Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994-2000. Stainless steel, 10 ft x 12 ft x 45 in.

The Pre-New, The New, and the Post-New

The secret is out. A classy survey of Jeff Koons’ work, covering 25 years of outrageousness at C & M Arts (45 E. 78th St., through June 5), proves that Pop Art never died. Was I the only one to call certain art of the ’80s Neo-Pop? That can’t be; it’s so obvious now when you look at Koons’ work that he was doing Pop, and still is. By using the prefix neo, I was probably referring to the fact that Pop itself at first was called Neo-Dada, thereby showing its roots. But now I have something bigger, better, and newer to say.

This is my third piece about Pop: the first, on Erro, tried to show a wider purview than is common; the second, on Indiana, is an update that readjusts some ancient proclamations; and now the Koons show gives me a chance not only to write a bit about that much-maligned artist, but also to suggest an even bigger adjustment when it comes to looking at art styles and their academically and commercially imposed tenures.

Pop is commonly thought to be the remaking, presentation or quotation of common, preexisting, mostly mass-produced objects and images. Furthermore, the artist’s hand has to be fairly invisible. Koons’ floating Spalding basketballs and bronze Aqualung (both 1985) qualify, as do his stainless-steel balloon Rabbit (1986), his ceramic Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), and certainly his recent gigantic Balloon Dog (Orange). But the dates are wrong. Wasn’t Pop supposed to be replaced by Neo-Expressionism or Neo-Geo or any number of new categories?

I happen to have on hand a Koons chapbook picked up as a cheap remainder at the Strand bookstore, one of my haunts. One section in the hilarious The Jeff Koons Handbook (Thames and Hudson, 1992, o.p.) is devoted to two pre-Pure Product works, the encased and pristine cleaning products I have always loved. It’s called “The Pre-New,” followed by signature works labeled, of course, “The New” and then “Equilibrium,” “Luxury” and “Degradation,” and so forth, ending with “Puppy.” Some, while agreeing Koons is and always has been a latter-day Pop artist, might prefer to call all of his work the Post-New. But when you come to think of it, what is so new about new?

Consumers even want the old (the post-new) to be new. Therefore, calling Koons’ wonderful vacuum cleaners or his floating basketballs Pop or Neo-Pop or Late Pop way back when they were first put on the market could not, would not have worked. Every detergent has to be brand new, and brand new every year.

The issue is not that Pop Art went away, which it clearly didn’t, but that so many wanted it to go away. It is probably really true, as stated by one of the New York Times’ many reviewers, that there are some who think of “Mr. Koons as Andy Warhol’s evil son.” (When will the Times stop using “Mr.” and “Mrs., “Miss,” or “Ms.” — by request — for living artists? I remember even Louis Nevelson being referred to as Mrs. Nevelson and Betty Parson as Mrs. Parsons, honoring long-gone husbands and relationships of little note.)

Andy Warhol’s evil son? Give me a break.

It was not and is not now a question of abstraction against representation, high culture versus low, irony opposed to sincerity. It was not a question of heterosexuality versus homosexuality. Koons, like most of the Pop artists, is not gay, as proven by his highly publicized marriage to and documented sexploits with La Cicciolina, once a porn star and member of the Italian parliament.

Only two out of seven of the Pure Popsters, by my count, qualifies as gay. That the two leading Proto-Pop artists are gay (and a third was bisexual) annoyed the macho but failing abstract expressionist camp is ancient history. Irony is not necessarily gay.

Pop had to die. The acceleration of art history must be maintained for both “academic” and marketing reasons. It was not merely that all the art critics had said what they wanted to say about Pop and wanted something new to write about. New critical and curatorial and collectorial (to coin a word) reputations needed to be made. Furthermore, collectors who bought Pop the first time around might too easily say, No thank you, I already have some of that.

Well, now that we have what amounts to a small museum retrospective of Koons’ work, and there are other, younger Pop artists such and Damien Hirst to avoid calling Pop, we can look at Koons more objectively.

If I remember correctly, Koons was once scheduled for a full retrospective at the Guggenheim. Could he have stood up to the space? Matthew Barney could not and now will have to direct a full-scale Hollywood musical to be redeemed. Luckily we now have a sampling of Koons masterpieces, capped off by the gigantic Balloon Dog (Orange). Koons may be uneven, but he still has many an icon up his sleeve.

Like almost everyone else, I am not enamored of the paintings. And I think there are far too many of the ceramics and carved, wooden sculptures. Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) is perfect and so is Ushering in Banality (cute kids guiding a hog!). I even like his Bourgeois Bust — Jeff and Ilona (a 1991 marble sculpture) and wish I could see again some of the “pornographic” glass works he showed at Sonnebend so long ago.

However, now the truth can be told. Over the past 25 years, Koon has managed to fill in the Pop Art sculpture gap. Leaving aside Warhol’s brilliant Brillo boxes and his floating silver pillows, Oldenburg is the Pop sculptor. (George Segal might also be important here if he is not more American Scene than Pop, but that is another argument.) Koons’ 1986 Rabbit, the flower Puppy, and now Balloon Dog are Pop Art masterpieces.

Pop, like Realisms of various kinds, might be perennial. Realism is based on how the world looks, and because the world changes, realism is constantly renewed. There are many more images than there are ideas. Based on popular culture, which keeps changing, Pop too is bound to show changes in subject matter, whereas abstract art (totally abstract art, that is) points to what does not change. That abstract art changes may mean that it is not all that abstract.

But, my ever-present friend and enemy The Devil’s Advocate might ask: Isn’t Koons, with his background as a successful MoMA membership salesman and stockbroker, one of the most obnoxious artists who ever lived?

Answers: Salesmanship is part of art. MoMA is selling art to the public. And, don’t forget, Gauguin was a stockbroker.

Wasn’t Koons always full of himself?

Answers: All artists are obnoxious and full of themselves. If you are not, you are simply ignored. I have seen many billboard self-proclamations that X or Y is the greatest artist who has ever lived. Just this week in front of the entrance to the Gagosian de Kooning retrospective in Chelsea an artist or his designate in a pink bunny suit held a sign proclaiming Z the greatest artist of this new century. The difference is that Koons actually has talent.

But, continues The Devil’s Advocate, what about his insufferable statements?

Such as?

“I have my finger on the eternal.” Or: “A viewer might at first see irony in my work, but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.”

Answer: Maybe he was being ironic.

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We are in a period of art history in which even the director of the Museum of Modern Art can state that art history is not linear; hence, as reported recently, the galleries in the new MoMA building will have multiple doorways so that that the viewer will not be forced down a single path.
Why then cannot we admit that art styles, like Pop, might continue beyond their premature burials? Is this situation unique to Pop? I don’t think so; Minimal Art and Conceptual Art (and there variants and combination) have lived beyond their reported funerals. In regard to Minimal Art, “Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated)” at the Guggenheim, through May 19, puts Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Gober and Allan McCollum, among others, in the same bed as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin.

I did write, many blogs ago, that it might be interesting to see Rosenquist (as well as de Kooning and Rauschenberg) as latter-day Cubists. We may now also need a new, expanded view of Pop. We could start, for instance, by seeing Audrey Flack and early Malcolm Morley as Pop and end, not with Koons, but some of the British artists.

Since galleries are now doing museum-quality surveys (e.g. Koons at C & M, de Kooning at Gagosian), what is left for the museums to do? Perhaps exhibitions with content? With ideas? Exhibitions that question the academically received ways of looking at art styles?

True, art history is not linear. But it is also not made up of neat little gravestones, such as Here Lies Pop Art, 1961 – 1968. Just because Warhol was shot in 1968 doesn’t mean his or anyone else’s Pop Art was over. Another way of looking at art is to see that it is the critical spotlight (or nowadays, the marketing spotlight) that moves about, leaving a lot of art in the dark. And when someday we turn on the houselights, what will we see?

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