A few months back, I bumped into a colleague at the Met’s Courbet exhibition. After a polite disagreement about the merits of the 19th-century French painter—he’s a fan, I’m not—we extolled the Met’s stellar run of historical exhibitions mounted under the guidance of since-retired director Philippe de Montebello: Ingres, tapestries, Velázquez, the Greek and Roman galleries, the list goes on.
When the discussion turned to the museum’s forays into contemporary art, the requisite eyeball-rolling ensued. With rare exception, the museum has fumbled, allowing contemporary fads to interfere with sound curatorial judgment—the most egregious example being the three-year exhibition of Damien Hirst’s sideshow novelty The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). (Yeah, the dead shark thing.)
Now here comes the redoubtable Jeff Koons with three sculptures on the Met’s rooftop garden.
As a venue for sculpture, the Met’s roof is unforgiving and all but pointless. How can any artist compete with a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Central Park? David Smith, Joel Shapiro, Sol LeWitt and Roy Lichtenstein have all been humbled by the encompassing fairy-tale vistas the Met provides. And so it is with Mr. Koons’ slick iterations of Pop Art.
Fabricated from stainless steel and coated with industrial color, his gleefully deadpan sculptures tower over the viewer. Sacred Heart (Red/Gold) (1994-2007) is a Valentine chocolate, complete with wrapping paper and gold ribbon. Coloring Book (1997-2005) is an irregularly shaped plinth overlaid with secondhand scribble-scrabble. Balloon Dog (Yellow) (1994-2000) is a child’s party favor whose flimsiness has been made sleek and forever taut.
The latter is a relative of Rabbit (1986), Mr. Koons’ masterpiece and an icon of postmodernism. It’s a stainless steel sculpture of an inflatable bunny, the kind of thing you’d win at a carnival. With its gleaming surface and factory-made anonymity, Rabbit turns High Modernism on its head—Brancusi rendered as high-end kitsch. It’s more unnerving and beautiful than anything Andy Warhol put his silkscreen to.
But Rabbit was a fluke—the Chelsea equivalent of a thousand monkeys producing Hamlet after a thousand years of typing.
Mr. Koons’ true art is his image. With that patented shit-eating grin and Teflon demeanor, he’s an animatronic neo-Dadaist with a Hollywood budget. The porcelain Michael Jackson, the huge flower-covered dogs and, God help us, the enormous photos of the artist engaging in Hustler-style sex with his ex-wife, the porn star and former Italian Parliament member La Cicciolina—they’re idle distractions; expensive, too. That’s how Mr. Koons wants it.
There’s not much to say about the Met show. The sculptures are there, they’re blandly diverting, and that’s about it. Mr. Koons is ever thus. Admirers will likely demur and peg something like Coloring Book as a dazzlement by one of “the most important artists of … the twentieth century” (as Nation critic and philosopher Arthur Danto believes). Mr. Koons’ sculptures are easy to ignore. They’re nothing to get hot and bothered about.
The most interesting thing about Mr. Koons isn’t his art, but a rumor. According to my aforementioned colleague, word is that Mr. Koons uses the considerable sums of money he derives from sales of his work in order to collect art by the likes of early Renaissance German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider and Post-Impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard.
These aren’t typical figures of pomo adulation. You can barely imagine them occupying the same galaxy as Mr. Koons. Could the shallow artist be a front for a serious aesthete?
As I say, it’s a rumor, but Mr. Koons just might be a better con man than we think.
© 2008 Mario Naves
Originally published in the April 29, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.