What first comes to mind when I think of Jeff Koons isn’t his art—not even his most memorable works, such as the stainless steel Rabbit of 1986 or the vast, flowery Puppy of 1992—but rather a cameo he had in a movie. In Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic Milk, Koons briefly graced the big screen in the role of Art Agnos, the progressive politician (and future mayor of San Francisco) who defeated Harvey Milk in the 1976 Democratic primary for a position in the California State Assembly. After a debate, Agnos offers his opponent a bit of advice: relentless criticism of the status quo isn’t enough to win the public over. Unless you can offer constructive programs to improve people’s lives, you’re just a downer, Agnos says: “You gotta to give ‘em a reason for optimism.” People need hope.
While the admonition seems to be faithful to the exchange reported by Milk’s biographer Randy Shilts, it might easily have been Koons’s own motto. When he began to attract attention in the early 1980s, the new watchword for art was “critique”; every up-to-date young artist was poring over books like The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983), edited by Hal Foster. Koons was one of the few artists of the time who wasn’t explicitly “anti” anything (except, as he has said, “anti-judgment”). What Foster called “a postmodernism of resistance”—one that “seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes,” as he put it—was, for Koons, completely beside the point. Indeed, the catalog of the current Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art features an illuminating essay, by the art historian Pamela M. Lee, about Koons’s “increasingly post-critical stance.”
Relentless optimism has taken him far, and the Whitney has chosen to glorify it by making the Koons retrospective the largest exhibition it has ever devoted to a single artist as well as the swan song at its much-beloved Marcel Breuer building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which has been its home for nearly five decades. Once the exhibition ends on October 19, the museum will have a hiatus until it opens its grand new quarters downtown in the meatpacking district sometime next year. (After the Whitney, the show travels to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.)
As Koons would later emphasize with series titles like “Easyfun” and “Celebration,” his art presents itself as one of affirmation, perhaps of a regression to childhood innocence, despite the knowingly creepy overtones that often lurk around its edges. Koons contends that his embrace of kitsch means a liberation from invidious standards of cultural distinction: “I was just trying to say that whatever you respond to is perfect, that your history and your own cultural background are perfect.” Here, Koons turns art’s precious promesse du bonheur into a New Age mantra of blissful idiocy.
Despite his powers as an artist, or rather as a sculptor (nothing Koons has produced in the guise of painting is of more than trifling interest), the work failed me. The survey of his message of hope 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. Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the exhibition, points out that the first review of Koons’s work had already pegged it as “a commentary on the glamour of conspicuous consumption.” This is what separates Koons from Warhol, who, in an era when CEOs made about twenty times the average worker’s salary (rather than nearly 300 times, as today), saw consumerism as a force that leveled social distinctions. “The richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest,” he said. “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” Koons, by contrast, has perfected the art of taking the same crap on offer at a big-box store—be it an ordinary pail or kitschy figurines—and making it better than anything you could ever own, so that the buyers of his art might feel superior to the plebs without having better taste than they do. “True, this might be possible only in an era of increasing inequality,” Rothkopf admits—but forget it, just enjoy, have a slice of gilded cake.