There are several ways to look at Jeff Koons’s so-called sex pictures from nearly 20 years ago, a series known more formally as “Made in Heaven Paintings,” which is currently ensconced in the town-house gallery of Luxembourg & Dayan on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. All are equally interesting and, in different ways, aesthetically unfulfilling.
One approach is to consider the images of Mr. Koons having various forms of sex with his soonto- be (and later ex-) wife, the Italian porn star and politician Ilona Staller, a k a Cicciolina, simply as bad art.
The grainy inkjet images printed on canvas are repellent, offering a mix of startling anatomical detail and a kind of diffuse mechanical Pointillism in which grainy dots of color mingle confusingly with goose bumps and signs of irritated, freshly defoliated skin. They give you nothing as objects, and little as images except a kind of ghoulish, elaborately gussied-up miming of the sex act. Typical of the lowest common denominator of heterosexual convention, it is Cicciolina who does most of the gussying, wearing an array of bustiers, red patent leather boots, garters and wreaths of flowers and pearls. (A persistent question: What is with her red eyebrows? Are they supposed to be minxlike?)
Another possibility is to decide they are not art at all but elaborately staged documents of sex that didn’t actually happen, a cross between a scaled-up centerfold and a downsized billboard advertising underwear. (Since Mr. Koons’s face is never visible within images that feature his supposed erection, rumors of a body double have been, well, rampant for years.)
Occupying some no woman’s land of female objectification, they are visual train wrecks. They get credit for making you look at them, but they do not accomplish the kind of transformation — not of their materials, not of the viewer — that we expect from art, whether it’s Handel’s “Messiah” or Tino Sehgal’s weird walk up the Guggenheim ramp.
Perhaps the most intriguing view is of the “Made in Heaven” pictures as emblems of their moment. The years 1990 and 1991 were a particularly volatile time in the art world and a crucial point in the career of a prominent — considered by many to be overhyped — artist.
Certainly they reflect a fin-de-siècle grandiosity that is still too much with us (and that can be seen too in their current surroundings, a relatively narrow town house of a sort that a Gilded Age millionaire might have used to stash his mistress). And they can also be read as a flagrant, possibly hilarious reassertion of white straight male privilege in an era when identity politics were ascendant. They are in step with an aggressive political incorrectness pursued in the same period (albeit to very different effect) by Kara Walker and Sue Williams, who addressed racism and sexism in similarly inflammatory ways.
As artifacts of Mr. Koons’s own development, the inkjet monstrosities of “Made in Heaven” are notable as his first, failed attempt to make paintings. (He later went on to devise an almost perversely complex form of Photo Realism, executed by assistants but with his constant oversight, that is often strangely gripping — and, it should be mentioned, full of sexual references and centerfold images, spliced and diced.)
But, interestingly, they were immediately followed by, and maybe even precipitated, some of Mr. Koons’s best work, in sculpture. One was the monumental flower-covered “Puppy” (1992), an exuberance of innocence that many have viewed as an attempt at redemption from the sex pictures. Others include the brightly colored, highly reflective balloon dogs, whose implicitly polymorphous shapes and apertures can be seen as endlessly erotic and far sexier than the hardcore blatancy on view here.
The Cicciolina suite forms a kind of bookend with a wonderful self-portrait from a decade earlier: the 1980 “New Jeff Koons,” an enlarged light-box photograph of the artist in grade school looking squeaky clean with a freshly opened box of crayons and coloring book at the ready. The contrast between the unspoiled child and the knowing, even jaded adult of the sex pictures is extreme, and yet even more disturbing is the notion that they are not all that far apart.
The innocence of the child is replaced by the cluelessness of the man, one who confuses posing and empty exhibitionism with emotional vulnerability. Seen today these images exemplify a kind of tone-deafness that was also evident in “Skin Fruit, the exhibition of works from the collection of Dakis Joannou that Mr. Koons selected and installed at the New Museum last winter. In this sense they put us in touch with Mr. Koons’s out-of-touchness and the innocence that abounds in much of his art. Perhaps the truth is that Mr. Koons makes a better child than adult, and that for all his genius, he is a kind of naïf.
“Made in Heaven Paintings” continues through Jan. 21 at Luxembourg & Dayan, 64 East 77th Street,
Manhattan; (212) 452-4646, luxembourgdayan.com.