Yesterday an architect friend sent me a rather interesting article about the contemporary American artist Jeff Koons, which happened to re-trigger a thought process I had begun but abandoned some months ago regarding the American pop artist Andy Warhol. Those of you who know me or read these pages regularly might be surprised to find me writing about these two artists, but as I often do I beg you to bear with me. I think you will be rather surprised.
Jeff Koons (born 1955) is originally from Pennsylvania, and after studying in Chicago and Baltimore moved to New York in the 1970’s. He has been something of a controversial figure in the art world and in popular culture for some time now. He is famous – or infamous, depending on how you look at – for creating works of art that are often regarded as bizarre, deeply offensive, or simply tacky objects of kitsch. Some tamer examples of his work include “Puppy”, a giant, 43-foot-tall topiary in the form of a dog; and arguably his most famous work, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”, an 18th century-style gilded, white porcelain sculpture, depicting the late pop star and his pet chimpanzee.
There is no question that Koons is an artist whose work is often difficult to like. Looking at an exhibition or catalogue of his output, he veers seemingly without explanation from humor to pornography, from childlike delight to repulsive blasphemy. What some also find objectionable, beyond his sometimes prurient subject matter, is that more often than not Koons himself does not actually make any of the art which bears his name. Instead, he employs a veritable factory of assistants who produce his work, based on his ideas.
Interestingly enough, this production method ties him rather closely to the example of another controversial American artist, albeit from an earlier generation. Like Koons, the hugely influential pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) also hailed from Pennsylvania, and left the relative sanity of the Keystone State to pursue his career in New York. Warhol established a “factory” method for his famous colored prints of Campbell’s soup cans and Elizabeth Taylor, whereby he himself was not actually producing the art, in most cases, as indeed Koons was to do later.
Subject matter aside, it should be pointed out that this method of an artist’s workshop producing work in the name of an artist, rather than the artist producing it all himself, is more traditional than might first appear. Today we think of the artist as toiling away in solitude, covered in sweat, paint, or flakes of marble, in some attic studio, but this is a comparatively recent phenomenon. As I wrote about recently in regard to the contemporary copy of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” from The Prado, which was recently restored to glorious effect, many artists like Leonardo, Rubens, and Murillo had young artists-in-training who apprenticed with them, in order to learn the trade themselves.
This method of art production, controversial as it may be to some, turns out to be a clue to what we might call a kind of krypto-conservatism on behalf of both these very unconventional men. There is no question that Koons and Warhol challenge notions of the nature of art, such as what is and is not acceptable, both in their subject matter and in their way of producing art. However it is rather interesting that in order to do so they returned to a pre-modern philosophy, more common to the 16th century than the 20th, in order to achieve it.
And what is even more interesting is the fact that despite all of their hipster swagger, preaching a new world of self-indulgence to a godless congregation, both Koons and Warhol are rather different when they are off-stage. In their respective home lives, in the nests they create for themselves away from the paparazzi and the glitterati, they turn out to be not only somewhat conservative, but downright traditional. The reader will be rather surprised to learn that these two artists, known for their bad taste in the art they themselves produced, in fact display rather refined tastes in their own homes.
Koons lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – not exactly a bohemian, starving artists community – in a home designed by architect Peter Pennoyer, chairman of the Institute of Classical Architecture. His traditional home is filled not with his own art, but with the work of well-established, great Western artists of the past six centuries, that read like a solidly thought-out collection from some conservative banking or industrialist family: Eduard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Nicholas Poussin, Quentin Massys, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and others. There is no bare-bones, cold glass and concrete living, here.
Similarly, when Andy Warhol died and Sotheby’s was called in to value the contents of his Manhattan residence – again, an elegant, traditional house on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, and not some grungy bedsit in Alphabet City – they were shocked to find that in private, Warhol lived like a descendant of colonial gentry. He filled his house with things like museum-quality furniture from the American Federal period of the early 19th century, creating rooms that would look perfectly at home in the White House or the mansion of a Boston Brahmin family. Whatever his public persona may have been, in his private life Warhol was not living with furniture made out of plastic.
Both of these challenging, difficult artists play the offending fool in public, yet adopt the role of the tasteful courtier in private. In this respect they are not unlike other challengers of the status quo in modern history, such as Voltaire or Marx, who despite what they said or did in public, in their private lives sought out and enjoyed the kinds of luxuries which are normally considered the benefits of being successful members of the establishment. By acquiring such accoutrements, whether consciously or not, they betray a realization that the supposedly bourgeois values of tradition, comfort, and good taste are not such bad things as they are made out to be, by those who claim to abhor such things.
Of course it would be easy to simply dismiss such people as being nothing more than hypocrites. Yet the better way to absorb this knowledge is to look at it as a challenge to some assumptions held by those who seem to attack traditional ideas about culture, taste, and so on, as well as our own perceptions of both such persons and the relative strength of their convictions. In the end, perhaps the power of tradition is not so dead a thing as we have often been led to believe.