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Back To Koons: More Food For Thought

hoover-singleSo far, the most thoughtful review I’ve read of the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney is by Thomas Micchelli of Hyperallergic Weekend. It starts well, noting that excepting the vacuum cleaners, “…The rest of the work, however, with few exceptions, reveals itself to be as thin, puerile and derivative as the artist’s harshest critics would expect. But to take Koons’s art to task for the hollowness at its core is shooting fish in a barrel — a truism that leads us nowhere.”

Most of us have been content to dismiss Koons, blame his fame on loose money and people lacking taste, shake our heads and leave it at that. But not Micchelli, who continued:

The endgame it presents is that of a once-aspiring culture — the dream of a bold and unruly American art, symbolized by the Whitney’s audacious Marcel Breuer building — collapsing into philistinism and sentimentality, a surrender to the leveling forces of consumerism.

At the same time, its exaltation of kitsch is unapologetically legitimized by a corporate art establishment invoking an aesthetic that’s more than 100 years old, rooted in Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (which were invented in the run-up to the First World War) and refined by Andy Warhol a half-century ago. Koons’s contribution to this entrenched tradition is his unmatchable verisimilitude and material finesse, qualities that enshrine a strain of American provincialism — measuring the success of a work of art by its resemblance to its subject — against which proponents of Modernism have been struggling ever since Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded her museum in 1914.

It goes on, with good analysis using several choice words, including: “fussy meticulousness,” “clunky obviousness,” “puzzling capriciousness,” and “faux-democratic,” among many others. 

I recommend it to Koons’ fans and detractors alike. Whether the latter like it or not, Koons is “important” enough to know about.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Whitney


  1. Really? says:

    How very Hilton Kramer of you both. Implicating Duchamp in the start of World War I was a nice touch, but how you neglected to implicate Warhol in Vietnam is puzzling. Clearly a missed opportunity.

    • This is not me — it’s a reviewer, as you will see if you read the post. Whatever you think it’s shortcomings are, he makes some points that have not been made this way before. He is an artist as well as a critic.

    • Chris Crosman says:

      Micchelli is spot on. I would only argue with Judith’s assessment that Koons is “‘important’ enough to know about.” Even the basketballs deflate when compared to what David Hammons did with asphalt and his pointed reference to American culture’s false promises and athletic dead-ends for black youth–much more in keeping with Duchamp than anything Koons could even conceive of.

  2. Scott Redford says:

    I’m sorry it’s not true all this hasn’t been articulated before, it has. What you are pointing out is that the anti-Koons gang never were concise in their anti-ness. They just hated the work. But Micchelli is very dumb to only pick on Duchamp when Koons was the first contemporary artist to have a solo show at Versailles. In that project Koons clearly reached back to Roccoco (a common referents for Koons) and triangulated a circuit between himself and Louis XIV and ‘the public’. Many anti Koons people would just dismiss this as more kitsch hubris BUT what Koons is really implying is that the Public is actually the new Louis and Koons is serving them as he once would have served the King. So it’s a bit neat that Micchelli just focuses on the Whitney building with some anti USA thrown in (French sounding surname he has?). Koons is just at the Whitney, I have never heard him discuss the the points Micchelli invents to put Koons down. So the whole critique is about Micchelli and not Koons as such.

  3. Hi Judith,

    Artists mirror their times … narsasists mirror theirselves.

    Jeff has given his demons, which appear to be legion, permission to leave his person and run riot. Pandora and Jeff should have shown more restraint. Fussy meticulousness aside, so what, … the Whitney has invited us to a feast and served us faux food. What is even more troubling than the art itself are the people and a culture that has supported it this point. Shallow people have always been dazzled by bright and shiney things … and snarky kitsch.

    Ron Hartgrove

    • Phlogiston says:

      NARCISSISTS. Do people no longer read or at least check dictionaries to learn how to spell any more?

      Thank you for the link, Ms. Dobrzynski. Micchelli makes excellent points about this charlatan who nevertheless embodies an important aspect of our contemporary society. He and his artwork are its id.

  4. One of the tenets of modern art is that form matters and content is irrelevant. Yet it’s the content of Koons’ work that has started all the firefights, both here and in the official press. The black granite Popeye that Micchelli uses to illustrate his article looks monumental and ravishing; if it weren’t a statue of Popeye (if it were Akhnaten), commenters might be focusing on its material splendor.

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