I was in New York last week for a wedding. I came a few days early, to see some friends and to make some pilgrimages to museums and galleries. My first day in New York, I met a colleague for lunch up near Columbia. After lunch, I told him, I was going to walk across the park and check out the Jeff Koons retrospective, currently on view for another couple of weeks at the Whitney. I can’t really categorize his response—it was a sort of polite concern, the same reaction you might get if you told someone you were going to get a full back tattoo of a Mickey’s widemouth. There must be, his response said, some reason why you’d put yourself through that, but I don’t understand it, and it makes me a little worried for your reason or your sanity or your taste.
His response wasn’t wrong. Koons has long been the perfect example of both the art world bad boy and the art world monster, a glib, crass avatar for the art economy’s greatest vices. “There’s no there there,” complain fans of the serious. The work is overpriced and over-produced, gripe those who worry about the apparently necessary ligature that binds Wall Street to the Trade in Biennials. No one I know feels entirely comfortable confessing herself to be a Koons fan. More often, he’s a villain, an example of everything that’s wrong with art since the coming of the Art World, a venal figure redolent of art’s commercialism, banality, classism, racism and misogyny. I get it. But as I cheerily told my friend as we were finishing up our lunch, “Sometimes, you just want to vomit!” Sometimes you just want to puke and puke and enjoy the bile.
As I walked through to the museum through the park, I passed people with Whitney stickers on their shirts and jackets. One pair, in their early twenties walked past and I overheard the woman in the pair say “I don’t know. It was just Too Weird.” I was curious. A bad date.
When I got to the museum, I was in line behind a trio, two women and a man. The man looked like a slightly bloated refugee from a Whit Stillman film, his hair slicked back over a thickening neck. His companions were identically slim and blonde, wearing white jeans. You could distinguish between them if you checked their bags: one a pretty enormous Speedy, the other a Furla. While I waited behind this group, another pair walked in. The guy was dressed in pure California dirt-bag, a red flannel shirt under a rough-hewn vest. The vest seemed to be made of muslin, and it seemed to have been made by him. His companion was tall and gorgeous, wearing liquid-look disco pants in a baby blue, a halter top and enormous platform sneakers. She had a thin pink braid edging her face, but the rest of her hair was dirty blonde. She slapped her Whitney entrance sticker on her bare arm as she walked past security. I thought they were the most Koonsian people I had ever seen; they were perfect. Everyone prickled to attention.
There is an audacity to Koons’ techniques. The Dr. J series, Wilson basketballs suspended in Richard Feynman-approved sodium-heavy tanks, the stunning aluminum lobster, with its surface coating mimicking dime-store polyurethane blow-up toys so perfectly you think it’ll waft away when you breathe near it. But, for my money, the most shocking pieces are those associated with Ilona Staller, also known as the porn star/politician Cicciolina, also Koons’ ex-wife and muse. The Whitney’s exhibit featured quite a few pieces from Made in Heaven, the controversial 1990-1 work that poses Koons and Staller as actors in a plush pornographic fantasy. In the Whitney’s current exhibit, a few more tastefully nude images take up a large gallery, while the more explicit examples are housed in a smaller gallery to the side. It was the encounter with these explicit pieces that, for me, made the experience.
I knew what I was getting into when I walked into that smaller room, but it turns out it’s weird to look at enormous pornographic pictures in public. Even in an art gallery. It is difficult to spend the time you might like to looking at the images for details, trying to understand the techniques that produces the canvases because you feel like any extra time spent in that room is a sign of incipient perversion, or just prurient interest. The first thing you notice is that the pictures are extreme close-ups, and there’s semen. The second is that the guard is uneasy. In most encounters with museum guards, the guard is able to assume a pose of nonchalance, but here, with these images, part of the guard’s job seems to be to maintain a thorough lack of eye contact, which is hard to do in a tiny room. I wondered a bit about the logistics of this particular job – how does the museum staff agree on which guards have to watch over these paintings? Do you get a bit of relief, or do you have to stand for your whole shift under the pinky gaze of Cicciolina’s asshole?
In the first few moments, I was alone in the room with the guard. But, then, a group of teenagers came in after me and quickly turned on their heels and left, snickering gently. The trio of well-heeled Manhattanites followed, their body language telling a curious tale of persistence and abhorrence. They were there to enjoy the art, goddammnit, even if they had to look at the pimple on an ass cheek from 1990 to do so. It’s a funny thing to be in a room full of larger-than-life genitalia in a fancy museum. The scandal that joined and then split Staller and Koons is referenced in the exhibit notes, and given the sadness that the marriage and divorce seems to have brought, any unserious attention also seems, well, cruel, and ill intentioned.
But, then again, when you leave the room and return to the slightly less explicit images of Easyfun or Popeye, you’re still thinking “Oh, God, I just saw Jeff Koons’ penis. Inside Ilona Staller! And so did the guy with the hair. And that woman. And that guy.” Etcetera. You worry that maybe you’re a prude, or that everyone else in the room thinks you are. You worry you’re a pervert, because who else even notices what other people are doing when faced with four foot labia. The encounter with these images – images that put the artist and his hyper-masculine, hyper-hetero fantasy front and center – makes an ornery little counter-public inside the exhibit space. We might all have agreed that we wanted to look at a big, mirrored balloon animal today, but not all of us realized we’d signed up to get an up-close-and-personal encounter with the libido, bald and insistent as it is, of the artist himself.
As I re-entered the larger exhibit space, beyond the parental warnings of the Made in Heaven rooms, I noticed a woman angling her camera phone in a peculiar way. I followed the camera’s eye’s gaze and saw, about fifteen feet away, the California dirtbag and the woman with the teensy pink braid. They were giggling and posing in front of Elephant (2003), trying to get a selfie reflected in the elephant’s glossy yellow belly. The woman across the room was taking a photo of them taking a selfie. What had this pair thought of the Made in Heaven room? Did it unsettle them, or did it just reflect them? The woman with the camera was taking their photo to poke fun at them – look at these two people! They wore this to an art museum! Can you imagine?
But is that fair? How come the yuppie trio that bought their tickets just ahead of me weren’t going to be the subject of this woman’s Instagram disdain? Is what I thought when I first saw them– “these are the most Jeff Koons people ever!”– any better than surreptitiously taking their photo? More, were they, as they flashed the peace sign and tried to frame their young faces in Elephant, looking at the art in a way they shouldn’t? Was their enjoyment any less thoughtful (or thoughtless) than my own? I took my own selfie in the Elephant’s belly. It was just too shiny and plump to resist.
Allowing myself to stop adjudicating the young couple’s ridiculousness I realized that the feeling I most wanted to live in, briefly, as I watched them take their photos, was pleasure. I wanted to let the charm of their young lust buoy me up as I poked around in the museum and think about a time when I was just beginning to realize the potent authority sex could confer.
In high school, my drama class and I came to New York for a week. Let us not think about how we stayed in Times Square and, poor country bumpkin that I was and am, I ate approximately two meals a day at the Sbarro’s in Times Square, considering that flaccid slice a piece of “real” New York pizza. Don’t think about that naïf. Instead, think about slipping on black tights under your doc martens for the first time, imagining that this was something an older, more sophisticated girl would do. About the power you could get by tying the small silver dragon’s claw necklace you’d bought in The Actual Greenwich Village around your neck, slipping it over your dad’s old velvet jacket, the cool silver and the soft burr of the velvet hiding the fact you were wearing a Pearl Jam shirt three sizes too large and felt weird in your own body. And think about the most potent sensual feeling you had when you were awkwardly fifteen—the developing consciousness that maybe the gentle flirting games you’d been playing with your classmates for years were, or could be, actually a precursor to something else. This was the era of the three hour, silent phone “conversation” (which I always cursed my parents for interrupting), and mysteriously tight (but so mind-numbingly chaste!) embraces on public transit, or in the theater after class. There was a period, four or five years, when I both understood sexual life and wasn’t privy to it, and a strange mingling of curiosity and resentment basically powered my social life.
Think about how powerful the kids who had already had sex seemed. Not how powerful they were, since teenaged sex is so often alloyed to manipulation, insecurity and betrayal, but how powerful they seemed, with unimpeachable knowledge that one’s body did things that, to the virgin, were unimaginable. In some ways, when we’re faced with a couple of kids that are obviously fucking – your own little version of “High Windows” – you can slip into a hazy void between virginity and awareness. And it’s discomfiting to feel how far outside that closed off little dyad you necessarily must be. You know, watching the lycra-clad rump of that young woman slip in and out of the dirtbag’s grasp, that she might end up being powerless, but that she looks powerful; and you envy that look, perhaps especially if you’ve been in that same weird place, years before.
I got on the six to go downtown to meet my friend and stood, sort of hovering over a woman reading on her kindle. An eavesdropper by nature, I couldn’t help but see “he fucked her mouth.” I felt ashamed that I’d eavesdropped on this woman, reading pornography on the subway, and then I realized: it’s totally fine. She might as well be reading the newspaper. This is the world that Jeff Koons, among others, gave us. We might decry its vulgarity or revel in its lucidity, but there’s no going back to latency, no matter what we might want, no matter how complicating sex might be. We’re all virgins and whores, and we might as well accept it.
—Claire Jarvis: Welsh Witch