The assertion that Jeff Koons is maturing as a painter might seem hard to take given his quote posted on the Gagosian Web site, which reads like a cross between the lines of a motivational speaker and an excerpt from a New-Age sex-education manual: “The gesture that you end up making in the world happens through instinct and all these desires for procreation. The greatest beauty is the acceptance of nature and how things function.” But what Koons pulls off in the pursuit of all that is in fact a maturing of his work as a painter, or at least as the director of a painting studio.
The difficulty with Koons’ painting is that it has largely depended on fairly simple borrowings of the projects of other artists, particularly the wholesale looting of James Rosenquist with occasional dips into photorealist Audrey Flack and pop artist Tom Wesselmann. Koons has distinguished himself from these with his choice of imagery as well as an attitudinal bent born of Magritte, Dali and Warhol, but the approach to making a painting seemed like nothing much new.
In a way, there’s nothing all that new in Koons’ latest direction, as seen at Gagosian, where one sees a sampling of licks and riffs from a whole buffet of 20th-century painting. But the complexity of the effort changes the game. Koons goes from seeming like a vocabulary-challenged guy doing the same book of Mad Libs over and over to a composer who has at his disposal, and has taken the time to figure out how to use, an endless library of sampled tracks, sound engineer’s toys, and effects pedals.
A case in point is a recurring motif that looks on first glance like an abstraction of a dancer or possibly a butterfly. It’s actually a quick sketch of the sort of view one finds in Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du Monde (the Origin of the World) or in skin magazines — a crotch shot of a reclining nude — only scrawled as if by Matisse holding Cy Twombly’s hand, then screened by Warhol, and finally painted by hand, as if by Roy Lichtenstein.
These and other mediated scrawls are overlaid atop images of nudes, pinups, and lovers amidst nature, as well as landscape shots, all rendered in the soft focus resulting from the radical enlargement of dot-screen painting — the images here rendered in dots the size of quarters. They are reminiscent of Lichtenstein as well, but even more so the dot-screen paintings of Sigmar Polke, whose more fluid experiments in painting also are suggested by Koons’ layering of washy, gestural brushwork. The smears and swooshes on Koons’ canvases are actually tightly rendered, recalling Lichtenstein’s pop versions of abstract expressionist strokes, but painted with the realism of Flack or Rosenquist.
The styles and approaches of painters past become like so many filters, each upon the other. It’s all borrowing and quoting, but Koons manages to avoid feeling dependent or derivative, and instead turns out to be surprisingly fresh, because the artist, who has often flaunted his beginnings as a student of painting, here shows himself to be one.
Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Dr., Beverly Hills; Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., through January 9. (310) 271-9400, gagosian.com.