Pop with No Apologies

Let the critics think what they will. As you look at Jeff Koons' art, he wants you to feel good about yourself, unconditionally.

April 09, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

NEW YORK - Andy Warhol ironically called his studio The Factory; artist Jeff Koons' studio in the art-crazed Chelsea district is the real thing.

Forget about romantic garrets with exposed wooden beams and skylights: Koons' work space is a high-tech engineering lab - a warren of white industrial cubes stuffed chock-a-block with the artist's 40 full-time assistants and their tools and equipment. Here, Koons and his helpers churn out dozens of artworks each year that unapologetically glorify America's materialistic consumer culture: aluminum dolphins, caterpillars, seals and walruses painted to look like inflatable pool toys; resin models of comic book superheroes; computer-designed, hand-painted collages that jumble cartoons, botanical illustrations, inflatables and pop icons in a crazy quilt of old and new, high art and low.

And no matter how hard a visitor resists the thought, one question nags: But is it art?

That's a question Koons - one of the baddest bad boys of contemporary art, a guy who exhibited porcelain tchotchkes of Michael Jackson, cast inflatable bunnies in stainless steel and erected a 40-foot dog draped with flowers in New York's Rockefeller Center - presumably will address Monday when he visits his old stomping grounds, the Maryland Institute College of Art. (He'll give a lecture at noon.)

Koons, a soft-spoken man with thinning brown hair and the earnestness of a country doctor, turned 50 this year, and in the rarified world of high-powered contemporary art he is possibly MICA's most famous living former student.

His works sell at auction for millions and are in demand for exhibits for museums and galleries around the world (the Baltimore Museum of Art houses his maniacally shiny, stainless steel Rabbit of 1986, on long-term loan from the Sonnabend Gallery in New York).

Raised in York, Pa., Koons spent three years at MICA before transferring to the Art Institute of Chicago in his senior year. After graduating in 1976, he worked briefly as a commodities broker to raise money for his projects before devoting himself completely to art.

Koons' studio seems big enough to house several small aircraft. There's a design room with banks of computers at which a dozen assistants sit. There's a state-of-the-art paint room with computer-controlled tins of pigment that automatically mix any color desired. There's a metal shop where assistants grind, sand and polish works-in-progress while wearing protective masks and filters that make them look as if they were preparing for chemical warfare.

In the midst of it all, Koons moves about, inspecting his assistants' work, offering encouragement and pointing out all the projects-in-progress, from a red plaster lobster to a full-size replica of a locomotive he plans to hang from a crane in front of the new Francois Pinault Museum for Contemporary Art in Paris when it opens in 2007.

"I've been attracted to locomotives and steam engines for the kind of power [they represent]," Koons explains. "There are areas of life - advertising or entertainment, for example - where the artist should embrace and use every aspect of the power of art to communicate. But what comes along with that also is a responsibility to other people. I think of my work as very moral."

By "moral," Koons means his artworks "try to be as much about the viewer as about myself; they try to find grace in things, find acceptance in things in a way that's nonjudgmental. That doesn't mean you can't have a hierarchy of interests and things you prefer, but it remains nonjudgmental."

That's what drives Koons' critics crazy. His work is too nonjudgmental, they say, too accepting of whatever's out there, too indiscriminate in its affection for the banal, the commonplace and the tawdry. How can it be art?

The pop artists of the 1960s were fascinated by popular culture, too. Yet pop maintained a certain ironic distance from the everyday objects it celebrated; it treated the flags, targets, soup cans, junk food and comic strips it appropriated from mass media in much the same spirit as Marcel Duchamp had earlier treated the urinals and coat-hangers he turned into "ready-made" artworks.

`Bad boy reception'

In Koons' work, though, there's little sense of irony or detachment. His sculptures, paintings and ceramics seem to offer a wholly uncritical embrace of glitz and glamour, of commodity culture at its most self-absorbed.

"One thing Koons was able to do in his early work was to critique minimalist gestures in a way that was very reminiscent of Warhol, and I think that's what gave him a sort of bad boy reception," says Symmes Gardner, director of the Center for Art and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "But the work was in many ways brilliantly conceived. Any time an artist seems truly independent he's going to cause a commotion."

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