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Manhattan may as well re-name itself Koonsville

Artist Jeff Koons
Artist Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons has taken over New York. First, there’s his 37-foot tall, 150-ton sculpture of a head – half toy pony, half toy dinosaur – looming over Rockefeller Place. To give you an idea how big it is, the height is equal to a three-story building and the tonnage outweighs a car, which comes in at between 1.5 and 2 tons.

Then there’s his work that completely dominate the Whitney Museum of Art. This means the lobby, second, third and fourth floor and the outside sculpture garden – the first time in the museum’s 83-year history to ever devote all of its 27,000 square feet to one artist.

At the same time, more of Koon’s output is showing at an art world-favored space, the Gagosian Gallery.

This guy must be good, right? Of course not. Nobody’s that good. So why is this happening? Let’s think. Hmm.


Usually, when there’s no ready answer, follow the money.

New York tourism growth has slowed, according to NYC & Co., the city’s tourism organization. This clearly has affected exhibition attendance. The Whitney’s attendance peaked four years ago at 372,000. Spokesman Charlie Tatum declined to release numbers for 2013–14).

How do you drive up attendance?

Answer? Mount an exhibit that’s easy to digest, that doesn’t tax tourists. After all, they’re on vacation, right? Koons’ toy-like sculptures to the rescue: “Popeye,” “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” and many other banalities at the Whitney makes the point. Koons says it himself by calling part of his body of work the “Banality Series.”

Whitney exhibit curator Scott Rothkopf also seems to acknowledge this by calling Koon’s stuff “tchotchkes,” adding that Koons is “a rare artist who's managed to find a broad audience."

And there you have it, folks: why New York is so gaga for visitors that well-regarded art venues put on non-art art shows. Even the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art crowned its rooftop with Koons' “Balloon Dogs.”

The Whitney has spared nothing for Koons’ “tchotchkes.” Planning and installation took four years, twice as long as it took to complete the Empire State Building.

No one seems to mind that Koons has had little to do with the making of his “tchotchkes.“ Others crank it out. There are 150 worker bees on his payroll. He freely acknowledges that he never picks up a paintbrush, famously saying, "If I had to be doing this myself, I wouldn't even be able to finish one painting a year."

At the rate of pay Koons gets for his work, it’s hard to see the downside to finishing one thing a year. The Wall Street Journal has reported that every year, he averages 10 paintings and 10 sculptures and sells them for between $11 million and $25 million each.

Like I say, follow the money. The Koons story is not an art story. It’s a business story.

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