The most recent museum-grade show at Luxembourg & Dayan gathers 9 pieces of Jeff Koons‘ seminal sex-infused series “Made in Heaven” in a multi-story love and sexuality tour-de-force of human(istic) nature. Eight life-sized silkscreen and early-inkjet paintings, based on photographs, and a cast-glass sculptural tableau were conceived and produced in a life-meets-art process spanning approximately ten years from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties.
It is worth mentioning that it has now been nearly twenty years since these hardcore and soft-core-looking works were first presented by the late, great Ileana Sonnabend, and yet they still manage to really irritate, shock or bother some people for one reason or another. The re-presentation of this formerly scandalous, yet newly exciting and loaded work comes at an interesting time, with regard to the unabashed state of popular reality-media today, as well as the neo-sex-drugs-and-rock n’ rollish art of late in lower Manhattan.
This restaging of “Made in Heaven” comes with a thoroughly-researched catalogue, which presents this work as a harbinger of a range of more sexually-liberated work today, perhaps in regards to our inter-web fueled era of media fantasy mingling with real life, and the bevy of generally glib or armageddonistic might-as-well-have-some-fun-if-it’s-all-over-or-merely-just-the-beginning art styles (intersecting with many Deitch block-party related circles), and the more epistemological what-does-it-all-mean “Neo-Zero group” noir nihilism, (say, at the oft fun/funerial Team Gallery, and the booming left-coast Blum and Poe, et al), at the end of the millennium.
The astute Born Through Porn: How Jeff Koons Became Jeff Koons catalogue text by Alison Gingeras reframes the broader context of Koons’ work as it relates to the advertising-art of that era, and in retrospect, the massive personal risk Jeff Koons took with this work at that time, in light of the extraordinary hetero machismo of art in the 1980’s. As Gingeras notes, precedent porn-infiltration artwork by Cosey Fanni Tutti or the ‘Fuck Paintings’ of Betty Tompkins was not widely known, besides the legendary 1974 Art Forum ad by Lynda Benglis. Hannah Wilke’s feminist-critical work must be mentioned here as well (and much much more can be said on these above artists- expect to hear more soon in the wake of performance art revivals.)
The subsequent critical explosion/fallout of the first exhibitions of these pieces, which almost killed his career in America as a Neo-Geo post-50’s industrial revolution (pop-appliance) abstractionist, conversely catapulted the bronze metal sportsman to wide acclaim in Europe, and moreover, hallmarked his achievement of a whole new level of clarity of expression in an essence of the 80’s/90’s shifts in sexual demonstration, post-Pollock egoism, Warholian marketing, NEA obscenity politics, general expanded freedom of content in film and television, a future-forward neo-romanticism, and the deeper ‘becoming’ of Jeff Koons, the person, the artist, the philosopher, the myth, the man, at large.
While the original showing of “Made in Heaven” was mostly lambasted and smeared in America, in Europe it was received by cheering crowds; as the wooden sculpture was brought into the gallery during the Cologne opening, arriving unwrapped on a flatbed truck and escorted into the gallery in something like a Roman-Catholic processional, it could have stood in as the overseas critical American pre-mature career funeral for him. Of course, Koons bounced back in a major way with the ‘Puppy,’ which hardly anyone could find a reason to hate, and was resoundingly embraced in an early springtime breath’s cloud of heart-tugging ‘Aww’s’. Simply recalling the image of that unprecedented topiary puppy evokes some form of happiness.
Which is a good reminder that, while Koons was borne of the 80’s power-hungry, ego-explosive glamour-clamour fun factory of the era, re-considering this work outside of that initial context reveals a body of work that is less cynical or shock-driven than imagined, like many of his later British compatriots, but sincerely conscious of itself, its context, and its message in many largely-overlooked ways.
With this series, Jeff Koons deftly inserted himself into a porn-originated tableau that began in Italy in the 1980s, where a young model and performer embraces and celebrates her sexuality in a series of pornographic photos Koons encountered at some point or another… and subsequently turned into a major three-way statement of personal expression, love, life, and freedom from the lingering puritanical repression that persists in America, with regard to the most basic exposure of the female form, breast or genitalia in general, regardless of whether it is salacious in nature or not. Koons bears in mind that such terms are relative, yet strictly defined and regulated by such oddities as ‘pasties’ in American bars, and digital blurs in Japanese porn, which are ostensibly moral, but perhaps merely late-capitalistic concerns at this point of meting out the human body in a sexual slavery of pay-for-play commodifications of the nude human form.
Such debate positions this work as simultaneously perhaps one of the best and the worst art moves ever, in regard to conflicting standards of beauty, glamour, taste and appropriateness in art and imagery. Marcel Duchamp’s Cast of 1961 is shown upstairs adjacent to Koons sculpture as an art historical reference point of precedent magnitude. The show catalogue also smartly reminds us that there is a trio of expressions, makers and artists at work here in these pieces: the photographer-impressario Riccardo Schicchi, who produced the images that inspired this series, Jeff Koons’ former wife, the famed performer, politician and former porn-star Illona Staller (née Cicciolina), and Koons himself.
Cicciolina, who was and is loved in Europe (perhaps especially welcomed in Italy and France), and who served in the Italian Parliament from 1987 to 1991, is resoundingly a figure of sexual freedom and love. La Ciccolina, (a poster book released by Taschen in 1992), the source material that Jeff Koons appropriated for the Made in Heaven series, displays the same and similar backgrounds that are collaged from the pictures of Schicchi, into which Koons deftly inserts himself. The Taschen book either retorts or reinforces the fact that she is more than a just a muse, willing participant, or cooperative spouse, revealing her as also a sexual revolutionary, if somewhat underexposed, as such. She writes in the text about a photo taken of her in front of a statue of Lenin: “Everything in life changes! Colours change, people change, political ideologies change. Like the colours of chameleons. This photo was taken in Budapest in front of the last statue of Lenin (the ultimate symbol of Communism). In politics I have always spoken with love about human needs, in line with my Socialist convictions. My philosophy of love is alive, because I am alive!” This sentiment is one of non-dualistic feminism in an expansive, celebratory statement of matter-of-fact autonomy and agency of self-expression, and of ‘give and receive’ collaboration in the photographic realm. Whether this is ‘possible’ in the eyes of many cultural critics and theorists may indeed be another matter altogether, part of a very important argument in the trajectory of woman’s rights. Nevertheless, Cicciolina asserts her own direction as an artist.
Jeff Koons’ intention of “…returning art back to the realm of the objective, where art was really at the service of the masses. To try and meet the needs of the masses,” and “…to present oneness to people… so they can feel a sense of oneness in their life, so that spiritually they can feel a connection to the world, and biologically feel a connection to the world” positions his broader vision, as transcribed from a 1991 Swedish television interview. Furthermore, his stated desire to “communicate with as wide as an audience as possible” and, as Gingeras also references, ‘to use his art as a means of’ “delivering the Bourgeoisie of guilt and shame” also illuminates this work’s clear impact, import, and renewed relevancy. Additionally, Koons’ philosophy gives functional and joyful agency throughout class distinctions in the emerging “5th Estate” of bloggers and ‘posters’, of the John Cage-heralded “Here comes everybody” world wide web communities, which also contain emerging art-forms, and are now poised to come forth.
It could be that Benglis and Koons indicated aspects of the late 20th century exchange of relations of male and female expressions, (as perhaps most visible in the fashion of the 80’s – broader shoulders on womens’ powersuits, tighter and fitting men’s clothing) and the female and queer informed metrosexuality, in the context of feminist activist driven achievements that we enjoy today.
As a randomistic internet-search-outro of sorts, Dan Attoe’s post-sex-drugs- rock n’ roll neon piece reminds us that, “You have more freedom than you’re using,” as well as offering the painterly advice “Everything starts as something you don’t understand.” What Koons was trying to tell us in 1991 is now more understandable, and also within the yet-to-be-defined, post-Neo-Geo information-art threads, and other philosophical and text infused work of the emerging “Know-Wave.”