What makes American culture tick is a combination of technical skill and imagery that hits you right between the eyes. It is true, from our Hollywood movies and layered pop songs, and from our skyscrapers to our advertising. Nobody understands that better than Jeff Koons, whose work, on view at the Whitney Museum through Oct. 19, displays both of those qualities even when it—as happens all too often, and like a bad soap opera, rap song, or Pampers ad—strays into cheap effect and redundancy. Less arch than Andy Warhol and more inventive than appropriation artists like Cindy Sherman or Richard Prince, Koons is America’s ultimate pop artist.
His father had a decorating business, and the exhibition catalog reproduces a shot of its showroom. It only needs color to be a Jeff Koons project. The artist started his career selling memberships at the Museum of Modern Art. His whole career has combined these themes: composing mass-produced, existing objects, or reproducing them with a kink or two, and selling the results.
I love what he could do, early on in that career, by just combining vacuum cleaners or toasters and fluorescent bulls into wall pieces. In his more recent work, the Photoshop collages of cartoon characters, food, body parts, and black outlines condenses the delirium of fast food, video games, and the nonstop advertising assault that is our visual field into images that just show it all. Between these highlights there are some epic failures, including recent work in which he balances violet balls on reproductions of sculptures. But, there is also public work, like those giant flower puppies and the stainless steel balloon dogs whose sheen takes the aesthetic of the car showroom into the realm of the absurd. Going through the Jeff Koons exhibition reminded me of what it might be like to inhabit a movie like Toy Story, and then made me think we already do—we just need an artist to make us aware of that fact.
This leads me to the question of why we cannot or will not actually make that world. Architecture has latched on to, used, and abused just about every way you can make art objects, except for pop art. It looked like Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, might do so, but they shied away into skin games and polite and soulless copying. Stanley Tigerman, FAIA had more oomph, but too often his work—houses in the forms of male private parts, for instance—descended into the kind of one-liner architects who read plans could understand. More recently Sam Jacob and his former firm FAT tried, but again they made the fatal mistakes of abstracting and ironizing their source material.
Architects, it seems, can’t play it straight. They can neither take existing materials straight out of The Home Depot that have the sheen of high commerce all over them, nor are they willing to steal images without showing us that they are better than that. Those reactionary classicists, such as Allan Greenberg and Quinlan Terry, who had their moment in the 1990s, maybe came closest, but they were using high art that was and is alien to most of our daily life.
Architects love airplanes and fast cars, but not their interiors, which is what most of us actually experience. They fetishize technology but can’t use it nearly as well as the average consumer product engineer.
Perhaps they are just too high and mighty. Architects always seem to know it better and want to do the right thing, even if it hurts them and their inhabitants—see the work of Peter Eisenman, FAIA. What is strange is that artists such as Jeff Koons, who make no such moral claims, end up revealing more about our culture in all its excess and manufactured alienation, and show us beautiful and viable alternatives with more success than those high-minded builders of the right stuff. Koons, by the way, also gets to eat his cake by becoming a popular and rich artist.
There is no reason that you can’t make pop architecture that is comfortable, firm, and delightful. All it takes is a little more acceptance of a world not made by architects. It’s time to stop worrying about Le Corbusier or Palladio would have done and start learning from Jeff Koons.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.