Accentuating the elephant graveyard feel is the work of Jeff Koons, on exhibit this month at Sonnabend after an eight-year absence. Koons, returned after a forced, publicity-fraught hiatus from which many thought he would never recover, has arrayed the gallery walls with more blindingly dumb products from his candy-colored fakery factory?kiddie mirrors in the shape of animal heads and slapdash neo-pop paintings?exploring, in the now musty words of perennially peppy critic Peter Schjeldahl, "a concrescence of the 'commodity fetishism' concept much in the air."
Schjeldahl's inelegant phrasing is as much the product of the late 80s as Koons' apparently irresistible rise to art stardom. In an era largely dominated by Koons and bad writing about commodity fetishism, the supply-side art dreams of the 80s produced monsters that today turn out to be tame as porcelain Pink Panthers. Toothless at Sonnabend, woefully out of time and lacking any of the famous frisson his self-advertising formerly garnered, Koons appears today to be finally facing the fates of product recycling. Updated by newer, shallower phenomena in the media and marketing worlds he so admires, virtually ignored in the art world he only recently conquered, Jeff Koons' highly mannered, publicity-driven style appears, by all lights, to have gone the way of the eight-track tape and the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Koons was indeed, as has been suggested by critic Anthony Haden-Guest, to the last half of the 80s what Julian Schnabel was to the first: a lodestar for tastelessness and self-promotion in the era of Bright Lights, Big City and corporate culture. Singularly unique among artists of his generation for his unabashed endorsement of mass-market entertainment and celebrity, Koons has long reveled in presenting works that copy manufactured things in both their look and ethos. From his plexiglass-encased vacuum cleaners to his porcelain statue of a white-faced Michael Jackson and pet chimp Bubbles, demotic art as kitsch and kitsch as art have been Koons' main offering for the end of the century.
Considerably attenuated by dramatic shifts in scale and by presentation in a gallery atmosphere, Koons situates objects like stainless-steel balloon bunny rabbits and statues of Bob Hope in what muddled postmodern wags still grandly call "acts of displacement." Playing off their surroundings, Koons' works act like empty vessels, sucking up all innocent observation, draining every drop of legitimacy available from the white cube, and scrubbing clean the decadent, money-obsessed museum and auction house culture that insists on celebrating the farce that is his art-making.
Jeff Koons, to put it bluntly, has never made a work of art in his life. Whether appropriating objects whole, as in the Spalding basketball set bobbing inside a fish tank, or commissioning groups of assistants or craftsmen to make his paintings and sculptures, such as the large porcelain cast images of the artist cornholing his ex-wife, Ilona Staller, aka porn star La Cicciolina, he has always scrupulously avoided dirtying his hands in the manner of the wealthiest and best stock-optioned CEOs. Alternately packed out with silly wares like a giant-toy showroom or empty of everything save for order forms and bills of lading, Koons' studio serves, in the words of the artist himself, as "an organizational area, not a workshop as such."
Located at 600 Broadway?fittingly just below "Kostabi World," the painting factory that churns out cheap de Chirico knockoffs like fake Rolexes?Koons' studio has been pressed into service in the 90s as a clearinghouse for work the artist intends for arenas other than the public one. Still smarting after the critical savaging that followed his 1988 exhibition "Made In Heaven," which featured Koons riding roughshod over La Cicciolina in statues and statuettes with titles like Jeff Eating Ilona, Koons, together with dealer Jeffrey Deitch, Sotheby's and the Guggenheim Museum, has devised a way of placing the work in far-flung museum environments, then bringing the stuff directly to auction. In addition to bypassing the riskier gallery circuit, the strategy (itself a three-legged American version of Charles Saatchi's princely method) has the added benefit of delivering its message from the very top of the art heap. It is from those lofty heights that the company would dictate to the world Koons' born-again fashionableness and, presumably, the return of Tommy Dorsey's big-band sound and newfangled uses for the Hula Hoop.
Koons' current exhibition, "Easyfun," is a timid first foray into the shallow end of the New York gallery pool after nearly a decade of inactivity. Chummy again with Ileana Sonnabend after disagreeing on, among other things, having the gallerist pick up the tab for Koons' stillborn film project, a hardcore flick with La Cicciolina, "Easyfun" is a curiously lightweight Koons show in both heft and public relations razzmatazz. Koons' work this decade?like the gigantic sculptures in his "Celebration" suite that skipped exhibition in New York altogether and "Puppy," the giant Chia Pet made of steel mesh and 60,000 flowers at the Guggenheim's newest digs in Bilbao?has, if anything, grown larger and more grandiose. Ever the attention-getter, Koons has also orchestrated various New York events (a party at his studio for David Bowie's magazine Modern Painters comes to mind) throughout his extended vacation, plus photo ops to keep himself never too far from the public eye.
Nothing could be less fittingly triumphal, then, than the nearly total silence surrounding "Easyfun," both critically and from the artist and gallery themselves. Koons, who once made a habit of promoting his art by literally advertising himself in leading art magazines, has been unnaturally quiet. The gallery, which, as mentioned above, plans on relocating soon, made a deliberate decision to exhibit Koons' loudly passe work in old Soho, the better perhaps to cut a more stylized figure when touching down in Chelsea. The work, for its part, is novel only in its lack of ambitiousness when compared to the Koons juggernaut of yesteryear. Confecting a sort of funhouse atmosphere, Koons' colored mirrors of hippo, giraffe and donkey heads reflect one another and three canvases of cookies, cereals and splashing milk painted in the manner of James Rosenquist. Priced absurdly at $100,000 for the mirrors and $200,000 for the thinly, even hastily executed paintings (by Koons' assistants, who else?), the works are banal enough to be typically insulting (Koons calls whomever buys the burro heads a jackass to their face).
But they whisper, no, rather whimper their message to an unlistening public ready to conflate Koons with other has-been art charlatans like Peter Max and Salvador Dali. Let's face it: The era of specious Baudrillardian cant and deck-shuffling is long over. Koons' MBA style, honed by an early career in sales that he never really left, is dead, unfashionable today. But how about his endlessly postponed Guggenheim New York and Guggenheim Bilbao exhibitions? I know few people who will be holding their breath.
Jeff Koons' "Easyfun," through Dec. 18 at Sonnabend, 420 W. Broadway (betw. Prince & Spring Sts.), 966-6160.