Koons in Oxford

Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean review – a master of deflection

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
From his shiny silver Rabbit to his shiny pink Balloon Venus, Jeff Koons has excelled at being just as vacuous as he wants to be

Seated Ballerina, 2015 by Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
 Seated Ballerina, 2015 by Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Photograph: David Fisher

Jeff Koons plays the Ashmolean Museum. The junk-bond superstar brings his exorbitant bling to the world’s oldest public gallery, supersized baubles among the urns and sarcophagi. It’s a talking shop (£12.25 a head) at the very least. Here they stand, rows of colossal objects cast in mirror-bright steel – bunnies and ballerinas, piglets and balloons, in silver and gold and eye-popping magenta, their polished surfaces giving us nothing in return but our own mugs. The fun-house reflections are enough to baffle the eye – but what about the mind?

Koons has always been as vacuous as he wants to be. Time has changed nothing except his ramping prices. This show is being sold as a condensed survey of the artist’s work from the 1980s to the present day, with examples of his various product lines – StatuaryBanalityAntiquity and so on, right up to the recent Gazing Ball works, in which shiny spheres are attached like footballs to copies of famous paintings and sculptures.

Certain series have been sidestepped, notably Made in Heaven, which may have something to do with the anal sex and general pornographic boastfulness of Koons’s photographic self-portraits. And who now wants to show the porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, in which the singer appears in white-face with his pet chimp?

But even allowing for these omissions, it seems significant that such a prolific 40-year career – Koons was born in Pennsylvania in 1955 – could indeed be represented with only 17 works.

The show opens with superb drama. Hanging before you, like an exclamation mark in mid-air, is the ebullient orange sphere of a Spalding basketball suspended in a vitrine of water. Its position – neither sinking nor rising but in perfect equilibrium – was so complex to achieve that it required the involvement of the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman. The sight is so abrupt as to be a never-ending surprise each time you circle back to it – a feat in itself, and a sensation somewhere between delight and laughter.

Koons made this ice-breaker of a work in 1985. The original idea was there, long before Damien Hirst suspended his shark in a tank. Changing course the following year, Koons came up with the even more famous Rabbit. And here it is, this deathless bunny cast in silver steel, an innocent balloon sculpture transformed into something more like a voodoo doll, nightmarish and yet inane.

From left: Koons’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985; Rabbit, 1986; Ushering in Banality, 1988; and Gazing Ball (Birdbath), 2013.
 From left: Koons’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985; Rabbit, 1986; Ushering in Banality, 1988; and Gazing Ball (Birdbath), 2013 at the Ashmolean. Photograph: David Fisher

Soft but hard, cute yet steely, light as a balloon and yet heavy as metal: those are the basic oppositions. Rabbit is fully counterintuitive. And that’s the way it has gone these many years. The enormous Seated Ballerina in this show, completed in 2015, sits in a froth of blue tutu, bending down to tie the delicate ribbons of her ballet shoes, which look like nothing so much as drawings from the bright frame of some Disney cartoon. You are to marvel at this remarkable effect – so dainty, so transparent and ephemeral – while noticing that it is somehow achieved with a hundredweight of cast steel.

Koons, ever the most ardent proponent of his own work, says in the catalogue that he aimed to make a work that absolutely anyone would like. And who could resist the beauty of Gazing Ball, a mirror-bright sphere cast in cobalt blue steel, so flawless, so glassy, so unimpeachably perfect? Koons balances one on top of a shell-shaped classical fountain – the pearl in the oyster – and another on the shoulders of the most reproduced classical sculpture in history, the mighty Belvedere Torso, which inspired Michelangelo. It looks like a party trick – the footballer shouldering the ball. A neat joke; but what else?

One thing about this compact show – and Koons’s whole aesthetic – is that it puts everything on exactly the same level as anything else: the classical sculpture and the Disney ballerina, the basketball, the pig and the baby Jesus. Nothing is greater or lesser or more significant: not the smart new Hoover or the martyred saint. And the works in this show, we are told, put past and present on equal footing. Look at the Belvedere Torso, Koons argues, and you are both together in the here and now.

Koons has curated the show himself, along with Norman Rosenthal, late of the Royal Academy (can it really have taken two brains?). The works are arranged so that you come upon the most monumental work, without knowing it, from behind. It seems at first to be another gigantic balloon sculpture, roughly the colour of a ruptured appendix and with overtones of dangling scrotum besides. But come round to the front and you discover that it is in fact a female figure: the Venus of Willendorf, with hints of the Statue of Liberty’s diadem – three different eras in one. Except that even this revelation feels over-inflated. For what draws the viewer isn’t the way Koons aims to imitate an ancient goddess in cheap party balloons, but the hyperbolic brilliance of the surface – brighter than anything in nature, as it seems – and then the feat of repeating the whole thing in steel. Whereupon you catch yourself gazing into that empty surface, along with everyone else.

From left: Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso),2013; Balloon Venus (Magenta), 2008-12, ‘with overtones of dangling scrotum’.
 From left: Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso),2013; Balloon Venus (Magenta), 2008-12, ‘with overtones of dangling scrotum’. Photograph: © Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons’s sincerity, it seems to me, is not in doubt. His Banality series – to which the pig belongs – was never more candidly named. The quartet of mediocre paintings in this exhibition, montaging classical figures with modern landscapes and scribbly drawings, are just as trivial as they sound. Yet Koons revels in their silly sight gags, repeating them in different colour-ways. And why not, he seems to shrug? Why argue with the pleasures of spotless reflections, magic balls, gigantic dolls, especially if the formula works, wouldn’t it be like resisting the simple toys of childhood?

Except, of course, that the works are manufactured with such determined precision. Not the basketball, which depends upon the most exacting of physics; but the sheen on the ballerina, which mimics colour seen through colour, like the overprinting on a china figurine; or the terrible dead surfaces of the canvases, that speak painting by numbers. This is calculated nostalgia; just as the big blue spheres resemble nothing so much as outsize Christmas decorations, in which you see the world made pretty, harmless and small.

This is an art to deflect thought, and ultimately even viewing. Look at it for too long and you sense its sterility. Koons’s pitches for his work, which appear on wall texts throughout, are amiably generous and inclusive – but they never aim higher than platitude. And so it is with the objects themselves. Stare at their polished perfection and all you see is the shining fatuity of it all.

 Jeff Koons is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 9 June

Jeff Koons: hits and misses

Jeff Koons with Rabbit at the Ashmolean.
 Photograph: Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

1986 Rabbit becomes Koons’s most famous steel inflatable, its popularity rivalled only by Puppy, the gigantic, flower-covered terrier outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Editions of Rabbit proliferate, one soft version rising to 50 feet.

1989 The Made in Heaven series – kitsch sculptures, photographs and paintings featuring explicit sex acts with Koons’s then wife, the porn star and libertarian politician Ilona Staller – causes outrage at New York’s Whitney Museum. Koons reportedly destroys some of the works following their divorce. Critics hate the series, but notoriety helps boost Koons’s auction prices.

1996 The Celebration series – giant love hearts, building blocks, Easter eggs and balloon dogs cast in steel – is due to be shown at the Guggenheim in New York. The works are said to herald the longed-for return of Koons’s young son with Staller. But production problems and mounting costs derail the exhibition. It will be another decade before the sculptures are shown at the city’s Metropolitan Museum.

Balloon Dog (Orange) at Christie’s in New York, 2013.
 Balloon Dog (Orange) at Christie’s in New York, 2013. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

2013 Balloon Dog (Orange) sells for $58.4m at auction, the highest price ever paid for a sculpture by a living artist. Koons describes it as “materialism and monumentality”. There are four more editions, one – in shocking pink – shown to some controversy at Versailles.

2018 A huge, hyperreal hand clutching a bunch of multicoloured balloon-sculpture tulips is given by Koons to the people of Paris in memory of the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks. Attempts are made to stop it being installed by the Palais de Tokyo. Parisians are not impressed by the work’s brashness and apparent insensitivity. Artists including Christian Boltanski protest in an open letter to Libération. Koons wins out in the end. LC

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Fun, and maybe even meaningful!

John Water’s work is always fresh, original, and just plain weird.  Great combo of attributes.


‘I Think All I Do Is Political but I’d Never Say That!’: John Waters on Tabloids, Celebrity, and His Baltimore Museum of Art Retrospective

Now 72, John Waters, Baltimore, Maryland’s golden son, long ago earned his place as one of the greatest living multi-media satirists, having spent his career challenging conventions, prejudices, assumptions, and taste with his wit, wisdom, and joie de vivre. His retrospective, “Indecent Exposure,” which is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through January 6, 2019, shows the vast scope and depth of his insights into culture, politics, and humanity. It features 160 works, including mock-ups of tabloid newspapers skewering literary luminaries, vintage pornographic paperbacks, and a touching snapshot of himself with Andy Warhol in Manhattan next to a replica of a Miró he bought at the BMA during his Baltimore boyhood. He has a memoir scheduled for release next year, titled Mr. Know-it-all, but to borrow from Bethenny Frankel, Waters isn’t a “know-it-all”—he just knows it all, and he was happy to share while walking through his show one recent weekday afternoon.

Ana Finel Honigman: I decided to wear today all the items that I either bought because—or was told after—were John Waters-esque.

John Waters: When they say movies are John Waters-esque, I usually never like the movie. I know what they mean but . . . fashion is a different story. I understand. Divine would have worn that outfit.

AFH: Thank you? I got these shoes at an Alexander McQueen sample sale in London and I won a scuffle with another shopper because I said, “I need that. It’s very John Waters-esque.”

JW: Good! Good! Sample sales are vicious.

AFH: So, I love the show.

JW: Thank you.

AFH: No, thank you! It feels really appropriate for now. It feels really necessary.

JW: Some of the things take on such a different meaning, because “Have sex in a voting booth” was not made in the Trump era. And “Ed Sullivan raped me,” that was a real headline in The Enquirer. I thought that was almost funny at the time because I thought, “Oh, come on!” but now I look back on it, and I’m sure it was true. It was pre-#MeToo. What a horror that would be. Imagine having Ed Sullivan coming at you.

AFH: And we know way more about the National Enquirer now than anyone would want to know. Can you believe that we’re in a world where the Enquirer plays a part in the presidency?

JW: They’ve been around forever. I still get it. It’s not as good anymore. Those days are over. I have a bunch of real headlines in the show. “I am not gay,” by Tom Cruise, was a real headline. A bunch of the others were ones I made up. And the National Brainiac, that’s what I really wish I could edit. Imagine me being the editor of a tabloid for intellectuals. Imagining hiding outside their apartments for bathing-suit pictures of Philip Roth.

AFH: It does seem nice being a disembodied brain.

JW: But you need to do it all the time. That’s what I am. I am a storyteller. I am a writer. I think up all the art before I do it. You read them left-to-right, like a sentence. I write all my own books. It’s all about writing, or actually editing.

AFH: Do you think of yourself as a political person?

JW: Yes! I think all I do is political but I’d never say that! I would never put Trump in an art piece because that dates it, immediately. I see a lot of shows that have Trump stuff in it, and I think “meh.”

AFH: It’s not dated but it is timely. What is the story of “Have sex in a voting booth”?

JW: Someone told me that two people can go into a bathroom stall and one person steps into shopping bags, so it looks like just one person in the stall, and then they have sex. I thought, when they had the old-fashioned ones, “Why not do that in a voting booth?”

AFH: Definitely more fun than reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the propositions about allocating funds to understand who gets what and why. I’d like to know which great mind discovered sex in a voting booth. It must be fun being a great mind—like the intellectuals you pap in your National Brainiac magazine.

JW: But no one writes [about] when they get fat.

AFH: Well, presence matters. There is more lookism for intellectual rock stars than we want to admit. There is a trend for gorgeous books celebrating the fashion of great minds. David Foster Wallace’s bandanas, Susan Sontag’s turtlenecks, Simone de Beauvoir’s scarves . . . no one was chicer than Joan Didion. There is a great photo in a new book of Jacqueline Susann in a safari pantsuit with the best fluffy black poodle.

JW: But there is no one standing outside their apartments with telephoto lens, trying to [get] bathing-suit paps . . .

AFH: Do you think the days of celebrity stalking are over? We are quickly progressing into a much more empathetic, openminded, diverse culture with body-positivity and advocacy for mental-health issues. Maybe the Heat mag treatment will start looking like medieval torture devices to millennials.

JW: I don’t know about that . . . in some circles, perhaps. The tabloids can’t say “the fattest person,” but they still say “worst beach bodies.”

AFH: That’s like the brilliant British “tired and emotional.” They don’t say “blind drunk” in the British tabloids. Instead they say, “She was spotted leaving the Groucho Club looking tired and emotional.”

JW: You can sue someone [for] saying you’re drunk [or have] health issues. Those are the two where you can really sue. Carol Burnett sued when they said she was drunk, because it can hurt career prospects. It can ruin a livelihood. I remember with AIDS it was terrible. People would find out before they got their own test results. I think that happened to Tony Perkins. Someone on the hospital staff leaked for money. You forget how ruthless they were about AIDS.

AFH: Stigma and shame are the most deadly and terrible diseases. I don’t think we can say enough about the social and governmental abuses during the AIDS crisis here, in the West, or about the protests. AIDS activists created the template for protest.

JW: They were great. I say a lot about that in my new book. ACT-UP was great. And lesbians saved us. Lesbians don’t get enough credit—they weren’t dying of AIDS but they saved us. They fought the most in the second tier, with Larry Kramer, about getting the new drugs out before they were tested. They didn’t have to, but they went to war for us. Gay men should remember that, but they don’t.

AFH: Not at all! It’s really good to recognize that, although lesbians were not dying at the same rate, their contribution was instrumental. But I return to my question—whether we are moving into a culture where public shaming of celebrities is shunned.

JW: There was an interview once with a tabloid editor where he was asked, “Why do you always write about celebrities failing?” He said, “Because our readers are failing.”

AFH: Isn’t that celebrities’ purpose?

JW: Yes, but at least he was honest about it.

AFH: Well, they’re our morality tales. They’re our Greek gods and goddesses. Imagine the tabloid headlines for Hera and Zeus. They’d be endless.

JW: You don’t want them taking themselves too seriously to believe they’re actually our gods.

AFH: For the transgression themes, the Mike Kelley memorial in the show was a pure poignant moment. Why was that in the room dedicated to sexual transgression?

JW: Death and suicide are still taboos. I never think it’s an appropriate choice, unless you have medical issues, but it’s a choice he made. Well, I was a speaker at his funeral and it was his choice. It wasn’t a cry for help. He succeeded. I think he’s the only person I know who committed suicide because he was too successful. What is left to be a bad boy TKabout when you have an unlimited budget at Gagosian?

AFH: The toxicity of fame is a main theme in the show, if you count the slower suicides of celebrities whose addictions were enabled by their successes. You have Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse . . .

JW: I have “She should have said no,” which is the title of a work of women who should have said “no” for some reason. Different reasons but same thing.

AFH: But are they different? Isn’t it all just poisoned love? That work has Amy Winehouse, Whitney House, Princess Di . . .

JW: She should have said “no” to being a princess.

AFH: Sure, but we forget that she had no education. Princess Di was raised like a veal. I love today’s royals because of how much they’ve clearly grown and learned. That was Diane. She was incredible, a true saint, but we forget the tragedies before her death.

JW: The movie She Should Have Said No, where I got the title, was about teen pregnancy. It was movie from the ‘50s.

AFH: Toxic love.

JW: I have another called I Think I’m in Love, with two women screaming.

AFH: That was in the porno-themed room?

JW: It’s a part of it. When you’re in love, crazy sex has something to do with it too? Unless you never have it, and then go crazy from that.

AFH: Crazy is one consequence. What is the big bug in that room?

JW: That’s a pubic lice. Kids, these days, don’t have pubic hair. They have no idea what a crab is. Pubic lice are extinct.

AFH: I hate this shaving thing. I think people look like plucked chickens.

JW: Or adult babies. I’m not into it, at all.

AFH: What is the value of shock for you?

JW: I don’t shock to shock. Whenever people say something is John Waters-esque, it’s always because it’s shocking but I don’t just do that. I don’t think that I do. It needs to make you laugh or change how you think. Then, you can use shock. It’s easy to shock but making people laugh and think, that’s what I try to do.

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