Jeff Koons on TV: 13 thoughts from the sofa

Matthew Collings reviews BBC profile of US artist

Imagine is a popular BBC arts documentary series. Its latest subject from the world of high art is Jeff Koons.  For 30 years, because of his life of great stunts—including marriage to a porn star, being a commodities broker, having giddy notions and talking like a nutcase—he has been natural TV material.  “Diary of a Seducer,” first broadcast 30 June, includes contributions from Hal Foster, Jeffrey Deitch and Damien Hirst. The book by Kierkegaard of the same title was read and enjoyed by Koons when young.  (Although we don’t learn it from the film, the book is a tortured exploration of the tension between aesthetics and ethics, based on events in the author’s own life.)  The film prompted the following observations.     

1 Adjust balance

The JK televisual act is well known, full of malapropisms, surreal semiology and ideas of life, death, guilt, anxiety, sexuality, hope and breathing. For the sake of multidimensionality this film ought to find JK funny, but also balance acquiescence (flattering JK’s surrealism) with an autonomous authorial idea—that is, the film should have its own jokes and not be thinking of itself as an extension of Koons’s routine.   

2 He's not, though

“Popeye’s very, very similar to these Medieval sculptures.”

3 He’s thanking the Whitney for what exactly…?

“I’m 59 years of age right now. I feel I’ve got another three decades of creating art. And I’m so grateful to the Whitney to give me the opportunity to do it up to this moment.”

4 What tense is this?

“When I would be 8 years old I would go door to door…”

5 Big idea...

Alois Riegl’s concept: the beholder’s share.

“He was the first to really speak about art being finished inside the viewer.”  This is a fair enough definition by Koons in the film, of Riegl’s notion, first established in 1902 and then elaborated later in different ways by Walter Benjamin and E.H. Gombrich, of the viewer’s freedom in front of an artwork to have his or her own associations. (It was Gombrich who rephrased Riegl’s original “beholder’s involvement” to “beholder’s share.”)

6 …goes wrong

A Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, talking about a set of works by Koons featuring classical sculptures of the human body adorned with a highly reflective glass ball, in terms of Riegl's "beholder's share", says: “What does Jeff Koons do? He creates a mirror so when you look at a work of art you see yourself in it. This is the first time a systematic attempt was made to incorporate the beholder into the work of art. You actually visualise yourself. I’ve never seen that before and I’ve looked at art for much of my life.”

Unfortunately for the dignity of the Nobel Prize and the BBC, art that mirrors the viewer’s body—so you can literally see yourself in art—is nothing to do with Riegl’s enquiry into the psychological phenomenon whereby a viewer’s inner reflection completes the meaning of a work of art. 

7 Non sequitur

Koons: “My father taught me aesthetics and he taught me feelings: that, if you put two different colours together—if you put gold and turquoise together—you’re going to have a different feeling than if you put red and black together. My dad showed me how you create a vision and a control and commitment that’s necessary.”

As the concepts glide by, it’s easy to be lulled into not noticing that nothing has been said. A set of colours causing a feeling and a different set causing a different feeling—how is this not just saying that the sets are different? Principles his father taught him follow on from this blankness and inevitably become mere blanks themselves.  

(An instant later, some specific childhood memories are related: “These memories affect your feeling,” Koons concludes. He talks about feelings in such a strikingly inauthentic way we’ve no idea what he thinks a real one is. Someone should ask.)

8 Good

Koons in his late 20s and early 30s is the least corporate phase of the career. The childhood memories are laid-on sentimentalism and the famous art is fine, it’s a good example of current art generally. But the image of his creative life in New York in the early 1980s, after leaving the Chicago Art Institute—conjured up in the film by other people’s recollections and by his own account, and supported by old photos and super-8 footage—is genuinely intense.

9 Childhood yadda-yadda

A wealth of 1950s home movies from Koons’s own childhood, made available to the film, causes it to misconceive itself, when it doesn’t know what to do, as being on a hunt for a Rosebud.

10 Fine

It’s fine to say that there are contexts in which something banal can seem like something profound. It’s good to deflate museums and make archaeology and history—religion, death, and so on— into a Pop joke. To make Pop into a Pop joke is good, too.

Koons gesturing at vacuum cleaners: “It’s like an Egyptian tomb. The rug shampooers are like sarcophaguses.”

Jeffrey Deitch: “The vacuum cleaner becomes this symbol for a human life.”

But a Pop joke goes only so far; it only bears a limited number of repetitions.

Koons: “On the side of the vacuum cleaner is the symbol WET/DRY, that’s like Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.”

It’s fine to say this drivel, but there ought to be some kind of framework that the film provides so we don’t, as beholders (with our “share”), have to experience the uncomfortable feeling that we’re supposed to believe we’re in the company of intellectuals.

11 Again, sure, but some dialectic, please

Koons points out that in a couple of his appropriated ads, featuring the phrases “New Too” (Club Gin and Tonic) and “Rooomy” (referring to the extra roominess of a new Toyota), the Os in Too and Rooomy might make us think of the Os in KOONS—and because Roomy has an extra O we might think of Koons’s multiples.

12 Art

The unspoken theme of the film— although it’s always actually being spoken —is to see everything in art and life as intangible, like phrases in ads, and definitely not to see anything in art as art (in this film form doesn’t exist), even though, whether it’s Michelangelo, Masaccio or Koons, it’s always being spoken of as the greatest art that's ever been made. So we don’t know where the art idea comes from or what it connects to, except lame linguistic innuendo and double-entendre.

13 Yes

Hal Foster: “The work is actually better than the rhetoric, I think.”