The Factory

Continuing on with thoughts about Jeff Koons provoked by Barry Schwabsky’s recent review, I can understand why he was struck by the giant Play-Doh piece.

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014

It looks like an early Lynda Benglis, but Schwabsky is surely right to stress the ways

Lynda Benglis, Untitled (VW) 1970

Lynda Benglis, Untitled (VW) 1970

in which Koons’ work is of this moment, how it speaks to the class of collectors who support it, and how it is very different from that of Warhol in precisely that way. I think the technique is also very contemporary, and allows it to speak to another aspect of the current economic catastrophe, namely the decline and uncertain rebirth of manufacturing in the developed world, one of the central dramas of our time. No industrial process can

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014 (detail)

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014 (detail)

meet the standards of modern art, but those standards are almost lost. The role of the hand might be somewhat understood, but that’s only a minor part of the whole thing. Koons’ studio does hand craft and hand finishing to give the impression of flawless machine construction without the presence of a hand—something we want to believe in, though it doesn’t actually exist. This piece, which apparently took twenty years, is a tour de force of aluminum casting—no, of finishing an aluminum cast. Even in a photograph the detail on, and in, the surface looks astonishing—and feels like something worth doing and worth having. Art has survived the loss of standards, and the centrality of labor, meaning the working of material, has survived the delusions of the information economy. Meanwhile, manufacturing today is all about small runs, “mass customization,” and niche markets. Koons is one limit case of a modern manufacturer in a mature developed economy, a maker of high quality goods in ultra small runs, sometimes maybe of one. The more I contemplate this piece, the more I find the widespread resentment and dislike of Koons, which goes along with his widespread acceptance, so unfair. Jerry Saltz, in his review, catches the visceral effect that Koons’ work can have. Isn’t a strong revulsion, together with undeniable importance, the modern marker of quality? Meanwhile, I have to admit that his work is more widely accepted and more widely reviled than Frank Stella’s. To the extent that success depends on others, I guess Koons is greater than Stella, much as I hate to contemplate that possibility. In any case, Koons’ first moment of greatness was the Made in Heaven series, which I will ponder in the next post.

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