The sacred cry of consumerism. Now, to demand; now, to buy; now, to consume. The collapse in distance between the pinprick of desire and its consummation: if any two artists best encapsulate this impetus of the age they are Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. This exhibition – named, ever-aptly, ‘Now’ – is largely made up of Damien Hirst’s private collection of Jeff Koons’ work, forming the biggest ever retrospective of the Pennsylvania artist. Jeff Koons has been slated by art critics for his gaudy mercantile sensibilities as much as he has been lauded in the multimillion dollar price tags his works command. Is Koons the hot-air salesman, a pedlar of blow-up balloon dogs, with all the sincerity and patter of “a blow-dried Florida selling swamp acres in Florida”, as Robert Hughes recently put it? Or is he instead an artist in the mould of the Dadaists; a radical like Duchamp, Warhol and Dali, shocking the world into a bold new shape? Prepare to find out, round about…now.
The first room is underwhelming, comprising some early Koons: largely a collection of hoovers: New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue; New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue; Double-Decker (1981–87). A pop parody of housewifery, this display of vacuum cleaners, still pristinely encapsulated in their boxes and never used, hugs the shadows of Duchamp too closely to be of interest. Nearby is a billboard advertising a Toyota Camry and a neon sign. To all of which I say: what know you, Jeffrey Koons, of suburbia? Of pushing a hoover up a carpeted stairs, step by step? Perhaps he is groping for something to say about emptiness, housewifery, or drudgery, but the trouble with presenting these vacuums without comment is that the effect ends up vacuous. Thankfully he moved on from merely to displaying to re-making, and it is here that Koons became interesting.
The next atrium presents more familiar work: a taut, shiny and metallic Blue Balloon Monkey, filling the heights of the room. The similar Balloon Dog (Orange) went for $58.4m in 2013 and remains the most expensive artwork by a living artist sold at auction. As you enter the room this knowledge makes you humble in the presence of so much concentrated monkey – sorry; money. Which is, no doubt, the effect desired by the people who buy such works for display. Gazing upon it is a slippery business. Your eyes tend to slide right down its length, glancing off the hyper-polished, hyper-real surface, caught in a swoosh of light. Koons says that in his balloon sculptures “polarities come into play”, and there is something tantalisingly contradictory about the smoothness and solidity of the metal compared to the super inflated airiness of the balloon it mimics. I saw more than one visitor sneakily reach down to touch it, to stroke its surface and test its material, despite the signs warning us off. It’s a perfect surface in which to take selfies for Instagram, if that is something you do. A giant, multimillion dollar balloon animal is the true consumer show-off gift: an arty toy to pop into one of the living rooms of one of your palaces.
All that glisters is not gold, and all that is shiniest is not always most deserving of attention. Yet there was something in the balloon monkey, poised between two states of matter, that seemed so apt. It was a striver. The embodiment of the America dream. It seems to want to float: much as Koons raised himself from humble beginnings in York, Pennsylvania – where his father was an interior decorator and his mother was a seamstress – and just outside of which city he now owns a 650-acre farm from which he commands an art empire worth over $1bn. Koons said about his family that “there was always a sense of mobility” in their lives; the same is true of his sculptures. All are poised between air and earth, reaching up and being weighed down, looking as light as an inflatable and yet remaining as heavy as the metal from which they’re made. The monkey has its head lifted high, its balloon, twist-tied nose playfully pointed up, reaching for some indefinable point in the air a little higher still. No wonder Koons is a favouriteof the super rich, always concerned with increase and inflation.
This same sense of aspiration and precarious balance runs through the sculptures upstairs. Here, Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) (1985) displays basketballs perfectly suspended at their median in a tank of fluid, calibrated precisely to keep them neither floating nor sinking (with advice taken from the Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman). Since the vibrations of passing footsteps disturb them, they have to be physically reset every so often by assistants between exhibitions to the halfway point. (They remind one of Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991); a tiger shark which infamously rotted inside its tank of formaldehyde and was replaced for free by the artist.) Inflatable pool animals with fixed, comic grins are hung from the ceiling whence they dive down to the floor, or merge hideously with chairs, or balance on top of metal wastepaper baskets. They bulge with ersatz air pressure; their seams seeming to ripple; ‘Made in China’ marks et al carefully reproduced. These pool toys are truly “banal”, as Koons terms his sculptures; the cheapest and most childish of objects. And yet the dolphins and the lobsters–with their undertones of Dali, whom Koons admired so much that as a teenager he visited him at the St Regis Hotel in New York – speak of greater depths: an odd dredging of underwater animals to air. To argue that Koons is just concerned with kitsch seems reductive. He seems concerned with both much more and much less than that: he’s concerned with air, and airiness.
The less said about Koons’ series of photographs and paintings the better. In the Made in Heaven (1991) series, he ejaculates over his erstwhile wife, former pornstar turned politician Ilona Staller (aka ‘Cicciolina’). In the next she gives him a blowjob. How truly banal. Maybe it’s just our porn-saturated, sensation-deadened age, but there’s nothing revolutionary about the imagery here, and nothing about reclaiming the natural joy of sex, as Koons claims. He looks like a boy who just got the keys to a fast car – he just wants to show it off. The paintings themselves that emerge later on, while large, have no artistic value either – a Bettie Page lookalike riding an inflatable dolphin kissing an inflatable monkey, all painted in garish hyper-real swirls, looks like it could have been done better and smarter on Tumblr. Besides, the paintings aren’t even by the hand of Koons himself; he has people to do that for him. It’s not big, and it’s not clever, as his ex-wife may well have said.
The sculpture Play-Doh (2014) was the star of the top rooms: the five metre high heap of creation modelled precisely after a tower of the stuff lumped together by his child. (After one son by the ex-wife, Koons had six further children with his second, Justine. One gets the sense, gazing at another oversized, phallic ‘balloon’ sculpture, of Koons having something to prove.) But as haphazard as it looks, with the cracked, rough-edged lumps of dough and its lurid and jarring colours, every single piece has been hand-cast and meticulously reconstructed in metal. As a man who once called his children his “biological sculptures”, Koons is messing around with the act of creation. Are these the playful contrasts of his child, or are they only consciously playful in his remaking? Who is the artist here – Koons or his son? Or the team of people who actually cast and spray-painted the polychrome aluminium for over twenty years to build this piece? For, like his compadre Hirst, he has a factory of assistants (one hundred and thirty!) who do the actual, messy making of art for him. Koons conceptualises. He Koonceptualises. And the ebullience of this work with its jaunty colours, childlike sense of play masks the real, hard, unflinching labour that went into creating it, with Koons’ unerring standards of perfection and attention to detail lavished on even the most ordinary-seeming objects.
In the end, Koons comes out well from ‘Now’. A revolutionary? Maybe at the time. And – as his gaudy exhibition inside the hallowed Palace of Versailles in 2008 showed – still with the capacity to shock. He should give up on the other medium: the Internet churns over semi-pornographic photographs and hyper-real paintings quicker and better. But the giant sculptures do demand a moment – to stop, stare, and attend. In a world where we’re all, always being tugged to the next fleeting attraction, Koons tries to keep us somewhere. That’s the thing about now. It’s always.