Although he can’t help but make it about himself, Jerry Saltz has an excellent essay on the Jeff Koons retrospective opening at the Whitney. It’s sometimes hard to remember the great art that Koons is capable of making—and if you refuse to believe that you really need to read Saltz; but, more important, it is worth looking back to the moment when Koons made himself anathema to artists and art historians even before his second coming on the art market (which, in many ways, has been the apotheosis of the Contemporary art market over the last 15 years) made him anathema to those who feel the success of the art market itself makes Koons’s art all about money.
Saltz starts with how Koons established himself.
Then everything fell apart on November 23, 1991, when “Made in Heaven” opened at Sonnabend Gallery. I remember that day, in front of the painting of Staller straddling and being penetrated by Koons, when I saw Jeff with the legendary gallerist Leo Castelli and noted the look of horror and awe on the dealer’s face. Koons looked at me and said, “Jerry, don’t you think that Ilona’s asshole is the center of the universe?” The paintings appeared among marble self-portrait busts, polychrome sculptures of dogs and cherubs, small glass works depicting Koons getting a blow job or performing cunnilingus. The gallery was packed every day for a month. Few male artists in the history of art have shown themselves with an erection, let alone having sex. Koons had found a point in taste lower than pornography. Then the axe dropped. The village turned on him.
In an art world that said it wanted people to be free, at the exact moment everyone rallied to defend artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley for their forays into sexuality, Koons had gone too far. He became the pariah that many see him as today, a sort of American Taliban. Rosalind Krauss called him “repulsive”; Yve-Alain Bois went with “crude”; Benjamin Buchloh wrote that Koons is among the “neurasthenic victims of opportunistic assimilation” (whatever that means). The local art writer John Yau later sniffed that he boycotted a Koons public sculpture because “some things you shouldn’t do.” So pure; so tenured. Whatever. I still say it’s thrilling to see this work in a museum — even if the objects are better than the paintings.
Since then, Koons has never been in a Whitney Biennial or Documenta. He’s continually accused of cynicism.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that no matter what one thinks of the Made in Heaven series, it presages the centrality of pornography in 20th century visual and mass culture in a way that is uncanny.