Has everybody read Calvin Tomkins’s profile of Jeff Koons in this week’s New Yorker by now? I love that Michael Govan is going to get that giant steam engine built at LACMA—it’ll be an Eiffel Tower (Govan’s words) for the LA skyline. This has to be the greatest waste of $20 million dollars ever that wasn’t connected to a war or an executive pay package. (It can even go over budget by $4.9 million and still come in under the Citigroup Chief Executive Charles O “Jobcuts” Prince III’s pay for just last year.) As if the artist needed it, this steam engine confirms, to misquote Jack Donaghy, that “[Jeff Koons] is the greatest [artist] since the Pharoahs.”
Koons’s stature depends a lot on his public personality. And his enigmatic, seemingly earnest explanations of his art and art are a big part of that, contributing at least as much as his alpha-male salesman bio. Tomkins rightly gives his quotes their due scrutiny. He compares him at one point to a motivational speaker.
Here’s Koons on the painting up top: “That’s a ‘Triple Elvis’…. I liked Elvis… and I liked using the reference to Andy Warhol’s Elvis paintings. And the lobster there… that refers to Dali, and to Duchamp.”
A good rule is this: when an artist starts citing the art-historical precedents in his own work, it’s time to go to sleep. But Koons’s art-historical references don’t come across that way. It’s boastful, but it’s not superior. He’s not trying to learn us anything. Duchamp, Warhol, Dali—these are not homework artists, these are superstars. A Warhol is as recognizable to most of us as an inflatable pool toy. Besides, Tomkins points out, Duchamp never even used lobsters in his work. (And he judges Koons’s equation of Elvis and the playmate as “somewhat miraculous.”)
Compare that attitude with Jeff Wall, whose work is up at MoMA this season. For symmetry, I’ll quote from the New Yorker’s Jeff Wall review:
“The erudite Wall imports art-historical and ideological arcana with motifs from Manet, Hokusai, or Walker Evans here and a redolence of German or French critical theory there…. We are to know that Wall knows that we know that the work is fictional—quotation marks set in quotation marks, and, if we detect the odd quotation from a quotational painting by Manet, we may go straight to the head of the class. If you like this type of heady gaming, good luck.”
Like Koons, Wall’s art-historical quotes are a game, but as if made by an art school student, Wall’s quotes feel like they reveal deep insecurities, as if the reference to an art-history textbook illustration or a family trip to the Prado is needed to prop up his works’ own status as artwork, or worse, that strategy’s flip side: to show how much better his knowing insider photos are than the popular stuff. Jeff Wall should take to heart the message of Mean Girls: your value is in yourself, Jeff, not in the company you keep.
Here’s Wall in his own words:
“I was very interested in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, partly because I was lecturing on Romanticism. I think the Sardanapalus is a very important picture, historically and psychologically.”
This is the work he’s talking about, The Destroyed Room. Can you see the Sardanapalus? If not, no worry, the Tate will take you through it step by step.
On the surface (and there’s a lot of surface), Jeff Koons and Jeff Wall share similar aims. Jeff K. makes elaborate, ungodly expensive re-creations of cheap children’s toys for a luxury collector’s market; Jeff W. takes intricately staged, production-crewed impersonations of documentary photographs— street photographs, the closest photographing comes to free. And yet they have as much in common as a playmate Elvis and a lobster, or hair and cheese. They’d make a great, messy, confusing two-man show.
MoMA just published a collection of Wall’s writings. A collection of Koons’s many, many interviews might get tedious, but could be a wildly entertaining read, like the eternally recurring Warhol diaries.
Until that day, here are some Jeff Koons profiles and interviews available online:
Koons’s 50th Birthday
Artforum interview by Katy Siegel, March 2003
Interview with Bloomberg News: Jeff Koons Recalls Cicciolina’s Pimples, Collects His Own Art, October 2006
Deutsche Bank Art interview, 2000
Interview with McCullom and Koons (Flash Art 1987)
Jeff Koons on Charlie Rose, August 7, 2000
And here are a few spam sites (splites? Have we named these? They’re not technically splogs. Maybe Quam?) with identical Koons quotes on them. Be warned, by clicking on them you are likely defrauding some advertiser by around 1/100th of a penny: