Arts & Theater

Art review: Sacramento, look closer at Jeff Koons’ work

The city of Sacramento and the Sacramento Kings have an agreement to buy an $8 million sculpture from artist Jeff Koons, shown here in an artist’s rendering in the new arena’s plaza.
The city of Sacramento and the Sacramento Kings have an agreement to buy an $8 million sculpture from artist Jeff Koons, shown here in an artist’s rendering in the new arena’s plaza. Sacramento Kings

First a red rabbit. Now a piglet. What is this? Old McDonald’s Farm?

Well, we are the Farm to Fork Capital, so maybe it’s the right fit.

“Coloring Book,” Jeff Koons’ artwork chosen for outside the new downtown arena, is based on Piglet, a cute animal appropriated from A. A. Milne via Walt Disney. And he’s covered with bright colors as if a child had colored outside the lines in a coloring book. How sweet. Or is it an ironic put-on?

Not according to Koons, who once said, “A viewer might at first see irony in my work ... but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.”

Well, heaven forbid we should engage in that.

As Crocker Art Museum director Lial Jones said, Koons is the biggest “art star” around today. His recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was the largest show ever mounted there. His sculpture “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold at auction in 2013 for $58.4 million, the highest price paid at an auction for a work by a living artist.

But many distinguished critics do not care for his work. Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times described his work as “one last pathetic gasp of the art of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the 1980s.” It was, he said, “unabashedly cynical.”

The first Koons I saw was his ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A tasteless, oversized glitzy figurine, it provoked a chuckle and then a wince. This was kitsch on a monumental level – kitsch elevated to the realm of high art.

Born in 1955 in York, Pa., Koons studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But after receiving his BFA, he became a successful commodities broker for a time. In a sense he is still doing that.

Koons has been justifiably criticized for the commodification and commercialization of art. Like Andy Warhol, he is essentially a commercial artist with a factory that produces sculptures like “Balloon Dog, (Orange).”

A self-described “idea man,” Koons hires artisans and technicians to make the actual works. He has a 16,000-square-foot studio in New York and a huge staff of more than 90 assistants who oversee the making of the work, using a color-by-number system so that the works look like they were made by a single hand, although the hand of the artist is not an important issue for Koons.

His work has been described as “pop, conceptual and appropriationist blended with craft-making and popular culture.” He typically works in series. Among his works have been inflatables, such as a flower and bunny; vacuum cleaners; floating basketballs in tanks of water (Go Kings!); sexually explicit sculptures of him making love to his first wife, the Italian porn star “La Ciccolina”; topiary puppies, and the ubiquitous balloon animals.

His latest “Coloring Book” series is a set of multiples. Sacramento’s version, fifth in the series, will differ only in the colors used on the surface. The sculpture will cost $8 million with the money being put up by the city of Sacramento, the Kings and three Kings owners. In a departure from the norm, there was no open competition for the artwork to be chosen for the new arena. The piece was approved with only one dissenting vote by an Art in Public Places panel of nine members, including local artists, historians and the stadium’s architect.

Philanthropist and artist Marcy Friedman is dedicating $1 million, to which $500,000 will be added by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, to include work by local artists in the arena. That may assuage some hurt feelings on the part of local artists, and one can only thank Friedman for her concern for her fellow artists.

It remains to be seen how the public will respond to the sculpture. Controversial pieces have a way of becoming loved down the line (remember “Indo Arch”) and the “Coloring Book” Piglet may be no exception.

The City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to approve the commission.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee