Magazine article Artforum International

American Idol: Thomas Crow on "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective" Artists on the Work of Jeff Koons: Josiah Mcelheny, CAROL Bove, Rachel Harrison, Margaret Lee, Laura Owens, Cory Arcangel

Magazine article Artforum International

American Idol: Thomas Crow on "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective" Artists on the Work of Jeff Koons: Josiah Mcelheny, CAROL Bove, Rachel Harrison, Margaret Lee, Laura Owens, Cory Arcangel

Article excerpt

IN ITS FINAL MONTHS on Madison Avenue, the Whitney Museum of American Art has signed off with two exhibitions of distinctly contrasting character. For the last Biennial in the Marcel Breuer edifice, the museum dispersed and outsourced its organization to three curators, each of whom mounted a crowded show on one of three floors. Reviewing the exhibition in these pages, Helen Molesworth found that this multiplication of personnel seemed to reduce rather than augment the curatorial acumen in evidence: Where, she wondered, have all the sight lines gone?

No such doubts attend the succeeding show, the much-anticipated Jeff Koons retrospective, a signature statement that the premier museum of American art must offer the definitive account of the most visible contemporary American artist. To embark on the exhibition's itinerary is immediately to be gripped by a sight line as spare and locked down as Alberti's model of linear perspective. A stately corridor of stacked and illuminated Plexiglas boxes on either side converges on a vanishing point through an opening in the middle distance, one unequivocally marked by a single basketball perfectly suspended in the center of its fluid-filled tank.

The formal symmetry of this statement by curator Scott Roth kopf resonates with the theme Koons bestowed on the objects so contained. Under the rubric of a series, "The New," 1980-87, the transparent containers simultaneously showcase and entomb never-used vacuum cleaners and floor polishers, most memorable among them a squat cylinder with a protuberant hose then marketed as the Shelton Wet/Dry. As the function of these devices resonates with the idea of the immaculate, it has been widely assumed that their presence inaugurates Koons's preoccupation (read: complicity) with the specious allure of mass-produced consumer goods.

The rigor of Rothkopf's arrangements seems likely to push visitors in one of two directions. The forward propulsion of the main sight line could impel one quickly to the 1983-93 "Equilibrium" tanks, with their attendant appropriated graphics, on the other side of the opening, leaving the aura of "The New" resplendent and uncompromised, transfigured retroactively by the prestidigitation of the uncannily hovering balls. Conversely, the generous space of the initial room might equally encourage wandering and turning back to more closely examine these domestic relics, perhaps prompting a skeptical reappraisal of the commodity-fetish thesis, at least as applied to this moment in Koons's career.

The artist's choice of cleaning instruments in fact leaves much to be desired in terms of seductive appeal or pride of possession: Their principal associations are with disagreeable, and never-ending, work; their homely designs, even in 1980, had stayed unchanged for decades; the canisters of the wet-dry shop machines in particular were so utilitarian that their implicit message to the purchaser promised little more than workmanlike efficiency and durability. A single day of normal use would leave them scratched and battered, their innards besmirched with dirt, lint, and random debris.

As Koons 's claim to visual distinction for these implements lies in their appearing untouched, forever newly minted, and thereby somehow magically removed from all such exigencies, their actual humdrum and charmless character prompts a certain pathos to enter the picture. Circling back around the gallery, moreover, one comes to a smaller side room that provides a flashback to the years just prior to the breakout achieved by "The New" and clinched by "Equilibrium."

There, Rothkopf has brought to light the immediate, little-seen prehistory of Koons's familiar phases and stages.

Sometime after his 1976 arrival in New York from studies at the populist-friendly School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Koons began inviting new contacts to his apartment to see small sculptures composed of inflatable flowers and bunnies in brightly colored plastic, set singly or in groups against ready-made mirrored tiles. …

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