In the current issue of The Nation, Barry Schwabsky reviews the Jeff Koons retrospective currently on exhibition at the Whitney. “The survey of his message of hope,” Schwabsky writes, “left me feeling hopeless. I’m just not good enough at being the disinterested viewer to find myself cheered by a cheerleader for the neoliberal economy, no matter how brilliantly inventive.”
Similarly, in a review of the 1989 Whitney Biennial, the late American philosopher and longtime Nation art critic Arthur Danto skewered a solo Koons exhibition of that year as “a vision of an aesthetic hell.” An excerpt from that essay is reprinted below.
In the waning weeks of 1988, it was impossible to meet an art-worlder who was not burning to know what one thought about IT. IT could refer to nothing but the Sonnabend Gallery exhibition of recent works by Jeff Koons, a young and fiercely entrepreneurial artist who stood, it was reported, to gross $5 million if, as seemed likely, he were to sell out that show and two others exactly like it being held concurrently in Cologne and Chicago. A fair amount of critical boilerplate had been generated in response to Koons, all of it of the tiresome order that speaks of commodification, simulacreation and late capitalism—categories that apply, unfortunately, to so many things that it would be difficult to explain on their basis the peculiar frisson felt by those who attended this show. “A new low” is what Hilton Kramer of course wrote, but he writes in much the same way on just about everything (“depressing,” “distressing,” “appalling,” “sad!”), and like a broken clock whose hands point always to the same black hour, is irrelevantly predictable and critically useless: You can always tell what time it says (“later) but never what time it is. But even those who are immeasurably more responsive to the serious issues posed by contemporary art were airing a question that I thought long dead: Is it (is IT) art? And it struck me that the one sure formula for artistic success in New York is to produce a body of work that causes those who think they have seen everything to wonder afresh whether some important boundary might not have been transgressed.
The boundary between art and nonart appeared to me sufficiently elastic that it could easily contain most of what I had seen up to then of Koons’s work. The 1987 Whitney Biennial, for example, displayed a fishtank in which two basketballs were immersed and a somewhat prophetic stainless steel replica of a plastic bunny. It was explained to me with great patience that it is exceedingly difficult to partially immerse basketballs as Koons had learned to do by consulting with engineers from M.I.T.; I had read of a collector who, having purchased one of these works, was thrilled that Koons had agreed to install it himself. But neither this misapplied technical virtuosity nor the vapid steel bunnikin would be enough, in 1988, to arouse a vexed query as to their arthood. It was plain that something more powerful, more threatening, even, was drawing the glazed and jaded of the art world, almost against their aesthetic will, to Sonnabend’s for a perverse flutter. In the Republic, Plato writes of Leontius, son of Aglion, who once glimpsed some corpses of executed men: “He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, ‘Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.” This earliest discussion of what the ancients termed akrasia, or weakness of will, fit the common conflicted attitude of the art world to perfection in the case of Koons. I knew I was in for something morbid when, out of a pretended sense of critical duty, I paid my visit to “the fair sight.” I found the things terrifying.