By Beck Feibelman
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
Jeff Koons is the kind of artist whose name comes up when people look to blame someone for ruining Western civilization. These critics disdain him because he has gone out of his way to celebrate the most banal and aggressively cloying elements of commercial visual culture.
I am not one of those people. I think Koons is one of the most interesting artists of the end of the 20th century. His work — the vacuum cleaners encased in Plexiglas, the gilt porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, the 40-foot-tall puppy composed of growing flowers — is gorgeous, visceral and complex.
Between 1989 and 1991, Koons produced his most infamous and remarkable series, “Made in Heaven.” These paintings are large-scale, silkscreened, soft- and hardcore pornographic photographs of the artist and his then-wife, Ilona Staller.
Staller, at the time, was a prominent European porn star and a sitting member of the Italian Parliament better known by her stage name, La Cicciolina (which translates, roughly, as “Li’l Dumplin'”). A group of paintings from “Made in Heaven” is on view in New York this fall for the first time since their first lines-around-the-block-to-get-in, jaw-dropping spectacle of a show almost 20 years ago. Go see them at Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery, through Jan 21, 2011.
Imagine, just for some perspective, a U.S. Congresswoman being elected on the strength of the name recognition stemming from her career in pornography. Imagine her posing for larger-than-life-size photos, to be widely exhibited and published, of her world-famous, bad-boy artist-husband fucking her up the ass. Things are different in Europe.
Sure, the paintings in “Made in Heaven” are sexually explicit, but they’re also charming, goofy and funny. There’s a sweetness to the pastel backgrounds and prop butterflies populating the images. In several of the paintings, Cicciolina wears a white lace corset and a crown of flowers. In another, Koons might have just come on her face, but she is wearing a pearl headdress with a butterfly motif suitable for a little girl’s princess party. Among the accomplishments of La Cicciolina-and of these paintings-is that she pulls off the look with deadpan aplomb. The pearls might raise eyebrows, but against the odds, they escape campiness.
La Cicciolina is an exciting and dynamic personality in her own right, but she doesn’t usually get taken very seriously in discussions of “Made in Heaven.” A lot of the fantasy aesthetic in the paintings, not to mention a lot of the warmth and character, comes from her. Also, her fame as a porn star outside of the art world is responsible for an important aspect of the paintings’ power. Without her, these would just be capital-A Art about pornography. With La Cicciolina, they certainly are still that, but they are something more: they are indistinguishable from pornography. Performance artist, former porn star, and sometimes art critic Annie Sprinkle (NSFW), who would know, vouched for the authenticity of the semen in several of the paintings. The number of otherwise hardboiled art sophisticates made obviously uncomfortable by “Made in Heaven” is impressive.
Remember, “Made in Heaven” is from the early 1990s. That was before there was universal, at-will access to Internet porn-it was practically before the Internet. If mainstream American culture has become freer about pornography-and, well, it has-I count Koons and La Cicciolina in the avant-garde of that process. It is my guess that not a small number of visitors to the original exhibition had their first-ever conversations about porn in the context of these paintings.
Another reason “Made in Heaven” is a cultural touchstone is the series is an almost perfect negative example for the culture wars of the early ’90s. Koons showed these paintings literally during the social and Congressional blowup over Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio,” and the NEA Four’s performances.
What Koons has, however, that none of these other artists mired at the center of the culture wars has (or had) is the quality of being simultaneously straight, white and male. Not coincidentally, he also had the backing of a powerful commercial gallery and private financing. His lack of need for public grants allowed him successfully to produce images that are both more sexually explicit and less frankly political than the work of any of the NEA-censored artists. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Koons. The exclusionary private gallery system had, and has, some soul-searching to do.
More to the point, the brazen sexuality in “Made in Heaven” exposes an especially sinister aspect of the conservative attack against the NEA. The NEA had been a resource for artists without access to the blue-chip galleries. The drumbeat toward degrading NEA funding served as an opportunity for Senators Helms and D’Amato to exercise racism, misogyny and homophobia under the guise of defending American morals from the content of the censored artists’ work. It’s not that they should have (or could have) tried to censor Koons; it’s that we don’t often acknowledge that the culture wars served as a cudgel against women, queers and racial minorities. Koons’ freedom from this strife makes it easier to identify in the lives and artwork of those without that freedom.