Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Join as a $13-a-month sustainer and get the retro NHPR t-shirt!
NPR Blogs

A Celebration Of Cheap Thrills At The Whitney

Jeff Koons poses in front of one of his sculptures during a media preview of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective" at the Whitney Museum of American Art on June 24, 2014.
Jeff Koons poses in front of one of his sculptures during a media preview of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective" at the Whitney Museum of American Art on June 24, 2014.

There are no chairs to rest on in the galleries at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where the first-ever New York retrospective of the work of Jeff Koons is now on display. There are some benches by the elevators and they are crowded with people studying their iPhones.

Which got me to thinking about the similarities between Steve Jobs and Jeff Koons.

It didn't surprise me to learn that they are, or would have been, almost exactly the same age. (Koons was born in January 1955, Jobs in February.) And in a sense, they were in the same business: giving people what they want, in the form of shiny, happy, perfect, expensive manufactured goods. They churn it out and we want to own it.

And so it is fitting that exhausted art consumers tumble out of the Whitney's galleries and take refuge in their own personal shiny, happy, perfect expensive toys.

It's worth noting that Koons really does give Jobs a run for his money. Sure, lots of people are using their phones in the galleries to photograph the work. But the fact is, the work is riveting and commands their attention; it actually draws people away from their pocket computers. This is not the usual let's-make-ourselves-endure-the-art-because-it's-edifying crowd. No, these folks are avidly consuming the art, loving it; they're curious about it.

The art of Jeff Koons draws attention like a People Magazine. Who doesn't want to look at the shiny, happy, perfect, expensive images? As with People, the show puts lots of sex and celebrity on display.

If you throw in the sad details of Koon's failed marriage to the ready made love-of-his-life, the porn-icon La Cicciolina, the exhibition even puts the tragic on display. In one gallery we enjoy images of the couple fornicating (porn-style). In the next we are allowed to contemplate the giant Play-Doh pile (the size of a small hill, made of aluminum, yet with the exact look of colored Play-Doh) with which the artist mourns his loss of custody over their son.

There is much to love — and hate — in the work of both Jeff Koons and Steve Jobs.

Who can deny that Jobs has changed the world? He's changed the way we work and the way we play. He's changed the place of technology in our lives. But who can be sure these are changes for the good? What of the pollution and the economic practices that make these shiny, happy, perfect toys possible at all?

As for Koons, well, he is an artist, and artists don't aim to change the world the way manufacturers do. Artists don't make tools; they make opportunities for self-realization and self-reflection and self-understanding. And they make things only because things — as the case of Steve Jobs brings out so nicely — play such a big role in our lives.

How Jeff Koons makes pieces of art is astonishing, a feat of engineering that rivals that of Jobs himself. Consider: replicating a little, plastic dime-store King Kong in 15,000 pounds of granite? Or making perfect copies of inflatable pool toys out of aluminum? And each of Koons' pieces comes packaged, as it were, with important questions for us to ask about our feelings toward toys, cheap consumer goods, luxury and celebrity. He attends not only to the material detail, but, if you like, to the intellectual detail as well.

This is Smart Art that people actually Want. And yet, there is something, finally, revolting about it. Just as there is something a bit disgusting about the way what Steve Jobs created has taken over our lives and reorganized us.

Remember how people used to lean back, arms akimbo, reading The New York Times? Now we huddle over our iPads and flick through its "pages."

I fear that what makes Jeff's work so accessible, so likable, is not its Pop engagement with interesting questions but, ultimately, its pandering nature. It gives us cheap thrills; it supplies what we (think we) want: false love, shiny, happy kitsch, banality, bad taste.

That said: I love the Koons show. I am moved by it.

Retrospectives are always touching — celebrating the work of a long, productive life. It's touching like a 50th wedding anniversary party, with children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren all around. But I am moved, also, by the singularity of Jeff Koons' ideas, both technical (his interest in surface and methods of production) and also conceptual (the place of toys, inflatables, celebrity, consumer culture). I also admire the brute fact that that he has found an audience (collectors, institutions) willing to support and fund his private manufacturing mania. His story is a success story.

Finally, I am moved by Koons' sincerity. His objects are lovingly conceived and produced with a commitment to value.

Despite all that, I can't help but wonder about the value of it all.

The show runs until 19 October 2014. There's an online guide here: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/JeffKoons

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.