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New York makes a (shaky) bid for L.A.'s pop culture crown

December 15, 2009 |  3:04 pm

For decades, the stereotype has been that Los Angeles is the center of the pop culture universe. Now, New York appears to be making a claim on the title.

Not New York, the city; New York, the magazine.

Here’s esteemed art critic Jerry Saltz in the current issue, which surveys the cultural zeitgeist from 2000-2009, writing about Jeff Koons and his monumental, 40-foot floral sculpture of a West Highland white terrier, clad in 50,000 petunias, begonias, marigolds and chrysanthemums:

After his 1991 "Made in Heaven" exhibition, in which we saw graphic depictions of Koons and his ex-wife, the porn star La Cicciolina, having sex, Koons was shunned within the art world. He wasn’t invited to biennials; he had only one more New York solo gallery show in the nineties. To get a sense of how that felt to Koons, consider that he once mused about being "burned at the stake."

So he spent most of the nineties working to return to New York with something utterly perfect, powerful, and beyond criticism. "Puppy" accomplished that. Not only was it an instant icon; it is the first piece of art exhibited in the 21st century that was clearly jockeying for pop-culture supremacy.

“Puppy” was “the first piece of art exhibited in the 21st century that was clearly jockeying for pop-culture supremacy”? Was it preparing for that in 1992 when it was first shown in Bad Arolsen, Germany, a stone’s Jeff Koons Puppy throw from Kassel and the mega-show Documenta IX, whose art-world thunder the wonderful doggie stole?

Or in 1995, when it went up Down Under, just across the inlet from the iconic Opera House in Sydney, Australia (pictured)?

Or in 1997, when it became a photogenic add-on to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, arguably the most photographed building of the last 50 years?

Apparently the assault on Manhattan was planned with extraordinary, slow-motion cunning.

Saltz mentions that “Puppy” was fabricated in Germany eight years before it got to Rockefeller Center, but he doesn’t mention that millions of people all over the world saw it exhibited in the 1990s -- which is pretty much the definition of popular culture these days. Provincial Manhattan might have “shunned” Koons, but the art world elsewhere was happy to bring the amazing masterpiece to town.

And speaking of pop culture supremacy, need I mention the obvious ancestry of Koons’ colossal work of art, with its thousands of flowers fed by an elaborate internal watering system? I will concede that New York has its quaint hot-air balloons floating down Fifth Avenue on Thanksgiving Day. But for colossal pop culture strangeness, give me the mega-floral New Year's extravaganzas in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade any time.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Jeff Koons, "Puppy" (1992), being constructed in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, in 1995. Credit: Associated Press

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