Pretend Jeff Koons is an artist. Not a happy hotshot in a suit, serving as crystal meth to big-game-buying megacollectors and auction houses. Pretend he’s not a self-styled weird Mitt Romney–like family man, a hollowed-out Howdy Doody. Imagine that he isn’t so easy to bash that even comatose critics like John Yau lose it when they see his art, trashing Koons’s flowered Puppy and then admitting to never having seen it. (Yau once beat me up in print for liking it, too.) Finally, pretend that Koons’s concurrent gigantic shows—one at the Battlestar Gagosian on West 24th Street, the other in the West 19th Street branches of the David Zwirner empire—were in less turbocharged environments, and that they constituted any other double show by a 58-year-old artist. One who’s made some of the most vexingly paradoxical sculpture of the past 30 years, work that makes you squirm even as it forces you to grapple with its mysteries. You’d come out thinking—or at least, I came out thinking—there’s still something there.
The Gagosian half of the experience is a familiar one. Upon entering, you see the big lunchbox of Koonsian archetypes—three humongous stainless-steel balloon beings (each offered in five variants), a batch of photorealist paintings, and a polychromed bronze sculpture of the Incredible Hulk pushing a wheelbarrow full of real petunias—and the show as a whole fizzles. In the first main gallery, eight large paintings fail to advance Koons’s fantastic dream of producing a handmade two-dimensional surface so intensely, intricately fashioned that all signs of human life disappear, leaving the effect of a man-made inkjet print or a nonvirtual JPEG. Overhung and jammed together, they can’t hold the space—they just collapse into decoration instead. They achieve instant backdrop status. There’s no way to glean if any of them are working their strange magic.
The three balloon sculptures—a yellow rabbit, a blue swan, and a red monkey that I still think is a snake—are lined up like cabin cruisers at a boat show. You’re forced into a march past them. You’re discouraged from circling, so you can’t determine if they transform into something more abstract and uncanny—as I think the monkey-snake might, if seen on its own. (It could even be better than his top-of-the-line red Balloon Dog.) Here again, the potential for a Pandora’s box of perceptual-psychological convolution is lost, and the sculptures turn into colossal baubles bound for Beverly Hills and Dubai atria. My Godfatherly advice on the sculpture with the planter: Leave the Hulk; take the petunias. If I learned anything here, it’s that Koons desperately needs a curator to mitigate displays like this.
Koons’s “Gazing Ball” exhibition, at David Zwirner, is different. There we see a dozen white plaster casts of ancient Greco-Roman statues, an inflated snowman, and sundry vernacular objects, the best of which is a row of mailboxes. Each work is adorned with a single mirrorlike blue glass sphere, the sort you see on suburban birdbaths. I got to the opening late, which meant I spent a few minutes viewing the show almost alone, save for Koons, his wife, and his mother. (Me: “How you doin’, Jeff?” Him: “I guess okay.”) After they left, I stayed and looked for a long time. That’s when I saw my career pass before my eyes. I’d seen photos of one of the sculptures a few months back, and hated it, and was certain that everyone else who’d been at the opening would think the same—but I couldn’t hold on to my predigested opinion. Holy shit! I thought. I really like some of these! He is, in fact, an artist and not an overhyped hot dog. Or at least not only a hot dog.
Koons has always used materials that are shiny, dense, multicolored, monochrome, or clear. He’s made marble self-portraits, a porcelain Michael Jackson, a wooden Buster Keaton. He’s created basketballs floating in vitrines of distilled water; encased new vacuum cleaners lit by fluorescence in Plexiglas towers; cast statuary and everyday objects in high chromium stainless steel; fashioned painted polychrome figurative wood sculptures; cast glass sculptures of sex. All these objects come at you with an intense optical presence. Here Koons turns to an absorptive, non-shiny, non-hard material of dead-white matte plaster. Most of the sculptures are big; some are clunky. As I stared at them, each with its glitzy blue Viagra pill on top, something freakish happened.
In a few cases, the plaster surfaces absorbed so much light as the orbs atop created their distorted mirrored views—of both the sculptures themselves and the world around them—that the casts snowblinded me. They receded from my visual field and disappeared. They left the weird blue balls hovering in some new no-space, like disembodied seeing-eyes or planetoids. They became futuristic echoes of the floating basketballs and early stainless-steel structures. And the simple white casts made the distracting content of Koons’s ridiculous production costs fall away too; the material grew vulnerable, becoming already something of a ghost. The plaster will age, grow dirty, and chip, making these works mortal in ways almost none of Koons’s work has been. He usually achieves perpetually immaculate perfection, often in stainless steel; this work is only perfect for the moment. The balls may retain this pristine state, but the sculptures they reflect will constantly change as they move forward through time. Koons goes to the timeless past and eternal artistic forms of beauty, yet somehow gets them to fade and dissolve.
It’s possible that people of the future will just consider these things feeble kitsch or a macho joke on “blue balls.” Often, he’s surely still itching like a buggy puppy for our love, to an extent that can seem pathetic. When I heard that he’d cooperated with these dueling shows, just a year before the Whitney’s big 2014 survey of his work, I thought the museum should cancel the whole thing, and let MoMA put Koons in a box with a sleeping Tilda Swinton and a staring Marina Abramovic amid a yard sale in the atrium and be done with it. Now I don’t. The paradoxes and inversions I saw at Zwirner, coupled with Koons’s ability to make art that can seemingly be dismissed as an easy one-liner but then fool the mind, suggests that he still has real phenomenological magic up his sculptural sleeve.
*This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.