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Koons, Whitney, Wynn and My “Greater Fool” Theory of Trophy Art

At the Jeff Koons press preview, L to R: Whitney directorAdam Weinberg, Pompidou Center director Alain Seban, Jeff Koons Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

L to R at Jeff Koons press preview: Whitney director Adam Weinberg, Pompidou Center president Alain Seban, Koons
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Having dutifully ingested the Whitney Museum’s press preview for its monumental Jeff Koons retrospective (to Oct. 19) and then gagged on the laudatory commentary from two major critics whom I greatly admire, I hesitated to publicly air my indigestion, figuring it would likely reveal more about my own limitations than that of the art.

But Tuesday’s contrarian (and, to my mind, astute) review by Peter Plagens in the Wall Street Journal emboldened me to say what I came to feel about this perplexingly and aggressively vapid show: The only way Koons’ voluminous oeuvre makes any sense to me is as an elaborate hoax to make fools of art critics, curators and collectors.

If that’s his project, he has succeeded.

It’s not as if he hasn’t given us intriguing clues about possibly sly intent (assuming that I’m right—admittedly, a stretch). The most recent hint of a subversive campaign is his now famous emperor-has-no-clothes photo in Vanity Fair. It certainly got the attention of NY Times critic Roberta Smith, who gushed on Twitter that the naked artist (whose image she appended to her tweet) appeared “very muscular considering his whimpiness (sic) when clothed. Mapplethorpesque: the gloves & chain!” (I’d say: “the smoke & mirrors!”)

Koons repeatedly lays it on the line. He calls his most kitschy series “Banality,” so we don’t have to:

"Banality" at the Whitney Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Whitney “Banality”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As Ariella Budick noted in her skeptical Financial Times review: “There’s no opprobrium a critic can hurl at him that Koons himself hasn’t already pre-empted.”

But that doesn’t stop label-writing curators from trying to inflate his empty works with gassy words. I previously punctured Koons puffery near the end of this post, where I scoffed at the interpretive baggage with which the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, had saddled Koons’ stainless steel bunny: “Sometimes,” I noted, “a rabbit is just a rabbit.”

The Whitney’s wall text for “Banality” credits that series as being “a critique in which the cute becomes monstrous and the banal turns subversive and menacing.” But like me, Alain Seban, president of the Pompidou Center, Paris (where the Whitney show will travel), finds no such critique and takes Koons at face value.

Here’s what Seban told me at the Whitney’s press preview:

There is no doubt that this show [at the Pompidou] will be a huge success. But it will be controversial—perhaps more controversial than it is here, because the one position that Jeff takes as an artist, which is difficult to understand for the French public, is that this work is not critical [emphasis added]. It’s about enjoying life, enjoying ideas, enjoying the senses. It is not ironic.

This is hard to understand for the French public. [Whatever happened to joie de vivre?] That will be the issue of the show for an audience that tends to be very critical, especially in this period, which is a difficult period for Europe and for the country.

Koons’ market makers—his dealers, auction houses and mega-collectors—appear to be playing a complicated game, led by gallery mogul Larry Gagosian, who is a megabucks player in the Whitney extravaganza. It used to be considered bad practice for a museum to accept major financial backing (beyond a catalogue subsidy) from an artist’s commercial dealer. Am I quaint in believing that this should still be the guiding principle?

Whitney director Adam Weinberg apparently has no qualms about accepting a dealer’s largesse. Not only was the Whitney up-front about Gagosian Gallery’s “leadership support” (the only donor so designated). Weinberg also glowingly touted it to the press:

I’m deeply grateful to Larry Gagosian for his tremendous support. Thanks you, Larry. There are few dealers who would come to the forefront to really support at this level [emphasis added].

Maybe the reluctance of other dealers is a good thing: Nonprofit museums should condone neither the actuality nor the appearance of pay-to-play. Reliance on funding from self-interested commercial sources should be eschewed, not extolled. Otherwise, the perception, if not the reality, is that such sponsorship can influence who gets major shows and who doesn’t.

The less obvious market makers in the too-big-to-fail Koons enterprise are his mega-collectors. Casino mogul Steve Wynn made an interesting play when he very publicly purchased Koons’ eye-popping “Popeye” last May at Sotheby’s, matching its $25-million presale estimate ($28.17-million with fees). It appears that he’s now trying to flip it for more than twice that.

Here’s what I dyspeptically tweeted about this glitzy trophy after the auction house’s May 2 press preview:

Here it is on display at Wynn Las Vegas:

Screenshot from Wynn Las Vegas' video of newly installed Koons

Screenshot from Wynn Las Vegas’ video of the newly installed Koons

Let’s take a close-up look at the plaque in front of “Popeye,” as briefly glimpsed in Wynn’s video:


“PRICE AVAILABLE ON REQUEST,” it says at the bottom of the label. So I phoned the hotel’s concierge and requested.

The representative to whom I was transferred said the price was $60 million. I repeated the figure, to make sure that I had heard correctly. Stunned, I neglected to ask if that amount was negotiable.

In another case of overreach, Christie’s tried to pump the price of what becames the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction—the $58.4-million “Balloon Dog (Orange)”—by mounting what I described as the most “wildly excessive binge of presale promotion” I had ever witnessed.

The luster of that price dimmed somewhat after Graham Bowley revealed in the NY Times the amazing concessions that the consignor—mega-collector Peter Brant—had wrung from the auction house:

To secure his business, the house waived the seller’s commission, he [Brant] said, and then, as a sweetener, gave him a large share of the buyer’s fees.

“I was not required to give them anything from the buyer’s commission until it reached a certain price—which it did not make,” Mr. Brant said….

Factor in Christie’s other costs…and the possibility of [the auction house’s] making lots of money seems to be limited.

I’ll give Koons the last word. Here’s what he said to me five years ago (at a press preview at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, CT), in response to my question soliciting his thoughts on his market:

I’ve always felt that I led my generation, to a certain degree, as an artist. I wanted to be very active. I always wanted to be an artist in the front lines and if I was in the trenches, you could depend on me. I would be there.

But as far as the economical aspect, I think that if you do things and you’re committed to participating, then automatically people are there to give support and to give encouragement for you to follow your endeavors. And that’s what I’ve always felt about the market.

I’ll also give Koons the last object—a mountainous, vibrantly complex composition, only recently completed and (deservedly) widely acclaimed:

Jeff Koons, "Play-Doh," 20TK-2014, Collection of TK Bell Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Jeff Koons, “Play-Doh,” 1994-2014, polychromed aluminum, Bill Bell Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In case you’d like one, the Whitney label helpfully tells us that it’s “one of five unique versions.” But to Play, you’ll undoubtedly need a lot of Doh (duh, “dough”).

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