Some art critics have called the Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York the perfect storm as it has attracted the rage and fury of many as well as the adoration of a new generation of dealers and collectors. Whether or not you like his shiny icons of pop art, you have to give credit to Adam Weinberg, the Whitney director for this closing show which will end the Whitney legacy at the Breuer building before the entity moves to a new home in New York’s meatpacking district. The exhibition is then circulating to France and Spain as our cultural heritage is put on the road around the globe.
As visitor after visitor takes a selfie in front of his classic works like the Balloon Dog which sold for $58 million last year setting a record for the highest price for a living artist, we have to debate whether a work like this is an icon of chilly arrogance or a high-tech vision of taste as noted by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. Whichever camp you are in, you do have to give credit to his masterfully repeated executions of these works in a studio of 128 employees, 64 of whom are painters, and 44 are sculptors. Koons traded in his tools as a Wall Street commodities broker during the 1980’s, returning to his training as an artist having graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art as an undergraduate. Today at age 59, he is a self-made millionaire.
At one point in his early career in New York, he visited the digital laboratory at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey where his images, original or appropriated, could be scanned and enlarged. Not unlike the founder of GFS, Seward Johnson, Koons could then make models in Styrofoam which were easy to trim and adjust before casts were made in plaster or later bronze or steel. Multiples of many sizes and shapes have emerged as end products from his 16,000 square foot studio in Chelsea near the old Hudson River rail yards. While he has sold works himself via direct commissions, he is mainly represented today by New York gallerist, Larry Gagosian. Through various licensing agreements, he has taken his product to both ends of the market place. Prominent collector, Eli Broad owns 24 of his pieces but you can also buy a Balloon Dog purse with a Koons image at H and M stores today for $ 50.00.
Art historians and critics have had a field day with Koons and his flowered dog in Rockefeller Center or his iconic imitation of Michael Jackson at the Whitney. One of his first work appropriated from a photographer, Art Rogers, was denied exemption from copyright misappropriation as Koons just helped himself to the photo Rogers had taken of a couple and their new puppies. By contrast, another work in the show where Koons took a piece of a photo from Allure magazine and tagged it into this collage, was treated in the courts as a small borrowing and the fashion photographer did not collect a fee from Koons. His new work was deemed “transformative” or a new work of art in its own right.
When Koons sold the sculpture of Popeye recently at Sotheby’s to gambling icon Steve Wynn for his Hotel Bellagio in Las Vegas, I did some research to see who owned the copyright to the cartoon legend. The author of the original cartoon,
Elzie Segar died in 1938, and the images passed back to the public domain where Turner Entertainment, a division of Time Warner, decided to resurrect Popeye cartoons. The studio said they were thrilled to find an image of Popeye in Las Vegas and had no intention of asking for a copyright fee.
Do we think Koons is trying to recreate the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal of the 1920’s or the scandalous lewd works of Salvador Dali? Are his works as controversial as the John Singer Sargent portrait of Madame X in Paris in 1884? Is his work called Play Dough causing any more of a hailstorm at the Whitney Museum than Marina Abramovic did when she performed stark naked at the Guggenheim Museum in 2005?
My guess is that the taste police of the art world will continue to let Koons in the door with his playful and witty renderings of modern art. Young collectors are “in the know” when they buy his art works that have become symbols of financial success. You don’t have to have one, nor like what he is doing, but you have to give him a nod for ingenuity and the ability to create a high-end brand that is selling in the marketplace like hot cakes.
Trickster, mystic, clown or icon? Take your pick and watch the show as it continues to roll out of the Koons studios, seven figures at a time!
New York: Whitney Museum – June 27 to October 19, 2014
Paris: Centre Pompidou – November 26, 2014 to April 27, 2015
Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum – June 5 to September 27, 2015
Sharon Lorenzo, 2014
 Jed Perl, The Cult of Jeff Koons. The New York Review of Books, September 25. 2014.