Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jeff Koons Does Play-Doh

Above is another sculpture from this summer's Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Appropriately, it is named "Play-Doh," and it looks EXACTLY like a child's pile of modeling clay.  The differences are that it is 10 feet tall, made of aluminum and weighs more than 1,000 pounds.

It is difficult to know what to make of such a piece.  Its technical perfection, which took 20 years to achieve, is unassailable.  It is not ironic.  It is exactly what it sets out to be.

Critic Roberta Smith of the New York Times called it "a new, almost certain masterpiece whose sculptural enlargement of a rainbow pile of radiant chunks captures exactly the matte texture of the real thing, but also evokes paint, dessert and psychedelic poop."

Another reviewer, Ariella Budick of the Financial Times cast a more skeptical eye on the exhibit. She called Koons "the Pied Piper in reverse, leading adults back to discover the toddler's joy in gaudy colors and glittering thingies."  Later, she added, "His wizardry consists of dazzling technical perfection."

Koons came up with the idea of a play-doh statue in 1994, and an investor agreed to buy it, paying cash in advance.  It took 20 years, and many iterations, until Koons was satisfied with the result, which is now on display.

Along the way, Koons asked the investor several times for additional money until the work was completed to the artist's satisfaction.  The investor continued to front Koons more cash, and it is a pretty sure bet that the finished product's value is greater than the amount the investor gave Koons between 1994 and 2014.

This is a new way of funding art, as critic Felix Salmon of The Guardian explains:

"In any sensible art world, Koons's financial innovations would never have worked.  Let's say that you're willing to pay $20,000 for a work which cost $7,500 to fabricate.  You pay the artist $20,000 up front, and are then told hey, we've had a massive cost overrun, please pay us another $20,000 or get your money back.  You just say thanks, I'll have my money back.  I was willing to pay $20,000, but I'm not willing to pay $40,000."

But when it comes to Jeff Koons, there is not a sensible art world.  Collectors buy his sculptures -- for prices starting at $20 million and ranging well upward from there -- as investments.  If he builds it, they will come.  Estimates of his wealth range up to $500 million, based on the now widely held assumption that anything he produces will increase in value.

Koons nearly went broke twice in his early career, and his current approach protects him from that fate.  His workshop in New York's hip Chelsea neighborhood employs 125 American artists and artisans to turn out the artworks he dreams up.  He could make more money by moving his plant outside the country and hiring less expensive employees, but he does not do that.

Rich as he now is, Koons doesn't seem particularly focused on making money.  Whatever you think of his art, he is now so prominent that money, lots of it, comes seeking him.

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