Banal Antiquity: Koons and Anachronism

Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

February 7 – June 9, 2019

Team Anachronism recently took some time to gaze into Jeff Koons’ highly polished surfaces, oversized steel trinkets and eye-wateringly expensive blue balls. The show comprises seventeen artworks from one of the most notorious figures in the contemporary art-world, split up into three rooms – “Banality”, “Antiquity” and “Gazing Balls”. Across these sections is a fairly idiosyncratic selection from Koons’ back-catalogue. There is none of the controversy-courting “Made in Heaven” series,[1] though “Rabbit” (1986) is here, Koons’ first major foray into the steel balloon aesthetic for which he is best known. For viewers, looking at the brilliant reflection of a shiny bunny and seeing themselves, it’s hard to fight a sense that the only responses possible here are ennui, hermeneutic and historical.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.36.46
“Rabbit” stainless steel
41 x 19 x 12 inches 
104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm
© Jeff Koons
1986

In 2019, the art world loves to hate Jeff Koons.[2] As the living embodiment of its bad conscience and the man who has most successfully exploited the irreconcilable logic of turning art into commodity, Koons is all the more irritating because he appears to sleep soundly at night undisturbed by the nightmarish contradictions of such an existence. His practice might be best described as Warhol on steroids, and the kind of critiques of Warhol are ramped up accordingly when directed at Koons. He is the investment banker turned artist who sells art to investment bankers and the rest of the one percent. He is the maverick who either exposes the worst contradictions of capitalism or just materializes them to make a quick buck. If we take the holy marketing doctrine that “sex sells”, what better realization of that reasoning than to make explicit and phenomenally unnecessary art featuring you and your pornstar wife? All surface, no depth – good clean post-modern fun. And yet, in a dawning age of new global fascism, Koons’ erotics of nihilism make him the artist of the age. It is this apposite distillation of culture (one kind of timeliness) together with an on-going interest in the materials and aesthetics of classical antiquity, that make Koons a particularly choice artist to think about under the rubric of anachronism.

Antiquity has become a core part of Koons’ practice: the works in the second room are mostly drawn from a series in 2008 called “Antiquity”. In addition we have the works in the third room, the “Gazing Balls” pieces. So Hal Foster is quite right in his observation that “classical statuary” is one of Koons’ three categories (the other two being “kitsch” and “porn”)[3]. Antiquity is primarily an aesthetic in Koons’ practice of radically transforming ancient form into modern medium (as in his “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” take on the Venus of Willendorf) or superimposing antiquity as collage (as in his Aphrodite riding a dolphin, in which a Bettie Page model is rendered as the goddess straddling a dolphin about to fellate a blow-up monkey).

Koons does, however, engage conceptually with antiquity too, particularly around the idea of representation and authenticity. In a recent interview, he comments on the transcendental in his practice: “If I’m working with a copy, I’m doing it as reference because what I’m really interested in is the Platonic idea of the piece”.[4] Koons deals with the concept of aesthetic originality through the extreme practice of reproduction. He is deeply invested in the copy: for example, the painting of an Old Master that appears identical but is not quite to scale or the ancient sculptural group that is reproduced from its Roman copy in place of the original. These are copies that revel in drawing attention to their iterability. Koons’ mimetic practice constitutes a transcendence of sorts, but that is a term so featherweight in its critical purchase that it sails out of the window. This practice is glib:  you can barely construe this as a response to the nexus of problems that have accumulated around mimesis in the history of philosophy in the last two thousand years. Walking out of the cave might make you very rich indeed.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.33.44.png
“Ballon Venus” mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating
102 x 48 x 50 inches
259.1 x 121.9 x 127 cm
© Jeff Koons
2008-2012

Antiquity is the loose thematic unity of the second room. It has several large canvasses displaying almost exact replicas of oil paintings on which Koons has enacted his collage of art history techniques. You are confronted immediately however with three enormous steel statues. Two are oversized replicas of ballet dancer figurines, the kind that might appear on a suburban mantelpiece. The third figure is Koon’s response to the Venus of Willendorf in “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” (2008-2012). The accompanying signage for “Rabbit” indicates what steel means as a medium for Koons, and why he might have chosen it to represent Venus: “The surface of my stainless steel pieces is pure sex and gives an object both a masculine and feminine side: the weight of the steel engages with the femininity of the reflective surface”. The totalitarian undertones of purity as the rubric for sex is evident in this zero-sum of erotic relations. “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” transforms the ancient stone fertility symbol from a handheld talismanic object of sexual meaning into a larger than life, multi-ton steel structure. Her highly polished reflective surfaces throw the viewer back on themselves a hundred times, perhaps so you might avoid thinking how neutered the goddess herself has become. Here is Venus translated for the twenty first century: she could have been a gloriously vital magenta sex symbol – but she’s cold to the touch.

Venus and satyr
“Antiquity 1” oil on canvas 108 x 84 inches/274.3 x 213.4 cm © Jeff Koons 2009-2012

In the same room as these sculptures are selected parts of the series called “Antiquity”. On some of these, Koons and his army of technicians have recreated almost stroke for stroke the oil paintings of a little known early twentieth century painter Louis Eilshemius, over which various images of Greek sculpture are placed. Other canvases have landscapes, as gaudy and generic as a screensaver, serving as the background to the same jumble of ancient images. On top of some of these are diagrammatized female genitalia, recalling Gustave Courbet’s frank and full-bushed “The Origin of the World” (1866). All these canvasses display a statue group in which a Venus is about to strike a groping satyr and raises her shoe in consternation.

Balloon Venus in front of painting from Antiquity series
Balloon Venus and Antiquity series on display at the Ashmolean. Photo C. Atack.

Koons scours his own back catalogue for inspiration for the collaging, providing a monkey and the dolphin for the final canvas. “Antiquity 2 (Dots)” shows the model Gretchen Mol, made up as the early twentieth century pin-up Bettie Page, astride the dolphin and about to seduce an inflatable monkey. In the corner of this canvas is the image of another satyr, ithyphallic and menacing behind the central three figures. Does this rockabilly Aphrodite disinter given logics of sex? Did it matter that Koons only found out after the making of this piece that the ancient myth included this scene or is the sum total of what’s on display here just a fluency with the visual idioms of mainstream porn, ancient and modern? Koons’ mixing of media and imagery is bold – the point could perhaps be construed as a parallel between sexual ethics, ancient and modern, and thus anachronistic. But in Koons’ world, sex, and antiquity for that matter, appear exclusively in the commodity state with no room for the messy realities of (desiring) the past, people, and things.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.42.08
Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) plaster and glass 
71 1/2 x 29 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches
181.6 x 75.9 x 89.2 cm
© Jeff Koons
2013

In the next room, “Gazing Balls” has replicas of iconic paintings and sculptures from the history of Western art to which Koons has added polished balls in electric steel. Any pun one could make about blue balls is anticipated by Koons – it is so knowing of the irony, it has already undercut itself a thousand times. The overall visual statement that Koons makes with the addition of these balls is so self-congratulatory that he has almost no need for a viewer to gaze into them. Once more the attention to detail in making replicas advertises technical mastery. The reproduction technique of the ancient sculptures is particularly disturbing. Koons gives us replicas of the plaster casts in all their un-patinated white purity – even if he was aware that the original sculptures were colorfully painted, it is not clear to me that this would trouble his vacuous fetish of the replica. The sheer laziness of this practice is breathtaking given the contemporary scholarly and public conversations around the politics of colour and race in the aesthetics of antiquity. In the virtuosic display of reproduction, Koons’ aesthetic calculus of purity implicates race as well as sex.

Among the replicas of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” (1818-19) and an everyday American postbox, Koons makes his blue ball steel additions to the Belvedere torso and Praxiteles’ Silenus with Baby Dionysus. It could be anachronism in action: the familiarity of ancient artworks thrown into disarray by being re-positioned and re-situated. Or, the gazing balls could invite us to reconsider how our relationships with antiquity are mediated by subjective notions of value. Or they could require us to review the ideological frameworks of spectatorship of which we might be more of less aware. There’s nothing here though to prompt such critical thinking – this is art that armours itself against theory.

Koons would like us to walk away with the idea that history of art is radically democractic – open to all, no prior knowledge needed. And yet in the market place of value, the ideologically suspect parts give the game away. His uncritical porno-historiography allows us to understand that cultural value is not under examination here, however bold the juxtapositions of ancient and modern artworks seem to be. In an aesthetic worldview where sex is pure, and reflections provide insight only into yourself, history runs exclusively in one direction. Koons might appear to be the anachronic artist par excellence. Anachronism and Antiquity has sought to construe relationships between past and present in surprising and critically energizing ways. We have paid attention to works of art that create relationships across time that challenge expectation or arrest assumptions about the linear flow of time. In Koons’ sterile world the multi-temporal potential of art points only to history as glossy abyss. Here, only the logic of the commodity reproduction is untouchable.

  • Images sourced from jeffkoons.com, except for installation shot.

[1] http://www.jeffkoons.com/artwork/made-in-heaven

[2] https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/43261/1/jeff-koons-ashmolean-review

[3] https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n15/hal-foster/at-the-whitney

[4] https://032c.com/berlin-review-jeff-koons/

 

Author: mathuraumachandran

Postdoctoral research assistant on 'Anachronism and Antiquity'. Research focussed on: classical reception (particularly in history of German thought), critical theory, global classicisms, contemporary art.

One thought on “Banal Antiquity: Koons and Anachronism”

  1. Brilliant take on Koons and antiquity. Thank you for writing this! I can’t help feeling it’s a shame that the Ashmolean chose to showcase Koons when there are so many other contemporary artists doing far more interesting and thoughtful work that engages with classicism.

    Like

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