Distasteful as it may be to bestow such an accolade on someone who traffics so brazenly in the shallow, the banal, the meretricious, and the cheap, he really is the most important artist of our time. Koons is the avatar of a new kind of art and a new kind of art world, both of which he helped to create.After the unremitting barrage of hype and market talk, the Whitney show makes it possible to take a dispassionate measure of Koons’s achievement. The result is sobering. The work looks oddly out of place at the Whitney, as if it had somehow washed up there accidentally. And right out of the gate it becomes clear that Koons doesn’t have enough ideas to sustain a retrospective on this scale. On the second floor, where the show begins, the elevator deposits you into a gallery filled with eight of the works from his “The New” series (each body of work comes with its own title) that put him on the map in the early 1980s. These are pairs of vacuum cleaners stacked in Lucite cases and illuminated with fluorescent lights—commercially manufactured household appliances displayed as if they were holy relics. In keeping with the avant-garde ethos of the time, Koons here is critiquing society’s habit of turning anything and everything into a salable commodity. Showing two would have made the point; six is padding. This sets the pattern for the entire exhibition.
Sounds about right. Koons is the maven of the marketplace:
In my view, too little attention has been paid to Koons’s five-year career selling mutual funds and commodities on Wall Street in the 1980s. It is the key to understanding his art. So much of what Koons has done and the way he has done it bears the stamp of an astute entrepreneur rather than an artist. The rollout of each neatly packaged and titled series resembles the test marketing of the latest product line more than the unveiling of “new work”—an artist’s latest démarche. This is particularly noticeable in Koons’s early pieces, produced from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. It is too tidy, missing the mix of unevenness, eclecticism, and general messiness that is the hallmark of a conventional apprenticeship phase. Then there is Koons’s persona. He’s no brooding Romantic loner. Rather, Koons is the affable pitchman, nattily dressed in a suit and tie, ready with a smile and some soothing patter with which to reassure or elucidate the confused spectator. He’s even willing to abase himself just a little in the interests of self-promotion, as he did this summer in a Vanity Fair photo shoot showing him pumping iron in the buff.
Indeed, there’s a sense in which Koons isn’t really at home in the role of artist. He possesses no real imaginative gifts and doesn’t seem to understand what artists do. Real artists take raw material and transform it. Even a Duchamp readymade is transformed, through its altered context rather than changes to its physical form. By contrast, Koons’s “transformations” are mostly sideways moves—increases of scale, replication in another material, the addition of little embellishments like flowers or colored spheres that he calls “gaze balls.” The original object remains largely as it was.H/t 3QD. Cf. Business Art, Reconsidered, at a blade of grass.