I was in New York City over Labor Day weekend, and I went to see the Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Koons is an American conceptual artist and one of the most famous living artists in the world today (and he lives in New York!). I was not familiar with his work, but at a colleague’s suggestion, I went to the show anyway. The retrospective occupied all four floors of the Whitney.
I had a very strong negative reaction looking at his work on the first floor and second floors. He took everyday items like vacuum cleaners and plastic flowers, put them on a pedestal, and called them art. Haven’t these shenanigans been done before with Duchamp taking a urinal, putting his name on it, and declaring it as art? I was irritated. Where was the artist’s hand, the skill, the care? His work was conceptual, not backed by his hand. I decided immediately that it was trash.
You might be saying, “wow, Jonah is so bitter.” That’s probably true. However, reading Jeff Koons’ history later, I am not alone in this negative reaction. The level of vitriol from critics and the audiences in the 1990s had that same flavor. Jeff Koons is described as a polarizing artist, and he definitely is one.
Then something happened.
I’m now on the third floor, and I started listening to his explanations of his work. Jeff Koons himself narrated some of his work. He was calm, thoughtful, measured, and articulate.
In front of the sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee Bubbles, Koons explained that he was trying to liberate people’s shame for liking tacky things. Just because you like ceramic figurines doesn’t mean you are less of a person compared to someone who likes Van Gogh. (This is all paraphrased, I should have recorded what he said exactly, but that was the gist of it.)
Koon’s had a message. He had a Concept (which I’ve written about in a previous article). I began to see that in his work. I was pulled right in.
By the time I got to the fourth floor, where there was a giant sculpture of playdoh (a recreation of his son’s playdoh), I went from thinking his work was trash to thinking it was brilliant.
His explanations of why he created these sculptures of dogs using stainless steel were illuminating. He kept saying words like transcendentäóîa term that my hero Joseph Campbell also uses.
I was totally sold by the last piece on the fourth floor. Jeff Koons is an amazing artist.
A couple of things about this experience.
1. As a viewer, your first reaction to a piece of art is filtered through your own prejudices and assumptions. I became acutely aware of my preconceived notions about art. Art has to be something made “by hand” by the artist. Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaner therefore “broke” that unspoken rule, hence my reaction. My mentor once told me that I had a lot of unspoken rules in my pictures. His advice was “pictures first, rules later.” It’s good to be reminded that as a viewer, the same advice applies: art first, rules later.
2. As an artist, everything you do is part of your art. What you say, what you write, is part of your art. The work is not enough. What the artist says and writes about deepen the work.
3. The importance of sticking to what you want to do. Keeping at it. Instead of going where the wind blows, Jeff Koons did what he wanted and stuck to it. I think he is a bit crazy and a little nuts, but that’s required. Come to think of it, another artist influence, John Dugdale, said the same thing a long time ago:
Yes, you have to be a little nuts in the world to make your life be what you want it to be. You can’t follow any rules, within reason. If you’re going to follow along with everybody else and not follow your inspiration then you’re going to fall by the wayside. You know, answering the question äóìwhat is my suggestion for people starting out,äóù there is nothing more important than following that spirit especially when it doesn’t make any sense because eventually it will. The world will come to you. (John Dugdale)
I really believe that. But sometimes I forget.
That’s why I create pictures and keep writing these articles. I don’t know where they will lead, but hopefully it will make sense eventually.