Jeff Koons / Popeye Series

Writing in the November/December 2008 issue of Frieze, associate editor Dan Fox described a theoretical parallel to the economic ‘credit crunch’ to be found in contemporary art. Labelling it the ‘content crunch’, Fox defines it at as the realisation that ‘meaning in your work only resides there on credit and that all the chatter around your career has been about everything but the art itself.’

Despite Jeff Koons’ ongoing use of personal narratives, sky-high price tags and pop-cultural borrowings, one would be ill-advised to apply this concept too swiftly to the artist’s oeuvre. Not only has Koons in the past made iconic visual statements – picture his stainless steel Rabbit, 2003, or topiary Puppy, 1992 – in 2005 he was elected as a fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, demonstrating heavyweight artistic status.

However, in its press release for Koons’ Popeye Series exhibition (the artist’s first major UK solo show) the Serpentine Gallery courts reference to the current recession in a way that demands a response, in terms of economics and in an examination of actual content. According to the press release, ‘in this current period of economic recession, [Popeye] is a fitting character to rediscover and explore’ because the cartoon sailor was invented back in 1929 during the Great Depression. Yet while the retail price of a top Koons has reportedly halved since the current economic downturn, the artist’s reputation was built during the 1980s boom and his mass/consumer-cultural motifs are usually thought of as less subversive and more celebratory of our banal and surface-driven preoccupations.

The Serpentine exhibition displays a mixture of imposing, headachey-bright oil paintings and coloured aluminium and steel sculptures modelled after inflatable swimming pool accessories. Of instant appeal in the first gallery is Moustache, 2003, a black ‘moustache’ shape, styled in the manner of a wrought iron gate, suspended on chains and flanked by trademark aluminium ‘inflatable’ toys. Part of the work’s pull comes from the visual breathing space allowed by the black (in place of loud colour) and the moustache’s linear design that demarcates real spaces in the gaps between the lines. This is one of the only works in the show that interacts with the space of the gallery itself. Perhaps as a result of a fairly recent art school education, I feel more at ease with sculpture articulating existing space, rather than defiantly asserting its own form, as much of Koons’ work does (more on that later).

The paintings, such as Popeye, 2003, generally provide no place to rest. Distressingly, the eye roams across the computer-generated evenness of the painting’s surface; the experience is a little like looking at a Pollock, except in place of a modernist psycho-spirituality there is the popular and banal. Cartoon figures; naked female bodies; clothing; motifs borrowed from nearby sculptures (shiny, inane lobster); Popeye and Olive Oyl; are spread alongside what seem to be carefully scanned and copied gestural, painterly, wash marks. To return to the question raised earlier of the ‘content-crunch’, perhaps Koons, with his references to Dali (lobster, moustache) and gestural, expressionist painting, is calling in the art-historical backup. As a sculptor friend recently pointed out to me, during a recession there is a greater demand from patrons and buyers for meaningful, cultural capital. If Koons can’t provide this through the conventional means of the fetishized artist’s touch – even his oil paintings are fabricated by assistants – then careful linking of his work to art historical traditions with cultural cachet may perform a similar role.

However, this review may not yet end on such a tired note. A recent interview with Koons by the (UK) Guardian’s Jonathan Jones revealed a very different side of the artist, prompting a second, gentler approach to the show. Koons talked candidly with Jones about his relationship with Italian porn star La Cicciolina and the subsequent, painful, legal problems regarding custody of their child. “That estrangement from his now teenage son has become part of the meaning of his art… When his son was born, he became interested in the simple shapes and colours of the baby’s first toys.” Rather like Julian Opie’s interest in the simplest of linear signs apparently emerging from watching his young daughter play with cartoon and simplified figures, it appears that Koons hoped to make art that his own small child could relate to. Said Koons: “I was trying to make art that my son could look on in the future and would realise I was thinking about him very much during these times… that he can look and see my dad’s thinking about me, but to also embed in these things something that is bigger than all of us.” Interestingly, the silent, tense gallery atmosphere of Popeye Series was broken by a small child’s delight at a sculpture I might otherwise have overlooked. A totem of sorts, it comprised a stack of orange-brown, identically grinning monkeys of the type you might find on chocolate packaging. The gallery attendant, the mother making chimp noises, the child in the buggy and I smiled and laughed and suddenly the works seemed to have a social function other than as commodities.

A third approach, suggested by a painter friend, would praise Koons for his ‘unashamedly sculptural’ sculptures, alluded to earlier. In his article on the ‘content-crunch’, Fox opposed shallow, content-less works with art that attempts to tackle ‘serious, long term, aesthetic problems.’ Since the idea of sculpture in the expanded field was documented in the 1970s, the value of sculpture itself has been thoroughly questioned, to the extent that many artists who self-consciously try to extend ‘sculpture’ today seem embarrassed to produce anything so straightforward as an assertive material object. For Koons to unabashedly dive into this serious, aesthetic issue, producing metal objects that are not only representational (the rubbery, weightless characteristics of inflatable beach toys, exemplified by Acrobat, 2003-09, right down to the seams, tucks, and deflated wrinkles are convincing) but also self-contained, suggests that there is far more to his work than pop-cultural mirroring. Taking into account his engaging personal narratives and formal defiance, perhaps there is more beneath the surface of Koons’ art than even the artist himself would usually admit.

Review live at whitehotmagazine.com and reprinted in Whitehot Magazine Vol. 2.