When money and hype recede from the art world, one thing I won’t miss will be what curator Francesco Bonami calls the "Eventocracy." All this flashy "art-fair art" and those highly produced space-eating spectacles and installations wow you for a minute until you move on to the next adrenaline event. Giant heads made of pots and pans; tigers flying through museums; muscle cars buffed by bikini-clad girls; bronze Hello Kitty sculptures in courtyards; enough plywood, plastic, aluminum and steel constructions to wall off Mexico from the U.S. -- big isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t automatically beautiful, either. Some of these projects have been great. Olafur Eliasson’s fluorescent sun-disk, displayed in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003 and 2004, actually got English audiences to momentarily stop reveling in realism in lieu of abstraction. Ditto Doris Salcedo’s work. But most of these "events" are only empty-headed ways of spending money, seducing rubes, saying nothing and elbowing aside anything smaller, quieter, or riskier. It’s like an Elton John concert. Future generations will see that we passed through a super-mannered period where razzmatazz became an end in itself.
That said, one artist who has excelled at this Nouveau Versailles esthetic -- despite never working on a truly giant scale -- is Jeff Koons. Right now two of his three sculptures on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum may send you. They did me. The showstopper up here is Balloon Dog (Yellow), a ten-foot-tall representation of just what it sounds like, made of yellow-tinted high-chromium stainless steel. It’s a cross between a classical equestrian sculpture and a Toys ’R’ Us display, and Koons has called it "a Trojan horse." I think of it as an anti-golden calf. Yet, except for moneybag collectors, no one worships Balloon Dog. It worships us, basking in our presence, displaying its fake luxury (steel, not silver or bronze), and reflecting everything around it in hallucinogenic distortion. The philosopher Thales said, "Everything is full of gods." Balloon Dog is full of everything except gods, a de-deified sculpture that radiates irony and Eros. It’s an updated version of Duchamp’s urinal.
Balloon Dog is also a postmodern fertility symbol or Venus of Willendorf. While its phallic shapes are pretty evident, a hermaphroditic buzz develops as the balloons create vulva-like vortexes where they are twisted together; the pooch’s anus actually resembles a budding flower. Balloon Dog occupies a zone between Platonic contemplation and randy sensation. It isn’t a sacrificial animal to be killed in place of humans; it’s so perfect it exists in some undisturbed eternal state. Call it the reflective sublime.
Coloring Book, the second piece on the roof, is a silvery starfish shape, standing on two feet with a lumpy head and stumpy arms. Based on a drawing of Piglet from a Winnie-the-Pooh coloring book, it’s coated in splotches of magenta, cyan, green and blue. It’s less spectacular than Balloon Dog, yet it may be better because it resolves a problem in Koons’ work that’s been nagging at me for a while.
It was when I saw Koons’ sizzling 60-work retrospective that’s now on view in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art that I started to figure him out. As curated by Bonami, the show has no walls. You see the whole exhibition at once. At first it’s a mess -- like being in a mall. Slowly, however, I grasped that Koons and Bonami had transformed the entire museum into a vitrine and that I was inside it. The show turned into an architectural evocation of Plato’s cave in reverse: Instead of only seeing shadows of reality, you see everything with a vividness and clarity it’s never had before.
With Coloring Book, I began to understand much more about Koons’ work. For years, he has worked on a series of highly realized photo-realist paintings of things like lobsters, employing scores of assistants to make them. Koons has maintained that these paintings refer to Dalí, Warhol and others. Now, saying a lobster refers to Dalí is sort of stupid. But although the paintings are still pointless if looked at only iconographically, they come alive as 21st-century versions of proto-modernism if you confine your gaze to the surface itself. There are no lines to be seen: Koons has meticulously separated every area of paint into a well-defined mass or island that interlocks perfectly with every other area without ever overlapping it. It’s like looking in a microscope and seeing what had formerly been a blur resolve into distinct forms.
That things as mundane as balloon dogs, basketballs, and coloring books can heft such phenomenological weight is a testament to the power of Koons’ art. (But not all of it. The third piece on the Met’s roof, Sacred Heart (Red/Gold), is simply a big steel heart tied up with a gold ribbon. The piece has so little scale distortion, mystery or abstractness that it’s barely more than a glitzy trinket.) Even though he is a prince of the Eventocracy, Koons still garners some of the most scathing reviews around. He’s been accused of unabashed cynicism, of self-promotion, of hype. Just last month the Chicago Tribune dismissed his entire oeuvre as failing "every known test for quality" (I’d love to see these tests). Maybe some of Koons’ recent work is the sculptural equivalent of a dazzlingly polished Abba song. But even something as impeccable and weightless as that isn’t bad. Whether you like his work or not, Koons allows you to toggle between abstraction and reality like few other contemporary artists.
Koons’ flawless surfaces are devoid of human touch, but they’re charged with physicality, intelligence and humanity. As with Courbet, Manet and Lichtenstein, the things in Koons’ paintings start to matter less than the way they’re painted. Yet the paintings never bog down in a formalist cul-de-sac. Instead, like Coloring Book, the paintings vacillate between gleaming fact and mirage. Material turns into light, color and reflectivity become form, and familiar objects take on the aura of the unknown.
"Jeff Koons on the Roof," Apr. 22-Oct. 26, 2008, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org