Career-spanning retrospectives often serve as a type of critical proving ground, if not a waterloo, for artists of a certain vintage. They often arrive at the point at which an artist’s cultural legacy is either up for renewal, or – frequently enough – for reevaluation.
Case in point: The Cindy Sherman MoMA retrospective of a couple of years ago. Until that time Sherman had been largely unassailable – one of the very few American artists who survived the critical backwash again the NYC artworld of the 1980s, one of the only artists of her generation whose status went unquestioned over the decades that followed. Up until the MoMA retrospect, which brought a couple of surprises. The first was its accompanying debut of a series of new work that met with harsh dismissals by a few critics; the argument being that the new works were definitely – and unexpectedly – weak. Otherwise, the reviews were generally positive. In a couple of instances, a critic would break ranks and used the occasion to declare, “I never liked her work to begin with.”
In terms of what sort of reception might greet a retrospective exhibition, timing has a lot to do with it. An artist’s reputation or critical esteem can fluctuate many times over the course of his or her career. So if the show in question meets with mixed, ambivalent or even hostile reviews, it might simple be that it coincides with the moment in which critics and viewers begin to pose certain questions. Has the artist’s work finally outlived its geist, and was now being reassessed by the sensibility of a different cultural climate? Were they perhaps crap to begin with, and we’re only now able to recognize this is hindsight? Or is all this just an example of the pendular sway of opinion – the inevitable but passing dip in esteem that often proves temporary before consensus regroups and rights itself? The path to canonization is almost never unswervingly linear.
And now it’s Jeff Koon’s turn. Admittedly, he’s always been a polarizing figure, and still is. But this time, on the occasion of the Whitney’s Koons retrospective, the detractors have their opportunity to line up and take their shots. For one, there's Thomas Micchelli at Hyperallergic:
“There’s really no getting around the sense that such preciously fabricated works as ‘Saint John’ and ‘Michael Jackson,’ when placed inside the walls of a preeminent art museum, bespeak a contempt for the less-affluent classes who find the Walmart versions of these images pleasing. Whether such latent condescension is intentional on the part of the artist or museum doesn’t matter; the imagery’s faux-democratic appeal to easy fun (to reference the title of another of Koons’s series) is bound to engender in the art-smart viewer either regression or ridicule, despite Koons’s stated goal, as related in a wall text, that they be seen ‘as an elaborate allegory […] aimed at freeing us to embrace without embarrassment our childhood affection for toys or the trinkets lining our grandparents’ shelves.’ We really don’t need an assist from Koons to accept the unsophisticated joys of childhood; the ideal of the child has been a tenet of Modernism since Charles Baudelaire.”
And at Artnet critic Ben Davies offers his own peculiar critique, more or less reaching similar conclusions:
“These works at least nod to questions of privilege. They suggest thoughts, however unformed, about who culture is aimed at and how desire is constructed. But realizing the specific racial and class components of one’s own taste also means some degree of self-doubt, and self-doubt is exactly what is purged as time goes by and Koons becomes a bigger deal.”
Personally, I feel Davis's attempt at a socio-economic tack almost misses its target completely. And I take issue with Micchelli’s assertion about the quasi-populist “condescension” that defines Koons’s career, if only because it always struck me – more specifically – as the product of cynical pandering. And reaching for Arthur Danto’s “End of Art” thesis seems not only overly generous, but ill-suited for the topic at hand. (If there’s an “end of art” diagnosis that Koons’s work exemplifies, it’s the one put forth by Donald Kuspit, landing squarely in the category of what Kuspit categorizes as "postart.”)*
I suppose there is such basis for labeling Koons the Most Important Living Artist of the past few decades. A fair enough verdict, providing you happen to believe that that self-blinkered acriticality, market bubbles, thought-killing clichés passed off profound truths, and the habitual recycling of artistic gestures from the recent past are the defining characteristics of the current era. And one could also make the same argument in terms of Koons’s influence on other artists that followed in his wake; but that argument would be too contingent on a favorable unanimous consensus about Damien Hirst and many of his YBA peers. Similarly for such a case being made where ever-increasing sums of money becomes the dictating criterion.
And then there’s Jerry Saltz. Long one of Koons’s most faithful advocates and defenders, even Saltz feels obligated to lace his review of the retrospective with caveats:
“Koons helped art reenter public discourse while also opening up the art world. ...The very environment he did so much to reengineer, followed by the mad amplification of the luxury economy, has meant that Koons’s art now seems to celebrate the ugliest parts of culture. The rich and greedy buy it because it lauds them for their greediness, their wealth, power, terrible taste, and bad values. Just as Koons was a positive emblem of an era when art was reengaging with the world beyond itself, he is now emblematic of one where only masters of the universe can play.”
Whereas Peter Schjeldahl writing for the New Yorker can only shrug:
“We might justly term the present Mammon-driven era in contemporary art the Koons Age. No other artist so lends himself to a caricature of the indecently rich ravening after the vulgarly bright and shiny. ...It’s really the quality of his work, interlocking with economic and social trends, that makes him the signal artist of today’s world. If you don’t like that, take it up with the world.”
Which I suppose could be translated to mean that a culture gets the type of art that it deserves.
* Not that this should be construed as an endorsement of the criticism of Donald Kuspit. Far from it. But I suppose the ideal obligatory exhibition companion publication could feature – in the place of the usual laudatory blahblah by curators, critics, and art hsitorians – one long text that was some sort of frankensteined suturing of Kuspit’s The End of Art, Fukuyama’s The End of History, and Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology, except rewritten in the style of your standard management-lit self-help tome. (Life coach not included.)