Why Won't Jeff Koons Leave Us Alone?
Celebration, Florida. Maybe that's where he belongs. The Stepford-like planned community built by the Disney corporation, adjacent to their southern theme park—the second "happiest place in the world"—outside Orlando, Florida. We'd be better off with Jeff Koons far away from New York so we won't have to be "delighted" by him and his art anymore. A so-called controversial figure who might well imagine himself to be Walt Disney, Willy Wonka, and Christo all rolled into one, Koons has been more and more of a public artist since the early 90s, driven to bring his larger-than-life sculptures directly to the people. This all began in 1992, when, with the financial backing of a number of his dealers (aka investors), he was able to gate-crash the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Germany with his massive flower Puppy. Quite possibly the last work of any consequence that he's produced, the Puppy went on to wag its tail in Sydney in ’95; on the doorstep of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain two years later; and finally in New York at Rockefeller Center in 2000. The backdrop for this last presentation may not have been as visually stunning as the others—here the Puppy looked more like a mutt—but New York is where Koons has lived and worked for over 25 years, and it was inevitable that the Puppy would get to play in his own backyard. As home to the major media outlets, the city for Koons must register as "center stage," where he can garner heaps of press coverage. It has also served as the site for two of his recent public projects—an enormous helium-filled version of his iconic Bunny, reminiscent of Andy Warhol's floating silver clouds, was part of the 2007 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade; and less than six months later, in the spring of 2008, sculptures from his Celebration series, mirror-like stainless steel renderings of jumbo Valentine hearts, Easter eggs and balloon dogs, were shown on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum. That same year, he orchestrated the most impressive re-contextualization of his art when he brought his sculpture to the Chateau in Versailles. Now, if Koons has his way—keeping in mind that this is an artist who has practically made a career out of convincing people to believe in his wacky vision, someone for whom salesmanship itself is an art—New York will be the site of his next and most audacious public project to date, which he has titled, Train. The ride, as you'd be correct in guessing, will not be a cheap one: estimated at $25 million. And given this artist's track record, likely to rise.
What Koons proposes is to have a life-size reproduction of a 1943 Baldwin steam locomotive built, then suspended from an enormous construction crane. From time to time the wheels of the giant toy would spin, steam would be released, and its whistle would blow. Although it has the potential to delight children of all ages, it would also be a rather threatening sight to many, since its 60 to 70 feet of steel are expected to weigh about 250 tons and dangle above the High Line in Chelsea, presumably as visitors stroll by and traffic peacefully continues on the street below. (A floating train wouldn’t cause any fender benders, of course.) From the rendering of the project, the piece resembles, oddly enough, the iconic but kitschy image of a giant marlin hung from its tail after being caught by fishermen—a total show-off moment, to be sure. Why the Koons train needs to be hung up is a bit of a mystery. While it is also a trophy of sorts, this particular presentation seems aimed to make its appearance in public even stranger, a shot of cheap Surrealism with a hefty price tag.
Of course, suspending the train may also be a way of distancing it from another giant toy replica that once graced the streets of Manhattan, Charles Ray's Firetruck, which was parked on Madison Avenue in front of the Whitney Museum when it was included in the 1993 Biennial exhibition. The strangeness of Ray's sculpture was exponentially heightened by the fact of its hiding in plain sight, by the viewer's ability to get up close and examine the differences from its counterpart in reality, not least of which was its very placement. Fire trucks are normally seen in the middle of the street or set inside a fire house, not casually parked like any old vehicle. Simply put, Charles Ray didn't need to hang his Firetruck over New York City to amaze anyone.
Koons's Train brings to mind another work by a less well-known artist, at least in these parts, named George Wyllie. Most famous in his native Scotland, Wyllie came to attention back in 1988 when he created a life-size train made of straw, which was suspended from a crane alongside the River Clyde in Glasgow. Self-described as a "scul?tor," his Straw Locomotive was produced at a former railway works in Springburn, and it was there to which it was returned after being exhibited, and set ablaze. The ceremony, while very Wickerman to be sure, was particularly appropriate since at one time Springburn had been an important railway manufacturing center, with only one of its locomotive works remaining in operation today. As a result of the considerable press and blogging generated by the Koons proposal, there has been an increasing awareness of Wyllie's sculpture, or scul?ture, as the case may be. His lighthearted designation says much about him, a willingness for the kind of self-deprecation that seems utterly alien to Jeff Koons. If there's one thing Koons is deadly serious about, it's the pursuit of frivolity. Wyllie is happy to question who he is and what he does, and, at the end of the day, simply have it set on fire. (Ray's Firetruck would neither have been needed nor desired.)
Koons, if he has any doubts, certainly does not entertain them in public. Like any great salesman or politician, he is ever smiling, sure of his product, and rarely responds to direct questions. (He has, some might say, affinities with the empty rhetoric of Mitt Romney, who just wants the job, even if he doesn't need the work.) In Koons's case, what's being sold is the artist himself, for whatever the project it is forcefully backed by the brand. And that brand has been well established from Sydney to Bilbao to Versailles, cemented on the sidewalks of New York, and, if you believe the hype, has found a place in the hearts of millions of art-lovers worldwide. While a few movers and shakers have been trying to raise the necessary funds for the Train, why hasn't anyone thought to set up a Kickstarter program and tap into all that love? It would only take 2.5 million people donating ten dollars each to the cause. This doesn’t seem like too much to ask, really. The Los Angeles County Museum, under its director, Michael Govan, has already spent $2.3 million on a feasibility study for installing the sculpture on their premises, and is willing to commit another half million. Just to see if they can get it up. With nearly $3 million you could probably have funded George Wyllie's train and Charles Ray's Firetruck combined. And then given $22 million to charity. Why waste it on art, especially in these times? The new studies for fabrication of the Train are being undertaken by the German company, Arnold, who hopefully won't face the same fate as Koons's original collaborators, Carlson & Co., the San Fernando-based operation which had produced sculptures for him, did the preliminary work on the locomotive, and ended up in bankruptcy, having to fire almost 100 employees. Ambitious art projects and the recession, apparently, do not go hand-in-hand.
So why exactly do artists propose works to be be placed on public view rather than inside galleries and museums? For one thing they can be more ambitious in scope, upping the ante—if not creatively then in terms of audience. People have to pay to enter museums, and the price of admission can be steep, while walking in the street is free, and promises plenty of free publicity. Everyone with a phone is a photojournalist today—or at least that's what they seem to believe. Then, as they say, size matters. American artists, men in particular, are not that different from Americans in general, from those among us whose possessions match outsized egos and mask fragile insecurities. There's also a greater likelihood of making our neighbors especially jealous, and even if they aren't we can always project the emotions onto them. Self-satisfaction is often a one-way street. Beyond psych 101, another reason for artists to seek out public space for the display of their work, perhaps the more practical, is to circumvent the criticism of the art world and to have your case heard in the court of public opinion. An easily distracted public is often forgiving where the art critic may be greatly unamused, even insulted by the "end run." Does Koons prefer to be written about in the Wall Street Journal or in Artforum? Just imagine how many of the 1% subscribe to the latter and you might stumble upon your answer. If the Train is ever realized it will very likely embolden Koons to wave his magic wand across an even bigger canvas in the future, though potentially courting disaster. He knows from experience what it's like to have a career appear to be derailed. That's what happened when the cost overruns and production delays associated with his Celebration series forced the cancellation of an exhibition scheduled for the Guggenheim Museum in 1996. And not only. At the time, the artist's dealers were compelled to sell works to collectors that had not yet been produced—they didn't even exist—as well as offering them in "unique" editions of various colors. This is an art world mail order catalog of sorts, and it has become the current marketing model. These days, for example, collectors are reassured that they can pay for Koons's sculptures in a number of easy installments, as if they were buying art on the layaway plan. But the Train, as a public work, almost no matter how long it takes to fabricate and install, and whatever the cost, will certainly appear on time and won't be overbooked, with room for one and all. That's the make-believe world in which Jeff Koons lives. For the rest of us, hopefully, that day will never come—a terrible rather than beautiful day in the neighborhood.
One nagging question looms—like the 250-ton locomotive in the room—and that is the complete and assured safety of the public. Although the structural support for the Train is reported to have been designed with a stabilizing gyroscope, the sculpture will be installed in a city that has witnessed an increasing number of crane accidents in recent years. Some have had fatal results, such as the tragic collapse which took seven lives in March 2008. When the wheels of Koons's Train are set into motion and get up to speed, will they really be churning at 100 miles per hour? His ominously dangling Train brings to mind another image besides a giant marlin that's been hung dockside, or even George Wyllie's Straw Locomotive. One can't help but be reminded of the now classic photograph from 1895, in which a train that crashed through the facade of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris is balanced gruesomely on end. Miraculously, the accident claimed only a single victim, a man selling newspapers on the street below. Despite the visual similarities, this couldn't possibly have inspired Jeff Koons. After all, his work is about innocence, fun, wonder, and joy. As he himself might say in his perfectly measured Mr. Rogers voice, All of that... and the dreams that money can buy.