At first, in the retrospective at the Whitney, viewers may find it difficult to discern the wit or charm in the 1970s installations involving vacuum cleaners and neon lights, which have all the subtlety of shopping displays. However, on second thought, these objects might be viewed as meditations on the obsessions of American consumers.
Then, the work from a decade later turns out to be more masochistic, with stainless-steel editions of unopenable liquor bottles filled with bourbon that can never be tasted, as in Jim Beam—J.B. Turner Train (1986), which recently sold for more than $33 million.
Koons coupling on camera with his once soon-to-be (and later ex-) wife, Italian porn star La Cicciolina, in Made in Heaven (1989) may seem like the ultimate display of bad taste, but when considered in the context of the AIDS crisis and the culture wars going on at the time, the work looks like a battle cry for pleasure. And his latest pieces, exact replicas of balloon dogs and children’s toys fabricated on a monumental scale, seem designed to put a smile on everyone’s face.
In the final analysis, however, these are all objets d’art for people too wealthy to wait in line at Disney World like the rest of us. The genius of Koons is that he can be populist as well.
In his latest work, Split-Rocker (2014), he has replaced the mammoth Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center with the marriage of the heads of a rocking horse and a rocking dinosaur in profile, standing 37 feet tall and incorporating 50,000 flowering plants. The sculpture is the centerpiece of the plaza for those who may be put off by the high prices of his other achievements.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 92.