Jeff Koons Plays His Race Card

THE DAILY PIC: Our critic sees politics in an appropriated ad.


For week three of my Koons-O-Rama, here’s Jeff’s Hennessy, The Civilized Way to Lay Down the Law, made in 1986 and yet another gem in his Whitney retrospective. It’s a straight re-presentation of an ’80s liquor ad, although printed on canvas to become fine art. It establishes Koons as one of our most perceptive painters of modern life, such as Baudelaire would have admired. Forget feeding that life through an artist’s eye; for this piece, Koons saw that the world was strange enough to be shown as-is.

The insane overkill of the ad’s semiotics is something to behold. The young, Barbie-nosed black woman is inviting her studious black husband to bed—why, he’s been working until quarter-past-two in the morning (as the clock’s hands tell us) while his little lady has awaited his favors (note the dent in her pillow). Finally, throwing on (barely) her man’s classy Oxford-cloth shirt, she’s decided to get help from Hennessy. She’s come hunting for lion (note the statuette on his desk) and has no truck for law books (the fat old volumes and legal pad in front of him). Just because he got to college on that baseball scholarship of his (his prize ball sits on a shelf), that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to life except schooling. Sure, we’re still in an old apartment in Harlem (the radiator is old-style; above it, the window faces south, with careful cutouts of the Chrysler Building and Empire State placed in the far distance). But Hey, Baby, we can drink up, have sex, and still end up in a condo downtown. This Hennessy sure is the World’s Most Civilized Spirit, ’cause it can even civilize us.

It’s not so hard to spot the ad’s racial cliches once Koons has focused his art on them. What’s impressive is that he spotted them out in the world and realized they deserved art’s attention. So much for this artist as politics-free. (Collection of David and Monica Zwirner; © Jeff Koons)

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