Our Favorite Art Essay of 2014: Jed Perl’s Savaging of Jeff Koons

Someone finally explains why Koons is so popular, and, well, so irritating.

Jeff Koons poses in front of his work Antiquity 3, 2011 during the opening of the exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle.
Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images.

New York art critic Jed Perl recently resigned his seat at the New Republic. (For our story, see “Art Critic Jed Perl Quits the New Republic.”)

We at artnet News are among Perl’s many admirers, and as we look back over the year that was, we fondly recall what is undoubtedly the best art essay of 2014, Perl’s “The Cult of Jeff Koons.”

Here we offer an excerpt of the essay (only the text), published in the September 25th issue of the New York Review of Books.


Jeff Koons, Cat on a Clothesline (Aqua) (1994–2001).
Photo: Benjamin Sutton.


Jeff Koons: A Retrospective
an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, June 27–October 19, 2014; the Centre Pompidou, Paris, November 26, 2014–April 27, 2015; and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, June 5–September 27, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Scott Rothkopf
Whitney Museum of American Art, 303 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)

Imagine the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the perfect storm. And at the center of the perfect storm there is a perfect vacuum. The storm is everything going on around Jeff Koons: the multimillion-dollar auction prices, the blue chip dealers, the hyperbolic claims of the critics, the adulation and the controversy and the public that quite naturally wants to know what all the fuss is about. The vacuum is the work itself, displayed on five of the six floors of the Whitney, a succession of pop culture trophies so emotionally dead that museumgoers appear a little dazed as they dutifully take out their iPhones and produce their selfies.

Presented against stark white walls under bright white light, Koons’s floating basketballs, Plexiglas-boxed household appliances, and elaborately produced jumbo-sized versions of sundry knickknacks, souvenirs, toys, and backyard pool paraphernalia have a chilly chic arrogance. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them. This is the last show that the Whitney will mount in its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue before moving to new quarters in the Meatpacking District, and Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, has come up with a parting shot so swaggeringly obnoxious that it can’t be ignored.

Anybody who has taken Modern Art 101 will be able to give you some general idea of how we arrived at the point where a ten-foot-high polychromed aluminum reproduction of a multicolored pile of Play-Doh holds center stage at the Whitney—and is hailed by Roberta Smith, one of the chief art critics at The New York Times, as “a new, almost certain masterpiece.” What we are seeing at the Whitney is the mainstreaming of Dadaism and in particular of the readymade, the ordinary and frequently mass-produced objects that Marcel Duchamp reimagined as art objects, including, early on, a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, and a urinal.

Duchamp produced his first readymades roughly a hundred years ago. At the time they were seen by hardly anybody; they were the ultimate insider’s cool dude joke art. This was a joke that Duchamp presented deadpan, with the deliberateness of a man who very carefully weighed every move he made. He had already pursued a serious career as a painter; he had created a sensation at the Armory Show in 1913 with his Nude Descending a Staircase; and he would not have abandoned painting without cause. Duchamp felt there was too much of a mystique around art. Years later, he told Calvin Tomkins, “I don’t believe in [art] with all the trimmings, the mystic trimming and the reverence trimming and so forth.” The readymade was an act of supreme skepticism; at least that is what it was for Duchamp.


Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000).
Photo: Courtesy ABC.es.

Koons, simply put, is Duchamp with lots of ostentatious trimmings. This is not a pretty sight. Duchamp’s readymades have an almost monastic austerity. Koons has bulked them up, transforming the ultimate insider’s art into the art that will not shut up. For Koons’s supporters, and they are legion, this is an anti-tradition that has become an honorable tradition, with all that implies about the risks and rewards of legitimacy. The art historians, with their addiction to neat chronologies, will tell you that Duchamp begat Rauschenberg and Johns, who begat Warhol, who begat Koons. It has been Koons’s weird instinctive salesman’s genius to capitalize on the art world’s increasingly confused adulation of Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol, who are nowadays seen as seductive mixtures of trickster, mystic, magus, prophet, virtuoso (and at least in Warhol’s case, huckster).

There is a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t element to the reputations of all these artists, who are viewed as simultaneously criticizing and celebrating the commercial culture that is their inveterate subject. If you listen in on conversations in the galleries at the Koons show—whether a museum lecturer speaking to a group or a more knowledgeable visitor giving some friends the lowdown—you invariably find that the Whitney’s overwhelmingly middle-class audience is being told that Koons presents a sly critique of middle-class values. Of course everybody can also see that he is having his way with commercial culture—and with us. Koons knows how to capitalize on the guilty pleasure that the museumgoing public takes in all his mixed messages. He knows how to leave people feeling simultaneously ironical, erudite, silly, sophisticated, and bemused.

Koons presents his work under an assortment of brand names, and many of these brands have their own galleries at the Whitney. Everything Koons produces has a factory-produced impersonality. His studio is a kind of factory, although a far cry from the darkly druggy escapades of Warhol’s Factory. There are some 128 people employed in Koons’s studio, which from photographs looks as antiseptic as an operating room; sixty-four employees work in the painting department, forty-four in the sculpture department. Among the brands he has marketed since the early 1980s are “Equilibrium” (the floating basketballs); “Statuary/Kiepenkerl” (stainless steel replicas of a statuette of Bob Hope, an inflatable rabbit, a bust of Louis XIV); “Banality” (reproductions in porcelain and polychromed wood of various knickknacks); and “Made in Heaven” (photorealist paintings and glass sculptures of Koons in flagrante delicto with his then wife, Ilona Staller, known in Italy as the porn star Cicciolina).

The newer brands include “Celebration” (jumbo-sized renderings in mirror-polished stainless steel of a heart, an egg, and a variety of animals) and “Easyfun” (colored mirrors shaped like animals’ heads). Balloon Dog, from the “Celebration” series, may be the most famous of all Koons’s concoctions. This is a ten-foot-high rendering, in mirror-polished stainless steel with a translucent color coating, of a canine made from the kind of sausage-shaped balloons that amuse little children. Koons’s Balloon Dog was produced in an edition of five. The yellow one is on display at the Whitney. The orange one sold last year at auction for more than $58 million, the record for a living artist.


Jeff Koons, Made in Heaven (1989).

To read the essay in its entirety at the New York Review of Books, where it was published, click here.


Jed Perl’s books include Magicians and Charlatans, Antoine’s Alphabet, New Art City, and Paris Without End. He was the art critic for the New Republic for 20 years.


For more artnet News coverage of Jeff Koons, see “Jeff Koons Sued for Plagiarism.”

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