Jeff Koons's latest achievement: a new standard in prolix, complacent, solipsistic, muddled drivel

A review of Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal. Koons’s sub-adult work is not worth getting cross about – although it has nonetheless proved poisonous to younger artists

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal Jeff Koons and Norman Rosenthal

Thames & Hudson, pp.296, £19.95, ISBN: 9780500093825

Jeff Koons is, by measures understood in Wall Street, the most successful living artist. But he’s a slick brand manager rather than a tormented creative soul. The Koons brand includes a stainless steel bust of Louis XIV, a red aluminium lobster and balloon dogs, plus countless knock-offs of novelty-store dross.

It is tempting to think Koons a vulgarian and condemn his art as crapola, but to do so would be lazy. There’s no point in criticising him for his cynical exploitation of the credulous art market, since that is exactly his intention. Futile to damn him as vacuous; he’d be flattered.

All artistic achievement can be assessed in terms of skill, talent and genius. Koons has very little technical skill: his work is made by production-line assistants. He stands back from the process and the product. Duchamp? Warhol? Oh yes, we have been here before. The great Robert Hughes said that, so far as a sculptor’s skills were concerned, Koons would have difficulty carving his name on a tree.

But he has talent and genius in abundance. The sheer nerve of seeing through such a vast amount of derivative tosh is in itself a source of admiration and fascination. Early on, he was a tribute-groupie of the first generation of Pop Artists. Then he evolved into a very clever impresario of re-manufactured tat. Is it kitsch to reproduce kitsch? That was a recurrent question as, suppressing the gag reflex, I leafed through this book.

I want to be careful not to dismiss him entirely. Who is to say whether the industrialised high finish of a Koons balloon ‘sculpture’ will not one day be seen with the same affection that we now accord Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro or Van Gogh’s impasto? Koons’s crass one-liners might be an articulate commentary on our troubled civilisation. Ilona Staller, a comely Italian stripper who was briefly his wife, muse and well-publicised model, was his La Fornarina, his Simonetta Vespucci, his Hendrickje Stoffels.

What Koons does is play with the idea of art, or of what art has become. I doubt that any very sensitive or intelligent person would feel exaltation when confronted by a Koons, but it is not worth getting cross about his sub-adult work. Its expensive and charmless vacuity is perhaps a penetrating comment on contemporary values. Meanwhile, more certainly, Koons’s vast influence and huge wealth have a poisonous effect on a younger generation of ambitious artists equipped merely with skill.

To understand what’s happening, you need to appreciate the miscegenated and incestuous couplings of the art world. Koons once worked on the membership desk at New York’s MoMA, where he was well placed to ponder Kurt Vonnegut’s comment that modern art is a conspiracy between shysters and the rich to make poor people feel stupid. He soon joined the self-adoring conga line of curators, critics and art-fair entrepreneurs who populate the art world. But let it be noted that the word ‘world’ does not indicate breadth; rather the opposite. The art world is an enclosed order every bit as narrow and purblind and obsessive and exclusive as budgie world or caravan world.

‘Inflatable Flower and Bunny’ , 1979
‘Inflatable Flower and Bunny’ , 1979

This book is an illustrated transcript of conversations between Koons and the art world’s Norman Rosenthal. The latter is the rebarbative curator who, via his hosting of the Sensation exhibition when he was in charge of these things at the Royal Academy, has forever become associated with the Young British Artists. He is a sort of aestheticised Simon Cowell. Of course, the YBAs hold the egregious Koons and his tacky achievements in thrall. Yet to the dusty old academicians, Rosenthal vaingloriously debauched a fine and ancient tradition by prioritising meretricious and attention-seeking rubbish. Myra Hindley, anyone? To others, he was a bold innovator with a fresh eye. The truth is perhaps somewhere in between.

The Rosenthal-Koons Q&A published here sets, for me, a new standard of prolix, complacent, solipsistic, sycophantic, muddled drivel. It is so bad, satire is impossible, so here are my two favourite exchanges. They give a clear impression of the critical insights available in this book.

NR: Do you think that Bob Hope and Louis XIV were complacent au fond in a certain way ?
JK: It’s hard to say, Norman.


NR: Which part of Europe did [your family] come from, do you know?

JK: From Germany.

NR: So they were a German family.

I once met Koons in Paris. He was rather likeable: dapper in a suit, trim and with a nice tan. The expensive dentistry was almost electro-luminescent. Indeed, he looked for all the world like the bond trader he once was. Here is the transcript of a conversation we never had:

SB: Your work makes me feel sick and depressed.

JK:That’s cool.

SB:I find your insistent repetition of feeble ideas boring.

JK: That’s just as I hoped, Stephen.

SB: How much are you worth?

JK: Several billion dollars.

Kitsch is the corpse that’s left when anger leaves art. I am not saying Koons is kitsch, but there is no anger here. Just deadly smugness.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.45 Tel: 08430 600033. Stephen Bayley’s Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything was published in 2012.

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Show comments
  • Gergiev

    A few years ago my (then) future wife and I spent a few days in Versaille where naturally we visted among other things the Palace. On show alongside the neo-classical glories were several inflatable “sculptures” by Koons many of which looked like large-scale versions of those sausage-dog shapes that clowns make out of balloons at children’s parties, and also menacing masques based on depraved versions of Disney characters. All very ironic and post-modern, no doubt and I am sure he was paid a large fee, but it added nothing to our experience of Versaille’s treasures.

  • Fenton!

    The recent New Criterion has a good article, too — a review of an exhibit in which Koons takes over the whole d–n building. The man is an affront to decency and hard work. And art.

  • ScrewBot

    Art is stupid. Just look at it. Q.E.D.

  • balance_and_reason

    Koons, Hirst, Warhol, Emin….et al……… on writer…spot on…..the issue is that in 100 years time none of these hucksters will be still revered, their tat will be mouldering in the safe’s of idiotic investors who lined up to buy the dream…one can but chuckle……the air is already leaking out of the Warhol balloon.

  • Paddy Kilshamus

    I like the description of Rosenthal: ‘He is a sort of aestheticised Simon Cowell’. Very good. Koons the purveyor of cultural poison. Viruses in the guise of conceptions. Giving birth to monstrosities. Feeding upon the decaying corpse of the West. The rictus grin of modern art.

  • UnionJihack

    I met Jeff Koons only once in Venice years back. He has a very impressive member and is known to be skillfully artistic with regards to letting the general public know about it.

  • REPay

    Excellent review! I wish I could have read this before I traipsed around the Whitney. Koons is almost indestructible as a brand as the imagined interview shows. Stephen Bayley could be dangerously good as a conceptual artist…

  • Wesket

    No, his work does not “comment” on the degraded values of today’s elite; it represents them. Dickens, Daumier, Ibsen, Zola – they “commented” on and delineated their societies with great skill; they were surgeons – Koons is a tumour.

  • balance_and_reason

    why is there a picture of a sailing boat on top of this masterpiece?

  • Al Bowlly

    Modern art is the apotheosis of capitalism (of which I am a great fan). Things are valued according to what people are prepared to pay for them. The system which enables me to eat what I want, drink what I want, heat my house and drive my car (all at modest cost) also enables the likes of Koons (can that really be his name?) to fleece the gullible who would rather own his “works of art” (I have seen better, scrawled on the walls of pubic lavatories) than good, honest cash. It is a small price to pay and one which I am not called upon to do so. No complaints on my part.

  • Lee Pring

    Thank you so much for that review. It could quite possibly be one of the best put-down articles l’ve ever read