Just Like ‘Heaven’

Originally published in New York Press October 13, 2010. Find the original article here.

"Hand on Breast" by Jeff Koons, 1990. Photo copyright Jeff Koons, courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

Taking a porn star to check out a supposedly shocking exhibit of Jeff Koons’ work

These days, Jeff Koons, art world king and kitsch master galore, prefers a tailored blue suit more befitting Wall Street than the Lower East Side art galleries. But in 1990, Koons bared all in his most controversial project, Made in Heaven.

The paintings and sculptures in the series erase the line between erotic art and pornography, between high- and low-brow kitsch. Depicting the consummation of Koons’ marriage to then-wife, Hungarian-born porn star and Italian parliamentarian La Cicciolina (aka Ilona Staller), the paintings shocked the art world when first shown at the Venice Biennale. And now, for the first time since the early ’90s, the works are on display. To unpack the meaning underlying the mélange of sexual imagery, on display through Jan. 2011 at Luxembourg & Dayan, I took along a professional.

Adult star and artist Colby Keller is good-natured in the way that people from fly-over states who are smart enough to get the hell out of Dodge and move east tend to be. He moved from Houston to Baltimore to attend MICA (Koons’s alma mater), and has appeared in porn off and on over the past seven years. Currently on hiatus from the movies, his art focuses on process and pieces not meant as commodities. His Big Shoe Diaries blog (he wears size 15) is a touchstone of gay sex work-meets-new media.

In front of the first painting, “Ilona’s Asshole,” Keller was struck by the size. “Whoa. It’s big!” When I asked if he meant the painting or the penis, he laughs, “Both. But it’s a nice penis. Good girth… Her pussy is in your face!” Sandwiched between paintings in the narrow gallery, we talk about the difference between erotic art and pornography.

“If you jack off to a Koons painting, you are using it as pornography,” Keller says.

“My first boyfriend first masturbated reading from the New Testament.” Koons also found inspiration in the church or in artists who produced work for the church: Cicciolina’s face in “Silver Shoes” is sourced from Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa.”

To succeed as an artist, Koons must “challenge, not re-enforce and re-establish expectations,” Keller says. Art forces us to inspect our desires and beliefs while entertainment reifies our egos and perverted fantasies. This is exactly what’s troubling about Made in Heaven: It confuses the relationship art normally holds with other forms of entertainment. Art has great value because we regard it as “special.” Porn has perceived value for the opposite reason.

Koons’ interest in weaving together kitsch-driven art and real life made Staller an ideal mate. As a porn-star cum parliamentarian, Cicciolina (Italian for “cuddles”) supported sex education in schools, delivered speeches with one breast exposed and offered to “make love to Saddam Hussein to achieve peace in the Middle East.”

“Porn stars are performers,” Keller tells me, “As a performer, I perform a preestablished set of controlled movements that necessarily must fulfill certain basic categorical expectations to be successful… It’s interesting that we don’t see Cicciolina as an ‘artist’ performing the work with Koons. She lends value to the work as a porn star, not as an artist in her own right.

“He’s exploiting her… Exploiting who she is, and exploiting her vagina. He’s doing all of that. Artist as asshole,” Keller laughs. “I think the reason it offends people the most is that it’s a joke.”

Indeed, Koons can perform this whole song-and-dance about being “the contemporary Adam and Eve,” but it’s really just a joke on everyone else. He ends up maintaining “the one-sided, often predatory and possessive inclinations of husbands to their wives.” Keller is less of a firebrand than I would like, but the meaning is clear. Koons doesn’t criticize, he relishes.

As far as sex in art goes, Koons and Cicciolina’s lovemaking is pretty vanilla. It’s more Deep Throat than Mapplethorpe, and there is the obligatory facial cumshot, affirming that this is spectacle. (Also of note: The beautifully designed catalog includes a new essay by curator and critic Alison M. Gingeras, though it’s rumored that an interview with Riccardo Schicchi, Cicciolina’s pornographer, was cut at the last minute at Koons’ behest.)

So why isn’t Made in Heaven as shocking as it was 20 years ago? Public decency is not the hot topic it was back in the days of Jesse Helms and the Culture Wars, and an “artists as jokers” ethos has inundated the art world, thank largely to profit-driven artists like Koons and Damien Hirst. Also, Keller adds, “now you have sites like XTube where people can watch married couples fuck for free—it’s not as shocking, so that value has been lost.”

It’s no coincidence that Koons worked as a commodities trader while he waited for his big art-world break. He operates in a post-Warhol world of “artist’s life as art” and “art as commodity.”

“Marriages are economic contracts after all,” Keller said, and a big part of Made in Heaven is that they’re just married, and “he’s got that smarmy little smirk, you know, on his face because he bagged the Italian porn-star. That’s gross; it’s icky.”