Jeff Koons is not an artist.

2014·06·06

Puppies. Flowers. Inflatables. Smiling, colorful, bouncy elements sold under a phantasmic American Dream. The post-war boom of mid-century modern America, if nothing else, introduced its citizens to an orgasmic and chromatic wasteland of factory-made things. Blow-up pools, economical flashy cars, and kitschy lawn flamingos all predate that mirrored gala called disco and that cocaine-fueled culture called the 80s. It was in those latter decades that artist Jeff Koons, with his cherubic visage and go-getting spunk, ran onto the New York City art scene, tossed his hat high into the ring, and with a lifelong dream to become an artist, hoped that he would make it after all.

Nearly forty years later, Koons is one of the wealthiest living artists of all time, estimated to be worth over $500 million. This is an astonishing feat for anyone, especially an artist, a career choice often categorized as one of nagging financial struggle. Yet, monetary value and aesthetic quality never necessarily run parallel, and, in fact, in this case run somewhat drunkenly perpendicular, a point repeatedly made by critics of the artist’s endeavors. As a mass-producer of artsy objects, Koons demonstrates the ill effects of an art market hellbent on profit and an oeuvre deliriously astray from the great possibilities inherent in artistic expression. His so-called art practice embraces unrelentingly absurd standards, employing a small tribe of artist-workers to churn out products designed by him and ultimately sold at incredible prices that far surpass the comparatively minuscule salaries his employees are paid. In this regard, Koons is not an artist. He is an idealistic chief executive officer of a luxurious commodity empire, an eponymous brand of goods manufactured by an anonymous working class, an alienated proletariat of artists reduced to artisans.

Jeff Koons in his studio, 1997, by Ellen von Unwerth

Jeff Koons in his studio, 1997
Photo by Ellen von Unwerth/Art+Commerce
Courtesy: Interview Magazine

Perhaps if Koons presented himself as more of a Paul Budnitz, the proprietor of high-design, collectible art toy producer Kidrobot, whose wares are sold in retail stores, critics and aesthetes would unleash less vitriol against his name. Like Kidrobot’s gewgaws, Koons’s works have no real utilitarian function, and just like the adorable toys, his works are often viciously sought after by collectors. However, apart from private secondary sales, consumers desirous of a Koons thing must instead head to a mega-gallery like Gagosian or David Zwirner, or an auction house like Christie’s, where Kidrobot, too, has been seen on the block; nevertheless, the Koons brand is marketed as fine art, and distributed directly to and sold in its hallowed exchanges.

For instance, in 2013, exhibitions were held at those very two galleries, which featured, among other things, gleaming white plaster sculptures that, for the most part, indirectly referenced art work by other artists or directly carbon-copied historical classics — an astonishingly accurate Hellenic Farnese Herakles facsimile, originally by Lyssipos, but interestingly also existent in copied form, was mentioned loudly in the press during the shows. A singular, gleamingly hyper-reflective blue “gazing ball,” mirror-perfect and capable of absorbing its viewers’ visages directly into the work, adorns each sculpture. These works are high-tech, indeed, products of sharp eyes, deft hands, technological innovations, and unrelenting attention to perfect replication. But, they are not Jeff Koons’s art.

Interestingly enough, Budnitz holds a degree in art from Yale University, while Koons’s public eschewal of art history is a well-known fact. Similarly, both men at one time handcrafted (or in Koons’s case, handled) their own work, but each now almost entirely rely on other entities, human and machine, to make what they each declare art. At least Budnitz’s creations, marketed under a brand name, imply authorship by a company of people. But, speaking to Klaus Ottman for the Journal of Contemporary Art in 1986, Koons outright admits his scheme: “I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production.” Yet, it is a Jeff Koons which is purchased, though all of the work has been done by somebody else. These two men run what Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight calls a “corporate- style” “contemporary production method.” More simply, with a nod toward Andy Warhol, they both lead factories.

The implications of this for the art world prove equally fascinating and disheartening. A voracious customer base exists, hungry for objects that physically present its creator’s work as his conceptions and not his ability to compose and craft the thing itself. Former employee John Powers wrote in his New York Times essay “I Was Jeff Koons’s Studio Serf” about the “dozens” of workers responsible for creating a series of paintings for the chief executive for lukewarm wages. He describes in detail the factory-like conditions of the Koons studio environment. Discussing a painting with which he was charged to oversee its fruition, he outlines its many methodical steps divided amongst the employees: a concept image is photographed in order to transcribe perfectly traced contours onto canvas; a separate auxiliary team of artists painstakingly replicate each visible gradation of color; Powers then uses custom brushes to “[p]aint by numbers,” previously mapped by the color team, toward an end result that is free of visible texture, void of human touch, and ultimately an object with the illusion of having been machined. In terms of fine artistry, this completely inverts the longstanding qualification for painters and sculptors, namely that they participate as creator and maker with their work, that their hand is a crucial tool in the process, even if supported by assistants or apprentices. Perhaps Koons, leaning on the looser, open-ended title of “artist,” sneaks by here, since it’s rare to see him referred to in either of the aforementioned roles. Instead, what really occurs, especially now in Koons’s post-ascendant mature period, is his performance as showman and middleman, a throwback to his first incarnation as an ersatz commodities broker. Purchasing art work to his specification by investing capital as wages paid to a labor force under his direct control, Koons thereby exploits skilled workers as a particular technology he needs to increase the productivity of his brand; he is the first consumer in his conceptual Ponzi scheme. These products are purchased as his goods yet sold as his work, their authorship attributed to him in exhibitions and auctions despite broad public knowledge of the contrary. This creates an ad hoc spectacle, commercial theater masquerading as art practice, when in fact the real art is the salesmanship, cheerled by gallerists in the wings and a well-heeled audience — bourgeois capitalists themselves — applauding the business maneuvers with their checkbooks and taking home shiny engorged tchotchkes as their Playbill.

Jeff Koons Pissing off Lyssipos

Pissing off Lyssipos
Courtesy: Blouin Artinfo

In their seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno foresaw, in their criticism of what they call the culture industry, of which the art world is a part, this type of farce: the adulterated, homogenized, irrational mass-production of substitutional art, created not for “unbridled expression,” but commodified to satisfy “the needs of the consumers.” Critic John Yau, in his review of the aforementioned two-gallery monodrama, points out such market-made motivations, saying Koons “has his finger to the pulse of the audience whose adulations he hungers after,” and later categorizes his work as that of a “visual dullard.” Since all of Koons’s products emulate a “systematic literalism,” one in which many of its referential objects can be found in a K-Mart toy aisle or garden shop, intellectual and emotional torpidity aren’t far behind. Yau notes how such absence of meaning can confound its proponents, declaring that “his audience … will all too willingly confuse his fixated perfectionism with genius.” This perfectionism, his hallmark, is facilitated in part to elaborate implementations of the technological advances in photography, as Powers details. The only visual success of his products are as proof of his ability to take exploited labor enabled with technology and mastermind what the philosophers call “schema for mechanical reproducibility,” a flawed, grandiose attempt to advance the style of Pop art, which lacks the originality introduced by his predecessors. The glossy xeroxing not only suppresses the creative expressivity of his staff’s labor, but also debases his viewers’ possibility of creative interpretation, a hallmark for Horkheimer and Adorno of a mass culture choked by business.

Perhaps more successfully, Koons’s faux art works are milestones of capitalist-inspired ideology. How can one describe the celebration of these milestones? Echoing words from art market observer Felix Salmon, they are “interior design for the private-jet crowd.” Salmon applies this analogy to the frenzied purchase of artists’ works selling for more than $1 million, a domain of which Koons is healthily a part. But, like Salmon, professor Mark C. Taylor warns this has all become a game of speculation for collectors, a part of finance capitalism. Taylor describes finance capitalism essentially as an abstract spiral of derivation: one investment’s value derives from another’s, which derives from yet another, and so forth. He argues that the art market has mirrored this phenomenon, its wares having been commoditized, corporatized, and transformed into post-consumer financial instruments. On one hand, Taylor alludes to valuation spurred by Koons’s rhetoric, that his work “makes people feel good about themselves, their history, and their potential,” intangible desire symbolically affixed to his objects. Conversely, whereas the patronage of art “had long been limited to the church and aristocracy,” now non-art corporations hope to, as collectors, bolster their public esteem, transposing the church’s fetish-holding nature into their own asset, absurdly driving up prices alongside an aristocracy hungry for ownership of a perfectly rendered, narcissistically reflective, power-of-wealth-affirming object. A thing, in their minds, that is aesthetically sound. This fact is demonstrated no better than in the very words of the men running the business end. Tobias Meyer, once-principal auctioneer of Sotheby’s auction house, in an oft-repeated art world sound bite, once declared that “the best art is the most expensive art because the market is so smart.” This sentiment was several years later supported by then contemporary art chief at Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo, and one-time Koons gallerist and notorious art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who both argued in favor of market-judged aesthetics on a panel at a 2013 Hong Kong art fair. The same dealers and auctioneers who qualify and venerate the purchases of wealthy consumers as an ideology of optimal aesthetics, sell to that market the very objects to be quantified in order to create this new paradigm of art. As Horkheimer and Adorno point out, the art “industry bows to the vote it has itself rigged.” This mimics exactly the rhetoric of Koons, his notion of selling glitzy talismans that soothe whatever emotion, memory, or dream needs salve. The malady is not the product, but the price, desire quantified, transacted to stave off the “economic impotence” of owning a less expensive and therefore less beautiful toy. Insofar as these various purchased artsy things may decorate their collector’s palatial living room walls or wide accounting ledgers, the true purchases are also always an upholstering of egos and an assuaging of heartfelt needs to transcend the very type of emotional banality in which their commerce just reinvested.

Mary Tyler Moore hat toss

Mary Tyler Moore
Real artist
Courtesy: MTM Enterprises

Toys. Overpriced, pristine, compromised by an owner’s physical touch, thus dirtied, thus devalued. Koons knows this well; he wrote the game’s instructions. He knows that should he lay a hand on his works as maker, that touch will burst the balloon he had his workers blow up. Koons claims his theater “doesn’t alienate anyone.” Bullshit (the only toy he can fabricate by himself). That line is as scripted as his car salesman smile, as hollow as his balloons, what Horkheimer and Adorno would judge “a surrogate of meaning and justice,” yelled over the heads of the laborers of his work.

Jeff Koons has not made it, after all.

Some have tried to prize all this as performance, a critique to which no applause should be heard; Koons has yet to take his act directly to the stage. It is precisely because of the extreme alienation of labor that none of his products are art. The true artists, they who hold and stroke the actual material of creative endeavor, remain unseen, sequestered to a factory of endless replication. Yet, insofar as his workers make a Jeff Koons, so, too, does the market. He needs object and hot air. Heavily publicized auction hysteria, results of the race to numerical beauty, accordingly perform not as journalism of an event, but as an advertisement for constant attention, the fuel on which the culture industry depends. The price of Koons’s next sale derives from the last collector’s triumph on a lot. A fake classic. A flowered puppy. An inflatable. And so it blows.


Jeff Koons is not an artist, and really shouldn’t be having “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” at the Whitney Museum of American Art this year.