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I Found the Sublime in Jeff Koons (and No One Agreed With Me)

I Found the Sublime in Jeff Koons (and No One Agreed With Me)
Jeff Koons's balloon animal sculptures

Call it the art critic's lament. Faced with gnomic contemporary art, I can't help but try to make sense of the stuff. The problem is, when I rehearse my ideas in excited conversation with my pals, they all give me argument.

Talk about being out of step. You think you're brilliant but nobody else seems to care. Common enough in our world, I suppose, but unnerving all the same. 

It's not like most people have much to say about art in the first place. Ask someone what they think, and you get "I like it," or "meh." That's fine, but hardly the word count you need for a review.

Take, for instance, the notion of the sublime, which strikes me as the theme of New York's early-summer art scene, evident in the three much-talked-about shows by Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy, and James Turrell

The sublime is an 18th-century British notion, via the Roman thinker Longinus, that connects certain artworks to strong feelings, notably awe, wonder, and even transcendence. Simple enough—I just couldn't convince any of my fellow gallery-goers that my diagnoses were apt. 

Take the afternoon I went to Hauser & Wirth on East 68th Street for McCarthy's "Life Cast," which features four human-sized sculptures of a beautiful young woman. Completely nude and with raven tresses, she's like Snow White come to life (the fairy tale is a McCarthy obsession), done to an astonishing degree of verisimilitude. A much less interesting hairy nude replica of the artist himself is found in the rear gallery, laid out like a corpse on a bier, though I gather he is supposed to be only dreaming.

Paul McCarthy at Hauser & Wirth
To me it seemed miraculous, a 21st-century creation mystery brought to us by 3D printing or some other ultra-new computerized sensation. Upstairs are several documentary videos that deconstruct the whole thing, though without detracting much from the marvel. The sculptures are simply body casts made with the help of a stalwart performer and a team of Hollywood F/X specialists (e.g. McCarthy's own Seven Dwarves).

I insisted that the uncanny realism of "Life Cast" is an example of a new technological sublime, the best we can come up with by way of a manifestation of god on the earthly plane: otherworldly artistry embodied in an unfathomable fabrication method.

My audience was unimpressed. Duane Hanson, John De Andrea, Ron Mueck, Evan Penny—they counted off the names. I even thought of my old friend John Ahearn with his painterly life casts of his neighbors in the South Bronx. "It's just Madam Tussaud's," claimed the art dealer Thomas Von Lintel, who knew exactly what I was talking about without even glancing at the iPhone photos I was thrusting upon him. And it's true, in Times Square the wax statue of Samuel L. Jackson that the tourists pose alongside has exactly the same effect. It's a parlor trick, a conversation piece, the essence of kitsch.

I got the same reaction down in Chelsea when I gaped at Koons's balloon animals, which look like they teleported into Gagosian Gallery from another dimension. This terrorizing effect is amplified by the many uniformed guards, whose rather thuggish presence is devoted to prohibiting supplicants from approaching these treasures too closely. The things may be art, the guards seem to say, but they musn't be examined by human senses.

And how perfectly sublime is it that with the balloon animals and other inflatables Koons monumentalizes, their form is literally called into being by breath, like God breathing life into Adam? 

My claims for this balloon art are shot down, so to speak. "You know it's just stainless steel polished within an inch of its life," says artist Millree Hughes, who does a little scenography himself and so is unawed by high-tech specs.

But what about Turrell's awesome new lightspace in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda? Although not really one of his signature "skyscapes," whose cosmological scope reaches out to the very heavens through views of the shifting sky—one of the most elementally sublime experiences—the installation at the Gugg does conjure up ineffable mysteries of light and color, optical phenomenae miraculous both in nature (the rainbow) and in science (the prism). Like with many of his light installations, the effect is uncanny.

James Turrell at the Guggenheim
Then again, the thing is awfully, um, pastel for a "serious" artwork. It is West Coast Light and Space art, against which the New York art mainstream has remained vigilant for so long. And it does share some of its appeal with a red scarf thrown over a lamp, or a string of Christmas lights draped on a mirror. Five minutes after sitting down, the artist Matt Ducklo, who runs a gallery called Tops in Memphis, showed me a jpeg of the multi-hued proscenium arch of a bandstand in his hometown. The similarity was striking.

So, what's a poor critic to do? We just might know too much. But the idea of the sublime is that it comes over you, all on its own, whenever the time is right. 


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