What a strange man/artist Jeff Koons is...or is his strangeness completely cultivated? What does it take to be a really famous and successful artist in today's global art market? Is it enough to just quietly get on with your work? No, not if you want to be an international player. If you want that you have to be very good at business and understand how to market yourself or get somebody else to do that for you. Andy Warhol once said: “Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say “money is bad” and “working is bad”. But making money is art, and working is art - and good business is the best art.”
Well, I think Andy was brilliant but what did he spawn? There's no doubt that Jeff's one very smart cookie, he's a producer of 'smART', that's my name for it. He's an arch manipulator, a pied piper that lures many into his hyper-art world. A brilliant business man and smooth operator. But was Andy right? Is business the best art? I think not, but Warhol was the best there's ever been at combining the two because the art part still seemed to have some sort of integrity.
I'm reminded of Grayson Perry's Reith Lecture, Democracy Has Bad Taste. Has Jeff created works which are deliberately in 'bad taste' to shock and attract attention; to draw in a greater catchment of people? If people no longer have good taste then bad taste is the only way to go, yes...as long as it's made really well it can be sold as some sort of exclusive art object.
One can't help but be taken with Koons though; when confronted with his work, you do get drawn in. Firstly trying work out how the thing's been made and what exactly is going on. Followed by a realisation that all is not what it seems. Then total disbelief at the nerve of it... followed by a bit of a laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Seal, Walrus (Chairs) 2003-9
On our recent visit to the current exhibition at the Gagosian called Sprayed we experienced precisely this effect. One of his pieces being stacks of white chairs with what appears to be blown-up inflatables incorporated into them. Made out of metal these inflatables are crying out to be touched, to be checked with your fingers; but you can't touch so you have to rely on your eyes to notice that all is not what it seems; but we were fascinated...we were caught in the Koons web.
Coincidentally we recently watched the BBC's Diary Of A Seducer, on Koons. Here we saw him growing up via snippets of film from the 50s and 60s. We discovered his Father passed on to him a passion for objects. We find out who he admired: Duchamp, Picabia and Dali. His admiration for these three is very evident: in Duchamp with his Readymades, Dali with his cultivated persona and interest in metamorphosis and Picabia, I suspect, for his wit. We see him developing his taste whilst working with Chicago-based Ed Paschke (whose work I much prefer). It would seem it is through Paschke that he develops a penchant for the underbelly of American culture via the media, but of course Paschke's forerunner would have been Warhol and so I believe Andy is the starting point in terms of approach, in more ways than one.
La Chanteuse (Oil on linen) 1981
Most artists are pretty normal people but normal is not what attracts attention. Koons understands this and like Dali and Warhol has created a persona that is harder for people to read, therefore he himself becomes the point of interest for the viewer. A work can get away with being second rate when people buy into the character of the artist; that is when it no longer matters about the art. To buy a Koons would be to buy part of the man or the brand.
I wasn't surprised to be informed by the fact that our very own Damian Hirst is a fan of Koons and owns one of his pieces which resides in his studio where he (like Koons) employs skilled workers to make up his art. He is our British version of Koons but in persona they are different: Koons is slick, business-like, a little unsavoury and softly spoken; like a church minister up to no good. Hirst is a wholesome cheeky-chappie, a sort of working class down to earth-ish type. Oh, and similarly both men have had the magic wand of Saachi cast over them.
Koons seems also to be selling some sort of American Dream gone awry. Below is one of the giants of the American celebrity/media culture, one that created his very own fantasy world and there have been a few, especially from the music business: Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton for example have made the dream into a bizarre larger-than-life reality. Koons seems endlessly fascinated by this idea and seems to be becoming one of these characters himself...Koonsworld has got to be done!
Michael Jackson and Bubbles 1988
The exhibition at the Gagosian is free to get in and although I haven't mentioned any of the other works on show it is an enjoyable exhibition. I do like themed shows and this one called 'Sprayed' does what is says on the tin... also the last two works pictured here are not in the show.