Jeff Koons: King of Kitsch by Chris Hall

Despite being the King of Kitsch (or maybe because of it), Jeff Koons makes a pretty good dime off his work.  He holds the record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction, Balloon Dogs (Orange) sold for $58.4 million dollars.  He has regularly employed assistants for his work, stating in the 80’s with about 30, to the present, where he employs about 120 people, working in a huge 16,000 square foot factory.  Without any underlying critique in his work, Jeff Koons becomes the poster child of American decadence in art.

Jeff Koons began his career in the 80’s by displaying recontextualized everyday items, such as an inflatable rabbit and vacuum cleaners.  Later he would expand his practice by producing a series of basketballs floating in aquariums full of water.  

Perhaps acknowledging his new role in bringing the banal to the art gallery, he began creating porcelain sculptures, starting with Ushering in Banality (1988) and culminating in Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1998).

In 1989 Jeff Koons, with his then wife, the politician and porn star Ilona Staller, began making work for the Made in Heaven series.  Made in Heaven is essentially Koons and Staller making porn and recontextualizing it as art.  The work can get pretty explicit.  Below are some tame examples from the series.

In the mid 90’s Koons began making his giant Balloon Dog sculptures out of polished steel, and a series of plastic sculptures, such as his Lobster and Cat on a Clothesline (1994-2001).  His most recent works include a limited edition label design for Dom Perignon (2004) and a sculpture and cover art for a Lady GaGa album (2013). 

Despite his success in the art world, Koons has his critics.  In an article comparing the contemporary art scene with show business, renowned critic Robert Hughes wrote that Koons is “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him.”

Andy Warhol: Art of Superficiality by Chris Hall

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962

“You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter. I can’t bear your work!” 
Willem de Kooning, yelling at Andy Warhol at a Larry Rivers party.

Where artist like Beuys sought to make the world a better place through their art, clearly did Warhol did not.  By mimicking the aesthetic of commerce and advertising, he only added to our cultural clutter.  By celebrating the idea of celebrity, he championed superficiality.  If artists like de Kooning are an ocean in their depth, Warhol is a dirty puddle.

One of Warhol’s first commercial successes was his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962).

Andy Warhol, 32 Campbells Soup Cans, 1962

The soup cans at least could not be confused with the real thing, but Warhol soon remedied that with his Brillo Boxes, (1964).

Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964

I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic. Andy Warhol.  By celebrating superficiality and celebrity culture, Andy Warhol became a celebrity himself.  

Soon Warhol puts himself before the work.  In Warhol’s first museum show at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art in 1965, the expected crowd was eager not so much to see the work, but rather the artist.  Warhol obliged them when Sam Green, fearing that the work might be damaged in the crowd, ordered that the work be taken down from the gallery walls.  

Andy Warhol at the Philadelphia ICA show, 1965

With fame came money, and Andy, true to his superficiality, loved money more than anything else in the world.  I'd asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions... Finally one lady friend asked the right question, "Well, what do you love most?" That's how I started painting money.  Andy Warhol.  Warhol also tells us, Making money is art.  And working is art.  And good business is the best art.  There is nothing wrong with making money from your art, but making money is certainly not art.  

Andy Warhol, 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962

The people gave Andy Warhol wealth and fame, and what does he give us in return?  He purposefully tries to bore us to death.  One film, Empire (1964), is nothing more than slow motion, static footage of the Empire State building, stretched out to eight hours and five minutes.  The video below is a ten minute excerpt, but a poor quality full length version is available on YouTube if you wish to torture yourself.

Excerpt from Empire, 1964

Oh, and here is another video, Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger (1982).  No meaning, no aesthetic, nothing but banal, boring nonsense.  At least with his celebrity portraits there was a formal aesthetic, composition and color, but here the boredom seems calculated and cruel.  There is nothing here, nothing to take away, just Andy Warhol, eating a hamburger.

Andy Warhol Eating a hamburger, 1982

Shia LaBeouf, Performance Artist? LaBeouf vs Abramovic by Chris Hall

Shia LaBeouf,  #IAmSorry , 2014

Shia LaBeouf, #IAmSorry, 2014

I've always depended on the kindness of strangers.  Blanch DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Shia LaBeouf (actor and perhaps sometime performance artist) opened up in an email interview recently about a traumatic experience during his exhibit #IAmSorry.  Back in February, Shia LaBeouf staged his #IAmSorry art performance piece in a Los Angeles gallery where people were able to enter a room alone with the actor and do and say whatever they wished as he sat silently wearing a paper bag over his head that read: “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.”  When asked if anything unsettling had occurred during the performance, La Beouf answered:

One woman who came with her boyfriend, who was outside the door when this happened, whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me… There were hundreds of people in line when she walked out with dishevelled hair and smudged lipstick. It was no good, not just for me but her man as well. On top of that my girl was in line to see me, because it was Valentine’s Day and I was living in the gallery for the duration of the event – we were separated for five days, no communication. So it really hurt her as well, as I guess the news of it travelled through the line. When she came in she asked for an explanation, and I couldn’t speak, so we both sat with this unexplained trauma silently. It was painful.

The work sounds a lot like Marina Abramovic’s performance Rhythm 0, 1974.  For Rhythm 0, Abramovic placed 72 objects on a table and allowed the audience, during a span of six hours, to use them on her in any way they chose.  Among the objects were things that might give pleasure (a feather, honey) and things that might give pain (a whip, a knife).  The audience, at first, was rather modest in approaching her, but that soon transitioned into people choosing to express themselves with the instruments that designed to inflict pain.  Abramovic, recounting her experience, tells us “they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun (complete with a single bullet) at my head, and another took it away.  After exactly six hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience.  Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”  

Call me naive, but I’ve always believed in the generosity and kindness of strangers, maybe not when the encounter is distant (email, the internet, etc), but certainly on a person to person basis, people will be accommodating and we can expect decency.  This is why I do wonder about the cruelty of strangers, as demonstrated by these art experiments.  Subconsciously, is the cruelty directed toward the idea of the artist or celebrity . . . a veiled jealousy or resentment toward the idea of the other?  It is just a thought.

As demonstrated by these examples of performance art, conflating art and life can have real life consequences.  If Shia LaBeouf’s confession is true, then I would sincerely feel for him, but he is a professional actor (good at lying) who has fallen out of the limelight.  He might just be trying to get back in the newspapers.  I admit to having a hard time taking his story completely at face value, the circumstance do not add up – raped by a woman, after allowing himself to be whipped for ten minutes, while in a semi-public space with hundreds of people lined up.  If LaBeouf is lying, then it is an insult to real rape victims everywhere.  Besides this, I do not understand what LaBeof was hoping to accomplish by rehashing an Abramovic performance.  LaBeouf should leave the art making to the professionals.

Marina Abramovic,  Rhythm 0,  1974

Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0, 1974