, you see certainly more traditional aspects of sculpture in Jeff's work, like the very notion of the mimesis of a representational object, in terms of creating something that's a perfect copy. In some cases, Jeff has brought that classical notion back around to meet the readymade, so the sculptures constitute an art-historical 360—for instance, with the sculpture of a lobster hanging on a chain, it looks just like the object it’s representing, but it took many years and many hands to perfectly replicate that object. Some people might say that Jeff is Duchamp’s greatest interpreter in sculpture, but it's an almost perverse understanding of Duchamp. Jeff would basically spend all this time and energy to recreate things when Duchamp showed that you didn’t need to do anything other than find an object and claim it as art. Jeff's work is caught in these cross hairs, with his sculptures functioning as a perfect found object on the one hand, and then as a perfect replica on the other. Where those two aspects come in and out of alignment is very interesting in his work.  

The verisimilitude of his sculptures is breathtaking—it's nearly impossible to tell, or believe, whether an object is "real" or not in his work. 

Another way you could talk about Jeff in the tradition of sculpture is the way that he’s engaged industrial fabrication, diverging from Duchamp's found objects and operating more like Donald Judd in terms of customization, going to fabricators and having them make things from the artist's specifications. Jeff has pushed that legacy further than any other artist in terms of the standards and level of detail with which he produces his work, and there's an essay in the exhibition catalogue by [Artforum editor] Michelle Kuo that argues that he is producing objects at a level that's higher even than science or industry today, with elements of his sculptures that are more exacting and complicated than equipment made by the aerospace industry. The standards are higher, the tolerance for imperfection lower. 

His relationship to materials is also very interesting. With his casting, he works with the traditional bronze, or sometimes non-traditional materials like stainless steel, using an ancient process in a way that is unexpected and which brings new meaning to his work and its conversation with history. His use of artisanal craftsmanship stands out too. For the pieces from the "Banality" series, or the carved wooden or porcelain pieces in "Made in Heaven," he was going to craftsmen in Bavaria and Italy who were making tchotchkes or religious sculptures or porcelain figurines and getting them to make contemporary artworks. It was a radical idea and it was very disturbing to people who saw them in the beginning, because it seemed that kitsch and an engagement with popular culture were not only reflected in their subjects—as was the case with the works of Lichtenstein and Warhol—but also in their materials and the way they were produced.  

You mentioned "Banality," his breakout 1988 series, and I think one could argue that all of Koons's art could fall under that rubric—everything from the comic-book characters and Michael Jackson statue to the lawn ornaments and inflatable pool toys are artifacts of suburban, middle-class, middle-American, middlebrow cultural cliches. I wonder, what is it about his art or his biography that preoccupies him so much with themes of banality and kitsch? 

You know, Jeff actually doesn’t like the word kitsch, because he finds it implies a kind of value judgment. When you call something kitsch, it’s generally critical, but he himself is trying to accept a kind of broad, democratic sense of taste. Whether one agrees with that or not, I feel like he has a kind of uncanny connoisseur’s eye for the tchotchkes and gewgaws that decorate our lives, and he's able to zero in on the ones that have a strange power, whether it’s a little Bob Hope figurine or the inflatable animals, which are themselves representations of other things. There’s a kind of double remove at play in the way that a lot of his subjects depict other things, and I think that's crucial to his thinking around those objects. He has always talked about his childhood in York, Pennsylvania, and his father’s decorating store there, where he gained a sensitivity to the inner life and emotional texture of some of these objects. That’s something he's very close to and mines with a kind of expansiveness on the one hand, and a tremendous precision on the other. 

It's so interesting that his father had a decorating store.

Yes, his father sold home décor, sofas, furniture, and other kinds of things. All of that was very influential to Jeff’s life, and he remains inspired by that background in his work like "Gazing Ball," one of his most recent series, which comes from his observations of the decorative objects in people’s backyards in rural Pennsylvania.

While I was looking back on Koons's work, I came across one of his famous Artforum ads from the 1980s that relates to the "Banality" series whic shows him standing in front of a middle-school class with the words "Banality as savior" and "Exploit the masses" on the blackboard behind him. This idea of uplift and salvation through art is something that pervades his work, and also the way he discusses it, but the idea of exploitation puts an unexpected current through it. What does he mean by "exploit" here? 

I don’t know what exactly he meant by that, but the way I would interpret it in the context of that ad is that, for him, he’s embracing banality. In terms of exploiting the masses, I don’t think he means it in a sense of alienated labor, in a Marxist sense; I think he means exploiting the tastes of the masses and the consensus of banality through the films, toys, and other things that we as society have chosen to imbue with value and proliferate widely. He has often said that art has a relatively limited power in mass culture compared to, let's say, a filmmaker or a pop star like Michael Jackson, and so he has a great interest in bringing art to that different level of cultural communication with a broader audience. Also, the fact that the ad you mentioned ran in Artforum magazine, which he would have seen as the most Mandarin and highbrow of all the contemporary art magazines, would give a phrase like “exploit the masses” a kind of double meaning.

In terms of the uplift in his art, I'm fascinated by the way he frames his artistic project as one of actualization, almost in the manner of a motivational speaker. What do you make of Koons's way of publicly framing his work? 

Well, what Jeff says about his work and what I might think about his work are not necessarily the same thing, although I'm interested in everything he says because it often suggests the thinking behind his pieces. When Jeff made the "Banality" series, in his mind the idea was that he was leading and encouraging people to accept their innate taste, or their childhood taste, that they were eventually told was wrong by more sophisticated people or their education, just as "Made in Heaven" was encouraging people to accept their sexuality and nakedness without shame. Now, I don’t believe that either one of those series actually does those things. They're crucial ideas for his understanding of why he needs to make those works, but it’s very unlikely that people viewing those objects in "Banality" suddenly think, “Oh, wow, isn’t it terrific that I like porcelain ashtrays.” Even Jeff hardly has those objects in his own life.   

In the same way, I don’t think anyone who looked at the pictures of him and Cicciolina having sex together would suddenly be ready to embrace some kind of public sexuality. So I do want to make that distinction, but getting back to Jeff’s own thinking and that evangelical tone, I definitely believe that he is preaching a kind of gospel of acceptance, of affirmation. I think this is one of the things that's troubling about him to critics who expect a contemporary artist to be critical of prevailing culture rather than complicit with it.

I would say, however, that if one distances oneself a little from Jeff's own rhetoric and looks at these objects, they aren't all as charming and celebratory as Jeff might say they are. There's something almost monstrous about turning up the volume on cute so high, or about making a stuffed animal that children cuddle with into something that is actually hard and cold, or expanding a cat on a clothesline to monumental proportions that make it a bit menacing. I think there's a dark side, and even a malevolence, to Jeff’s work that's part of what makes it interesting to me.  

The "Made in Heaven" series is certainly Koons's most bizarrely outré body of work. What is your reading of the strange, tragic, and incredibly complex Cicciolina episode?

Well, I think it’s one of the most fascinating episodes in Jeff’s work and life, and in the whole relationship of art and the artist to the spectacle of celebrity culture. It’s very common now to see artists in fashion magazines and party pictures, but this is something that only emerged as a fact of life in the mid-1980s. Although certain artists like Andrew Wyeth or Dalí or Warhol had exposure to mainstream media, they were often oddities from another realm, and it wasn’t until the explosion of the market in the mid-'80s that artists started appearing in places like Page 6 and being talked about not just for their work but for whom they were dating and where they went out to eat. I think Jeff became fascinated with this transition in artistic culture, and at the same time he, himself, was becoming quite famous, so he decided to add another element of stardom to his belt by becoming a film star. And who did he happen to choose as his costar? One of the most famous women in the world, who was not only a porn star but an Italian parliamentarian. 

One thing that's interesting about "Made in Heaven" is that the project began as a relationship between an artist and his model, since he hired Cicciolina to pose in those pictures, and then as their relationship progressed they fell in love and it became an intimate personal experience. And as they fell in love, the work became more and more explicit about their love and, dare I say, their lovemaking. So what’s fascinating to me is that he gives us a rare chapter in the history of self-portraiture, to see an artist—certainly a male artist—showing so much of himself and going so far and so thoroughly blurring the line between his life and his work.

Because I don’t think it would be that interesting if Jeff merely took naked pictures of himself having sex with someone, nor would it be that interesting if he merely married one of the most famous women in the world. But the fact that he was able to show this side of himself with someone who was so notorious was an extremely risky, even crazy, proposition. Part of what gives the work its power is the fact that it's still so unassimilable. In a way, it was an experience in fame that makes one think about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and that whole process is mirrored in the work.   

It's tempting to say that "Made in Heaven" marked a break from the subject of banality in Koons's art, but one could probably call straight male fantasies about buxom blond Italian porn stars kind of banal in a sort of erotically hypertrophied way. 

In terms of it being a heterosexual fantasy, with the banality of the busty blonde, I would say that I don't think the images they make are banal in terms of being approximations of pornography. You know, at the time they were debuted, they were savagely attacked, especially by feminist critics who saw them as misogynist, with Jeff in the preying role of a dominant mating male—especially at the height of the AIDS crisis, this was seen as extremely heterosexist and problematic. I do think there's something problematic with the images, but I think it's hard to dismiss them as being traditional affirmations of machismo domination.

You have to remember that Jeff is appearing in the trappings of Cicciolina’s own very well-honed corporate empire—those are her sets and her costumes in the scenes, and she’s quite powerful in the context because she was the one responsible for the unusual and characteristic look of the porn. Also, by the end of the series, Jeff is wearing a tremendous amount of pancake makeup, he’s done a lot of exercise to improve his physique, and he's clipped his body hair long before "manscaping" became acceptable among straight people. There's something very queer about some of those pictures, seeing this grown man wearing a lot of eye shadow, surrounded by a retinue of sparkly butterflies. So I think one should hesitate to pin the series down to stereotypic ideas of gender because it’s in fact quite scrambled in those pictures. 

The "Made in Heaven" series then transitions awfully into the "Celebration" series, because while the "Celebration" sculptures are the most famous elements of Koons's oeuvre, they also arise from his heartbreaking separation from his son, Ludwig, after Cicciolina refused to let him see the boy for years after their divorce. The sculptures were gestures of love on a grand scale from a father to his son, putting them arguably in the same category of outpourings of grief occupied by Picasso's blue period. Is that series now completed?

No, it’s not completed. We’re expecting to premiere the giant Play-Doh sculpture that Jeff has been working on for 20 years in the show, but even after that there are other objects from the series that have yet to be finally fabricated, including a sculpture of a party hat and other editions that are not complete. He’s not designing new works to be part of it, but it remains ongoing—it’s just a matter of completing those that are underway. But I think the "Celebration" series is one of Jeff’s most important series, and I think that it's true that there's a sense of joy and exuberance and this desire to suggest a cycle of a life marked by happy occasions.

But, on the other hand, there's a kind of pathos to it because it was inspired by the loss of Ludwig, who was abducted by his mother. Even without that knowledge, one senses it somehow in the coldness and perfection of the objects, and there's a weird paradox to the objects that evoke these archetypal emotions but are also physically devoid of human touch. And the scale makes them somehow hard to grab onto, but the scale is important because it makes these ordinary things into monuments of an abstract archetype for an emotional occasion.

Outside of their artistic content, the sculptures in the "Celebration" series have also become signs of wealth—everyone knows that his five Balloon Dogs are owned by the world's richest collectors. How critical is it for Koons's sculptures that they are the quintessential luxury item, and how does that affect their reading as works of art?

I think it’s very crucial. Much earlier in his career Jeff was already playing with the artwork as an object of desire and possibly financial speculation. If you look at some of the sculptures from the '80s, such as the "Luxury and Degradation" series with the Jim Beam train, he's playing with the idea of casting an object in stainless steel so that it looks like silver, making it seem precious even though it’s a common thing. He wanted to intoxicate you with the seduction of the surface, and of course the train itself is a vessel for alcohol, which is obviously intoxicating. So he was very aware of these objects becoming market fetishes—in a way, they consciously acknowledge their status as such, whereas many expensive works of art make no pretense towards their value. A painting by Robert Ryman, for instance, doesn't look expensive in and of itself, but it might look expensive if you understand the taste of the people who own them. 

In Jeff’s case, there's a very complicated relationship between him and his patrons. Above all, he needs the prices of his work to remain high in order to keep on working, and that’s very different from Jasper Johns or Brice Marden, who might make paintings that sell for millions of dollars but whose actual costs in terms of materials and studio space are relatively low. When it comes to Jeff, without a buoyant market there can be no work. So already that puts him in a very different relationship to these people—he effectively needs to get some of the richest collectors in the world, as you said, to collaborate on the creation of what are essentially multiples, and how he has to do that is fascinating to me. For all the talk about markets and his own personal wealth, I don't think he ever set out to make himself rich from his art. If that had been the priority, he would have had to try to a different business model, because the one he chose was quite risky, actually.

One aspect of Koons's career that has largely gotten short shrift for years has been his paintings—which is strange because his paintings are astonishing. How are you treating them in the show?

The paintings have a very strong presence in the show. Since the beginning of his career, Jeff has always worked with painting in one way or another, and you know almost all of his early series had 2-D wall-mounted work that occupied the space as paintings, whether they were appropriated Nike ads or were printed on canvas. Those paintings were not handmade oil paintings, of course, and that shift comes with "Easyfun" and "Celebration," when you start to see a painterly hand on the surface, whether it's Jeff's or not, and you can tell that they are oil paintings. And many of those paintings are quite wonderful—they often get a knock for being somewhat too close to James Rosenquist, but I think that when you look at them in person they are different in two fundamental ways.  

One has to do with the composition, which becomes more and more intricate and complex in a manner that, to me, has always referenced Photoshop and computer drawing, with all these interlocking layers and the idea of sending elements to the extreme front or back of a composition. Then, of course, the way they are actually painted is mind-boggling in its detail and complexity, with his studio now using laser-cut stencils derived from computer files that break images down into thousands of small points that are all precisely correlated by color. If you really look at them in person, up-close, you get a sense of a surface that you haven’t seen before. I hope that this show will bring out these qualities, through the judicious selection and very precise placement of these paintings.

One of the three artists most associated with the mid-aughts art boom—the others being Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami—Koons seems to have come out the strongest. Unlike the others, he has never fully embraced the market as core part of his art, at least in such obvious way. Do you believe Koons's mind is in a different place vis a vis the fusing of art and commodity culture, or do you think he has just played the game better? 

Although Murakami, Koons, and Hirst are often compared, I would say they are fundamentally very different artists. Hirst and Murakami have used the market almost as a medium in itself, whether in Hirst's many shows of spot paintings or Murakami's simultaneous approach to multiple platforms. The closest Koons ever came to this was in debuting his three "Banality" shows almost at once in different cities and trumpeting them with glossy magazine ads that pictured him as the art star he had become.

But, in general, he has a more traditional approach to object-making, and has produced far fewer multiples than the other two, or even someone like Jasper Johns. His emphasis on perfection and his production demands don't allow for it. He needs the market, however, to gather the resources to make these very costly objects. Again, in that sense his ability to produce his art is in some sense directly dependent on his prices remaining high enough to make the math work. And I think the objects themselves demonstrate this uncanny self-consciousness about their place in the world and the financial systems that buoy them through it. This is very different from a very expensive painting by Johns. 

What would you say are Koons's most radical artistic achievements?

I think he's broken down so many boundaries, where most artists would be lucky to surpass just one. He has a completely radical approach to industrial production and manufacture, as he has had to self-portraiture and celebrity, as in the "Made in Heaven" period. There's also the way that his works have brazenly addressed and complicated their status as market fetishes. There is the extreme emotion and morbidity in some of his best pieces, and his brazen look into the maw of kitsch. He's constantly testing limits about what an artwork and an artist can be. Even the idea of being so popular with a mass audience and also trying to retain critical and curatorial respectability is a risky gambit that very few artists have pulled off.

In many respects, it's surprising that this is the first major Koons retrospective, considering that his work is such an obvious popular draw. The Guggenheim considering mounting one for a time but then gave up. What are the challenges in putting together this kind of show? Was there an issue with fabrication costs?

The challenges for us don't really have to do with the cost of fabricating works, since those are covered by Koons, his collectors, and his dealers. However, we did face the challenge of crucial works being fabricated on time for the opening, and a few were being painted just last week. The show, of course, is extremely costly to mount, and this has to do with a myriad of factors like the unwieldiness of some of the objects and the rigging required to get them in the building. But there are also the very great precautions one must take in moving such fragile objects of such high value. The combination of all of these factors is a kind of perfect storm, but our team rose to the occasion in an amazing way. 

Having organized this show stretching throughout the Whitney, and having had a hand in conceiving the curatorial spaces of the new building downtown, what kind of advice do you have for the Met in terms of showing art in the Breuer building? 

I've loved working in the Breuer building, but I'm also very excited about the move downtown, where we'll be able to do even more. I think the key at the Breuer has been to understand the scale and physicality of the space, but that's pretty much true anywhere one works. The Met has a very talented curatorial team, and I'm sure they will do great things.

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