Koons and Nostalgia
Who knew that a 1981 Hoover could induce nostalgia? Or, for that matter, a 1986 ad for Frangelico? Jeff Koons, now 59 and still working feverishly, probably did not. Nonetheless, in the many tours that I've led through his excellent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American art, his object choice has proven intoxicating. Last weekend, a woman--Koons's contemporary-- mentioned that a green upright Hoover, encased in plexiglass and illuminated by florescent tubes, triggered feelings of fledgling independence. In 1982, when she had just moved into her own apartment in the East Village, her first major purchase was that vacuum cleaner. “I felt so responsible, so adult,” she mused.
This Hoover upright “convertible” is part of a series called The New, which Koons began exhibiting in 1980 in the New Museum’s storefront window on Fourteenth Street. At the time, this and other vacuums were top-of-the-line products, meant to engender consumer lust and nearly religious devotion. Not one of Koons’s Hoovers has ever been used. Yet now, thirty years later, they embody obsolescence.
The series Luxury and Degradation, which celebrates vice through reprinted liquor advertisements and stainless steel casts of drinking paraphernalia--an ice bucket, a Baccarat crystal set--from the late 1980s, has a similar effect. Though I am too young to recall the ads for Bacardi, Frangelico, and Jameson, many visitors can. “Ads used to be much more subtle, more elegant,” one man remarked as he stared at a 1986 Frangelico ad imploring consumers to “Stay in tonight.” It features a flow of the eponymous hazelnut-flavored liquor shaped like the curve of a woman’s back. Though perhaps not obvious enough for today’s flashy (and slowly dying) print magazines, the image occasions recollections of a simpler, smarter, time.
Many say that Koons’s greatest strength lies in his ability to capture the zeitgeist of the present moment, but perhaps that is because we are used to seeing his work soon after it is completed. In the context of a career-long retrospective beginning in 1978, different interpretations arise. And in fact, one of Koons’s recent series, titled Antiquity, is his most backward-looking. The most striking piece, Venus, was inspired by Woman of Willendorf, one of the oldest sculptures known to man. Dating to 24,000 BCE, Woman of Willendort is a hand-held fertility charm that experts believe was passed from one woman to another as they tried to conceive. Koons has transformed the small, pregnant figure--with full belly and pendulous breasts--into one of his iconic steel balloon animals. When asked about this series, Koons said, “I’m trying to let people know about narrative. Everyone is interested in narrative, and the narrative that we can trust the most is the biological narrative, the narrative of human history.”
So, what is the message of Jeff Koons’s retrospective? Here is an artist who is not, as many of us formerly presumed, obsessed only with “the new,” but someone who wants desperately to insert himself into the long narrative of art history and to help viewers connect the dots. Koons, a father of seven, has said that there are two ways to become immortal: procreation and art. The third is through memory. In fact, nostalgia may be the super power behind Koons’s most potent work.