It is Sunday night, and the Whitney Museum of American Art has been open for thirty-some hours straight. The line for this last chance to see the Jeff Koons retrospective wraps around the block. Fittingly, these are also the last hours of the Whitney Museum itself, at least in its upper East Side manifestation (their new building opens in Chelsea next year). Visiting the hideous structure one last time is like reaching out to pet the old family dog before he gets put to sleeponly to have your hand bitten. The inverted ziggurat architecture has always been an exercise in anti-effort with the art to match. A longstanding top floor feature was Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arma snow shovel the artist purchased and declared art by fiat. Once elusive, the meaning is now clear. Here is the tool that has authorized the Whitney to pile it high. Koons’s towering mound of polychrome aluminum Play-Doh, the highlight of the show, is the simply the crest of the heap.
Stage 1: Denial
Or not. The critical adulation of Koons is nearly universal. He must be importanteven brilliant. Those floating basketballs, for example, are not mere readymades. Koons boasts that Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman coached him along in the process of getting them to hover so mysteriously. Nearby are reprinted posters of NBA stars. Koons insists upon his “moral responsibility to the viewer,” and the moral here is that just as basketballs don’t hover, so most impoverished American teenagers won’t make it to the NBA.
But not satisfied with mere critique of culture, Koons goes beyond it to celebration. The stainless steel balloon dogs, requiring over one hundred studio staff persons to create, permanentize the wistful joys of childhood. The art is shiny, moreover, and isn’t radiance one of the classical properties of beauty? Indeed, Koons reveals my own lifelong failure to have noticed the beautiful sheen of automobiles, and their funhouse reflective optics. “The art,” he tells me matter-of-factly in the audio guide, “is your transcendence.”
Stage 2: Anger
By 1989, Koons had given up exposing false promises and began to make some himself. He married Ilona Staller, a.k.a. “Cicciolina,” an Italian porn star, who was also a member of parliament. Billboard-sized images of his sexual exploits ensued. These blatantly pornographic close-ups were on offer at the Whitney, with only a barely visible warning nearby advising that “Parents should use discretion.” Duchamp sanctioned the shovel, Koons the Peep Show. In the next room is perhaps the only moment of visual disjunction that Koons dares to give. Within view of Koons’s sexcapades are two disjointed hobby horses sawn in half. The purpose, we are told, is to illustrate the custody battle over their son Ludwig when he and Ilona divorced.
Stage 3: Bargaining
But perhaps he’s still being ironic. The split rocker gives it all away. It’s all a big joke, to prove to us our own, and his, depravity. He holds up a mirror of our consumerism, proclaiming the effects of divorce to the world with his visual megaphone. Indeed, Koons may be an undercover saint set on saving us from ourselves. It’s just a matter of time before the big reveal. No, it can’t be. The damage is too realthe charade has lasted too long. His shtick is too perfect to be made up. He really believes his own rhetoric. But will he continue to believe it? His hero is Salvador Dalí, who explicitly renounced surrealist images of sexual fantasy and contortion, and went on to recreate the Christian iconographic tradition for his own day. Could the same happen to Koons? Still, if Dalí’s conversion was prompted by the catastrophe of Hiroshima, could anyone survive the calamity necessary to convert Koons?
Stage 4: Guilt
We have made him. To actually, truly believe in the advertisements that shape our cultureto let them penetrate one’s soulis to become Jeff Koons. He believed what was said about vacuums and, and so he puts them in hermetically sealed shrines, turning them into the hallowed products their advertisements claim them to be. Koons never stopped being an investor, he just switched to a market that could survive the crash (one of his balloon dogs went for $58.4 million last year). Archaeologists of the future will excavate these dogs and assume we worshipped them, and maybe we do. A god who can be contorted into any shape of our choosing, and once contorted, becomes stainless steelan idol more rigid and inflexible in its demand we seek sexual fulfillment than the Decalogue ever was. Koons is a Biblical sculptorhe is Aaron, and these are our golden calves. His retroactive justifications are completely absurd. The audio guide compares his Michael Jackson and Bubbles to Michelangelo. We get the pietàs we deserve.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Our most erudite art critics describe an “almost irresistible invitation to submit” to the cult of Koons. But I find myself calmly resistinglike the evidently intelligent Asian child in the image from the exhibition reproduced below.
I give one last look to the procession of life-sized kitsch sculptures entitled “Banality.” Bears, pink panthers, old people with puppies, mermaids. They evoke the animal procession that the Israelites would have seen as they entered Babylon (where the ziggurats were at least right side up). The balloon dog, come to think of it, resembles the Ishtar dragon. Koons, moreover, authorizes my interpretation. As he puts it for one of his other sculptures, “These [are] gods that’ll greet you at a temple. . . . They can become very, very violent and just tear the house down.”
I exit the museum, and walk just a few blocks down this American Babylon’s Madison Avenue. St. James Episcopal church is advertising a Sunday candlelit service. The elaborate wooden reredos is aglow in the darkness. The crowd is thin, and the sermon is serious. The conversation after the service is warm and intelligent. I walk down one more block to another candlelit service at Madison Ave. Presbyterian. A kind gentleman invites me in, and I decide a second dose of Koons deprogramming is required. I meet another charming and intelligent community of the few and faithful, and hear another sermon offering further warnings against love of money. The avant-garde isn’t deadit just moved a few blocks away. These churches were here before the Whitney, and in just a few hours, when the museum closes, they will have outlasted it.
At one service we are invited to approach the altar to light candles for those in need of prayer. I consider lighting threeone for Jeff Koons, one for his ex-wife Ilona, and one for their son Ludwig. But they were once a family, so I summon enough hope to light one for all three.
Matthew J. Milliner (@millinerd) teaches art history at Wheaton College.