A Critique of Jeff Koons’ Nexus 6P Case

Google’s new Nexus 6P “Live Case” makes Jeff Koons as a service.
May 21, 2016, 3:00pm

Jeff Koons, known mostly for his colorful, giant chrome balloon animals, is to the art world what Michael Bay is to movies. In other words, he's a genius.

Please save your energy and do not beef with me about this. I heard all the arguments against him in art school, where Koons is largely despised by students as some kind of art supervillain: that he's too commercial and kitchey; that he sells shiney baubles to collectors with too much money and not enough sense. If you want an entertaining crash course in the contempt for Koons, I recommend Jerry Saltz's 2014 review of Koons' retrospective at the Whitney, where he calls him "the most reviled artist alive," among other things.

The people who find Koons' commercial success aggravating will probably have a coronary when they find out that the artist has partnered with Google to create protective cases for the company's Nexus phones.

The $40 Jeff Koons Live Case, which fits the Nexus 5X and 6P, features images of three sculptures inspired by his "Gazing Ball" series. Cases are limited, and each is numbered and marked with Koons' autograph, so technically you can buy one and tell yourself you own an original Koons (Google sent me No. 0201!).

The case also comes with a "live wallpaper," for which Koons created his first ever live-action video artwork—the "Gazing Ball Ballet." If you double-tap the screen, you'll see dancers come to life, recreating one out of 28 moments from the classic Swan Lake. New pieces from the dancers update daily, while entirely new visual pieces will release every couple of weeks.

Image: Google.

Additionally, Google said, "Live Case owners will receive exclusive Koons-created artwork sent directly to their phone through the Live Case Editions app. The collection will include digital art and glimpses into what inspires him, including his favorite art shows or discoveries."

As for how long customers will be able to rely on this Koons-as-a-Service (KaaS), Koons told me that he sees it as an ongoing project.

"There are many things I already planned that I want to send out," Koons told me over the phone. "We'll see how long it goes, but for quite some time."

One thing Koons haters love to mention is that he spent some time as a commodities broker on Wall Street before he became a famous artist, and that he's known more for making money than the work itself. In 2013, his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie's for $58.4 million, making it the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction.

Koons obviously doesn't need the money, so why would he do this?

To find out, I reached out to Hunter Jonakin, the artist behind my favorite Koons hate project. He made Koons Must Die!!!, a first-person shooter game where you have to fight Koons to the death with a rocket launcher in a museum.

"The cases are only $40 so I'm not sure why Koons would be interested other than wider exposure," Jonakin told me in an email. "I know Koons has expanded his practice to include collaborations with Lady Gaga, so this does not surprise me. Good for him though, right?"

(Jonakin also told me he's currently working on a sequel to Jeff Koons Must Die!!!. It's called, B_eating A Dead Horse With A One-Trick Pony_.)

"I've been friends with Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen and quite a few of the management people at Google," Koons said. "We talked over the years that it would be nice to do something together. What I enjoyed about working with Google was its commitment to help me realize the type of vision I would have for such a project. To try to bring an emotional, intellectual element to the interaction you would normally have with a phone."

What does that even mean? Most of all, it sounds like marketing talk that's been Google Translated into art world talk and then Google Translated again back to marketing talk. Koons, I think, is shilling, which is a bit of a bummer to me as a fan. He was always shilling in a sense, but for a much nobler cause: himself. Now he's shilling for the man. When I asked him what phone he used, Koons said a Nexus, which I refuse to believe. There's no way a man with his honed aesthetic sense would use anything but an iPhone 6 Plus.

But let's give him and Google the benefit of the doubt here and unpack this piece as we say in art school.

Koons' Gazing Ball pieces are not about the ball as much as they are the context Koons puts the ball in. For example, there's a whole series where Koons paints the blue, reflective sphere into a number of masterpiece paintings, like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Édouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass. Koons previously said that the gazing ball improves these paintings, which is some master-level trolling.

It's not just a statement that is sure to piss off art historians, it's also kind of true! The alien blue sphere, which reflects a world that is not the same world of the painting, highlights the fact that masterpieces of this type can no longer be appreciated on their own terms, but only within the context of their historical significance. Koons' sphere makes us appreciate them all over again, while at the same time allowing him to annex art history for himself. He's dominated contemporary art, and his influence will probably dominate long after his death, so what else is left to conquer but the past?

The answer, it seems, is everyone with a smartphone. That seems to be the idea, conceptually, though in reality it's every person with Nexus 5X or 6P.

"I always believed in art as an empowering tool, and of course cell phones, the internet, all these platforms that Google is working with is empowering to people and lets them have a potential to become," Koons said. "That was what was important to me to tap into."

I honestly don't think that Koons and Google manage that with Koons' Live Case, but I will concede that this is the most thought I've dedicated to a smartphone case in my life. It's also a pretty sturdy case that will actually protect your phone, and the quality of the print is pretty nice (Koons said that he asked Google to go through three different printers until they found something that met his expectations). On the other hand, I'm an iPhone person, and I'm not going to switch to a Nexus. Not even for my beloved Koons.