I am not an artist, nor an art historian, but I do have my opinions. Among them: Jeff Koons annoys me.
More accurately, the art of Jeff Koons annoys me. It seems to have an arrogance, a brattiness. It isn’t helped at all by museum art guides who solemnly try to impart ridiculous meanings into relatively silly works.
(No, a smiling kitten in a sock on a clothesline is NOT a crucifixion metaphor. That Koons — or whomever wrote the audioguide narration — thinks so simply indicates he (or they) have no idea what the crucifixion is about, theologically, spiritually, or emotionally. Andres Serrano made a more informed — and certainly more interesting — statement on the same topic with “Immersion (Piss Christ).” And the metallic balloon rabbit does not carry “overtones of quiet menace,” at least not for anyone over the age of seven. Sheesh.)
I don’t require art to be serious all the time. The one Koons work I love dearly is quite silly — “Puppy” is a West Highland White Terrier rendered in flowers. I like a lot of works that can be best described as lacking in serious intellectual content. Art communicates, and like all other forms of communication, it sometimes says things that are funny or frivolous. (Yes, this includes those works of the “art for art’s sake” philosophy. What those communicate is an invitation to look at the world.) Nor does my annoyance at Koons arise from a disdain for realism in modern art — I am, generally speaking, not a fan of abstraction. (There are some exceptions: Mondrian, some Pollack, some Richter. Then there is Chuck Close, who straddles the line between the two.)
Koons is not the only artist whom I find bratty. I tend to roll my eyes at some of the more excessively “pretty” Pre-Raphaelite works — Rossetti’s “Prosperine,” for example — even as I find them interesting visually. (Of course, I am willing to admit that my feelings about Rossetti’s work are colored by what I know about his personal life. “My heart is broken so I will bury my poetry with my first wife” followed by “I’m in love again — with my friend’s wife — so I will dig up my first wife so I can retrieve the poetry” just appalls me.)
I am thinking about all this because of a PBS special on an artist at the other end of the silly v. serious spectrum: Jean-Michel Basquiat.
In 2015, on one of my trips to Spain, I had an opportunity to visit the Bilbao Guggenheim. I did not see much of the permanent collection of the museum, spending much of my time enveloping myself in the wonder of Frank Gehry’s astonishing building, and checking out the sculptures outside. (Of special note is “Maman” (“Mother” in English), Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture of a giant spider.) The three exhibits I did see were a Richard Serra installation (which made me claustrophobic but was generally interesting), Koons, and Basquiat.
I spent my time in the Koons exhibit, shrugging. (Especially at the pictures of him and his porn-star-turned-parliament-member wife (gotta love Italy) having sex against romance-novel backgrounds. I’m not a prude, but really.) And, quite honestly, a little bit bored.
I spent my time in the Basquiet exhibit thoughtful and engaged. His work is less realistic than Koon’s, and more real. It spoke of a grittier, more lived reality: a world in which a successful and educated young artist (and protegé of the most important artist in the world at the time) took limousines because taxis would not stop for a young black man with wild hair. I’m not saying I completely understand all of Basquiat’s work — I think I lack the lived experience to get all of the nuances.
Even so, Basquiat’s work speaks to me. I found myself wanting to see more, to learn more, to understand better. I had no desire to see any more Koons.
If I write more here about Koons than Basquiat, it is because I find it easier to write about annoyance than connection. It is also because Basquiat’s work moves me, in a way that I find difficult to articulate.
In the words of the old saw, I may not know art but I know what I like. And what I like is art that calls me to think, to engage, to try to understand. And I know which one of these two artists produce such works.
It’s not Jeff Koons.