Jeff Koons paints a picture. Well, not Jeff Koons exactly, but Jeff Koons and three teams of three assistants, working eight-hour shifts, twenty-four hours a day for more than a month. Still, Art News put it simply as "So-and-So Paints a Picture" when in the '50s and '60s the magazine dispatched writers and photographers to catch de Kooning or Hoffman or Pollock in the act. The series of articles let readers see individual paintings in various states of undress, offering an unusually intimate glimpse of an artist's studio life, right down to photos of messy palettes. Artforum gave Koons a somewhat analogous treatment in 1997, when he was not-so-fast at work on his laborious "Celebration" series. (The fact that one of the very same paintings featured in that spread hangs in his studio today looking less complete than it did seven years ago testifies to the artist's near-mythic production standards.) But photographs of tubes of paint and busy assistants can tell us only so much about Koons's more recent paintings. Even blow-by-blow images of the canvases in progress/reveal surprisingly little about his creative process, which, like that of many Minimal and Conceptual artists, is neatly divided between the development of a preliminary plan and its immaculate execution--one tiny spot of paint at a time. Unlike masters from Cezanne to de Kooning to Marden, for Koons there is no jockeying of compositional elements once paint hits canvas, no intuitive layering of colors, only an insistently methodical filling-in.
With this working procedure in mind, Artforum recently returned to Koons's studio to watch him paint a picture--after the fact. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the idea was not to witness the painstaking completion of his canvases but to unpack the many intertwined layers that have lately become their hallmark. Although Koons has long used computers to aid in the creation of his works, with the 1999 "Easyfun" series his paintings began increasingly to suggest a sense of pictorial space made possible by computer technology. Far from some Tron-era fantasy of the digital or a fugitive notion of the fourth dimension, this "computer space" is a fairly pragmatic one, specifically dependent on the layering tools of Adobe Photoshop. The software allows Koons to manipulate and interweave his pop source material to a degree not present even in the work of James Rosenquist, with whose paintings Koons's are often compared. Bodies are removed from undergarments that perfectly hold their shape; silhouette-like contours razor through multiple pictorial layers, as if possessed with X-ray vision; orphaned scraps of images re-emerge repeatedly across the picture's surface at exactly the points they would occupy were the original image left intact. One can spend long stretches in front of a Koons painting trying to decode a seemingly abstract shape, knowing full well that its contour must derive from some ready-made form (other portions of which lurk elsewhere in the painting), and also knowing that its "filling" must itself be part of another image, which likely reappears at some other juncture on the surface.
This is precisely the interpretive problem that I experienced when looking at a group of mysterious splotches--olive green, appropriately enough--nestled at the bottom of Koons's towering, nine-foot-tall canvas Olive Oyl, 2003. (Incidentally, it's never a question I've faced with Rosenquist, whose early spatial manipulations depend on a "paste-up" sense of tangibly layered and cut-through collage elements, and whose more recent disjunctions stem from a kind of warping that's anathema to Koons's insistence on photographic "objectivity.") One wonders, then, how such an image is actually put together, how its layers are woven into a vertiginous palimpsest of sharp planar contours and finely modeled forms that alternately jump off the picture's surface and burrow deep within it. For an answer, one need only look to the mega-megabyte Photoshop files that Koons uses as a kind of twenty-first-century sketchbook. …