In a world that is riddled from the basest form of life onward with war, poverty, rape, and strife, fewer things seem to anger Westerners more than modern art. You haven’t truly lived the American art going experience until you hear such top ten hits by all the original yokels and critics alike of, “Gah! *I* could make something better!” or “They paid all that money for THIS?!?” and of course, don’t forget, “This is not art!” It is the sole unifier between the average viewer and fine art patricians. This is especially true when it comes to artists like Duchamp, Andy Warhol, or Jeff Koons.
Growing up, discovering the words and works of both Duchamp and especially Warhol bordered on life changing for me. Both men bent linear views of what constitutes fine art all the while equally enchanting and offending people, which is a saint-like activity when you’re a creative. Punk and rap would go on to do the same thing with music, before both became commodified and put on the stock-steak-market-rump-roast shelf, because we as a species do not deserve to keep nice things. But good punk and rap aren’t dead and neither is great art and defying the well-moneyed hands that eye, buy, and bite you, as evidenced by one Jeffrey L. Koons.
Koons’ art, which famously includes voluminous balloon animals made out of shiny-turquoise steel and life sized gilded porcelain figures of Michael Jackson and his poor pet chimp, Bubbles, can come across like something Louis XIV would have created if he was an ex-carnival curator working at a small town flea market. Like his pop art forefathers, he tends to elicit a lot of extreme reactions from art critics and randos alike. Is he genuine or a merry prankster who gets the last laugh as his works net literally obscene amounts of money? Personally, why can’t an artist be both? There is nothing less creative than hard fast rules. Either way, I would rather see the one percent use their riches to buy art than fund morally corrupt politicians and environmental disasters like fracking and deforestation.
Discussions like these are part of what one could call the Koons fascination/frustration. However, it was his 1989 Made in Heaven series that stands out from both his past and latter day work . It still has Koons’ unmistakable auteur thumbprint but possesses a soft dreaminess that feels absent from everything else he has created in his career. The gilded pastel ribbon trail of Made in Heaven leads to a muse unlike any that the art world could have imagined: Ilona Staller aka Cicciolina. Cicciolina was best known for her work in adult film, but like any artist, she is bigger than her own chosen medium.
She is also much more than just a sexy blonde with a willing smile and a cute figure. Cicciolina has a quality that isn’t often associated with women in erotica. Innocence? No, though the term has been used to describe not only Cicciolina, but far too many adult women viewed in vulnerable poses. Cicciolina is ethereal, like a pagan goddess visiting Earth to spread a message of love without guilt, shame, and the assorted sundry list of toxic human traits that are attached to sex and sensuality. Even her look supported this, with her eschewing the big hair and hot neon colors of the 1980s for a softer look. This often included flower crowns, lingerie in bridal white and girlish pastels, and sporting straight blonde hair that would ever so slightly wisp into a hint of a curl. She was often seen posing with stuffed animals, but with Cicciolina, it came across less creepy and more just part of her celestial persona. Many of her peers in the 1980s adult industry were more in the glamazon tigress mold, like Ginger Lynn, Amber Lynn, and Taija Rae, but in this sea of colorful alpha females, Cicciolina came across more like a handmaiden for Dionysus.
Born in Hungary, she became an Italian citizen via marriage to a man that is named in several postings as “Salvatore Martini.” (I hope to the gods that this is his real name. We should all have such a great sounding name as Salvatore Martini.) From there, Ilona would become Cicciolina, a many faceted goddess who acted, modeled, recorded several songs with titles like “Baby Love” and “My Sexy Shop,” and would have a lengthy career as both a politician and political activist. The latter is a passion that she has retained to this day, often fighting for causes like anti-nuclear war, legalizing same sex marriages, a set minimum wage for young workers, and more. Brains, heart, and beauty are a lethal combination of a fantastic variety and often provide the richest soil for muse and artist to intertwine and become one. I’ll be your mirror, indeed.
Staller and Koons arrived on set but it would be a union of Jeff and Ilona that would leave it and in the wake of their creative and physical union, would blossom into a real life love and marriage. Made in Heaven stands out for more than just the sweet backstory that quickly became the front one. In the realm of modern day artists, especially photographers, whose work dealt with erotic themes, Koons is a valentine of an outlier. In comparison, there’s the dark-hearted high fashion gloss of figures like Chris von Wangenheim and Helmut Newton, the gauzy sensual lens of Bob Guccione, the marble-hued compositions of Robert Mapplethorpe, the vivid colors and earthy sexuality of Paul Johnson, and the post-atomic-age hyper-surrealist lens of Stephen Sayadian. All the above mentioned are vibrant artists but Koons’ Made In Heaven has little to nothing in common with any of their catalog.
Made in Heaven’s aesthetics are sweet and often come across like a candy-tinged sunrise amidst a pagan coupling blessed by ruddy cheeked angels. Virginal whites are contrasted with bold blues and pinks, while the lovers pose, often together, though occasionally with sole focus on Ilona. The billboard for the exhibit was designed like a cinematic lobby card version of a romance novel cover designed by the Erotes, announcing the title and starring Jeff Koons and Cicciolina. From the outset, Made in Heaven is set apart from any of its kin not only because of its Easter straw vibe and sugar egg romance, but also because the creator is within the image too.
The bulk of creative artists who deal with portraying the human body, especially the feminine nude, rarely ever put themselves within the image. What’s even more rare than that is the way Koons himself is portrayed. He is not just a mere phallus proxy to symbolize the sexual hopes and wishes of the male viewer gaze. Koons is as much part of the visual canvas as Cicciolina, with him looking as beautiful and worthy of the setting as his starlet and muse. By doing this, what could have just been another glorification of the female form through the traditional gendered hetero-male gaze, becomes something bigger. Cicciolina is the star here, no doubt, but he is a fitting and unashamed co-star.
While personal patience keeps me from digging too deep down into the art criticism well, one can’t help but wonder if some of the negative reception the exhibit has garnered over the years was tied to Jeff Koons being included as a visual part of the sexual imagery within the art. The same year that Made in Heaven debuted, famed feminist activist group The Guerrilla Girls released their own piece, entitled “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” This work states that “…less than 5% of the artists in Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” Not much has changed over time, with the message at large all but stating that female nudity is beautiful art but if you include the male body, it is suddenly “pornographic.” The fact that not only did Koons include the nude male form in this exhibit but made sure it was his own, full tilt metaphorical and literal erection and all, is beyond admirable. Especially when coupled with interviews with Koons from the time, with the man coming across quietly earnest and wholly sincere. This was no sleaze-town-me-too shindig going on, but something far more special and pretty.
Case in point, note the description of part of the exhibit from The New York Times’ Michael Nagle, with “…Jeff Koons…and his wife at the time engaged in sex acts, drew lines at a gallery in SoHo…” This is technically true, but for comparison, one could also describe Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” as “…distraught blue lady with acromegaly.” The basics are the same and so is the distaste. Explicit imagery is not for everyone, but the whole beauty of being involved in the art world is seeing how life, emotions, and vision are processed by creatives. There is no shame in possessing delicate sensibilities, but if the unharmed adult human body is that grievous a sight for you, then maybe pursue a better suited career, like a Precious Moments museum curator or reviewing various Kidz Bopz compilations. This world is full of truly obscene acts that we see play out on a jaundiced page and screen everyday. Two consenting adults in love and making love should never be on such a list.
A lot has changed since that one-of-a-kind exhibit premiered. Koons and Staller would divorce, prompting a lot of writing and public comments over the years about their split. No doubt that some of the people tittering about the break-up had no problems gossiping about something so personal but were likely offended by the imagery of Made in Heaven. Such is our society. Obsessed with sex and visceral drama, but puts on a three-piece suit and a conservative skirt to give the illusion of being above such perceived tawdriness. Gossip is far more unclean than any photograph or sculpture from this particular exhibit.
As for the two muses/artists of Made in Heaven, Staller is still politically active and has inspired a number of musicians over the years, including Pop Will Eat Itself, Erika Venman, and Actually Huizenga, who recorded a sweet-to-the-ears cover of Cicciolina’s song, “Baby Love,” in 2014. Koons has remained creatively active and is still the crown prince of imps in the fine art world. (It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it.) Relationships may ignite then burn out, but art remains as a free floating DNA strand, pure and pristine even years after the original creator or creators have moved on. Babies will grow old, grubby, and resentful, but art is the closest to forever our merely mortal mitts can ever hope to grasp.