Jeff Koons has come and gone. I did not expect to like as much as I did the big retrospective devoted to him at the Whitney. You may have seen the images –the puppies and kittens, Pop Eye, the oversize Balloon Dog and blow up toys, erotic photographs with his then wife, the Italian porn star Ilona Staller (“La Cicciolina”), the sculpture of Michael Jackson with Bubbles, the vacuum cleaners placed in clear glass vitrines. In the Pop Art tradition of Andy Warhol, their presentation is in naughty bad taste and lots of good fun. My own initial indifference may have something to do with the physically grotesque scale and the emblematic ubiquity of the works coupled with the intense critical moralizing that his work attracts from critics who cannot detach the actual objects from the means of production-consumption specific to post-industrial capitalism and the commodification of art represented by Koons. With Adorno, large segments of the culture industry look with a jaundiced eye at fun art. While I don’t share the intensity that comes with this kind of critique, it’s hard to shake its cumulative effect. But perhaps there was another set of reasons as to why I was less excited than merely curious or simply interested about the show might have to with my not particularly liking the objects as such; and relatedly, with my sense that I don’t think the works photograph well, at least not from the distance required to capture their entire shape.
Looking up close at the large Play-Doh (1994-2014), though, I think I figured it out. The sculpture looks soft, like a gigantic pile of “real” play doh, it’s metallic, as are many of the sculptural objects intended to look like vinyl blow up things. The warning posted by the museum at the exhibition are very much to the point. “Please do not touch the works on view. The surfaces of these objects are fragile. Looked at from a distance, the shape of the objects are cute and campy, and from that perspective, you might like or dislike them as such. But looked up close, what draws the eye is not the shape and the beauty of the object as much as that fragile surface, worked down to the last millimeter. You can read about the workmanship devoted to these object here and here, about industrial techniques like machine-milling and imaging technologies, the army of assistants, consultants, and technicians including, most recently, M.I.T.’s Center for Bits and Atoms. That and nothing less is what it takes to create and sustain this attention to detail, to create such a perfect surface or to recreate surface imperfections.
In the Garden of Eden, it’s not the shape that “matters.” It’s the surface, in this case the transformation of a metallic surface into something that looks soft, yielding, inviting. Worked to death, that’s the reason these things are so expensive. There is a moral commitment here…to the object. The materials are precious, the craftsmanship is layered, and the work takes time, lots of time, to get every square inch of the surface just right. Look closely, but don’t touch. These things look cheap. They are supposed to invoke cheap material things when what they exhibit is thought, craft, and work. We could probably say the same thing about late consumer capitalism. In Our Aesthetic Categories, Sionne Ngai identifies the cute, the interesting, and the zany as our aesthetic categories. Oddly enough, she does so without mention of Koons, whose work is the consummate articulation of those very categories and the social forces that generate them. A cute artwork is something you just want to gobble up. But you can’t. Look closely at the surface, but please don’t touch the art. And for God’s sake, don’t eat the artworks. They are made of metal. If you eat them, you’ll die.