When Jeff Koons appeared on American TV satire The Colbert Report in 2012, the outlandishly narcissistic character played by Stephen Colbert knew he had found a soul mate. “A lot of them are shiny, you know,” Colbert observed about Koons’ sculptures. “So when I look at them I can see me, and then I’m really interested in it.” The satirical Colbert and cherubic Koons share a calling: to hold up a ruthless mirror to their viewers’ corruption, delusion, insecurity and desire.
Silvered surfaces beckon on all four floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s gargantuan Koons retrospective. The reflections come in giddy colours and queasy distortions. We see ourselves in the silhouettes of cartoon characters, and in the curved metallic surfaces of ice buckets, bottles, toy trains and aluminium balloons. Koons is a gleefully self-loving celebrity, posing naked and savouring his fame, but his point is surely that everyone else is narcissistic too. We’re all starring in our own movies.
He seduces through surface, gratifying viewers’ self-absorption on every scale, from the micro to the monumental. Yet his lustrous, perfect surfaces don’t show us only what we want to see. They reflect back at us the depths of our degradation. Like us, his art is by turns cute, cold, charming and repellent.
“I’ll be your mirror,” Nico croon-groaned in the Velvet Underground’s first classic recording, “reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” That lyric emerged from Andy Warhol’s tinfoil-lined Factory, which also cranked out the Koons-ian worldview. Warhol set the template for the artist as entrepreneur and public relations guru. He repackaged society’s obsessions with sex, money and fame, then sold them right back to the public as art. Like Koons, he cultivated a persona as cipher, the man who lacks irony and refuses to be deep. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it,’’ he deadpanned. Koons has adopted that bland façade, as seamless and unblemished as one of his metallic balloons. He describes his wares in a milky tone that never curdles.
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