The Young And The Tasteless

What plays best in vanguardland these days is private life as public spectacle. Most of this is categorized, naturally, as performance art, but a few painters and sculptors have become quasi-actors, too. For the past several years, Jeff Koons, 36, has increasingly tailored his persona to match the cool, glitzy, vapid objects he makes. He's become a kind of bohemian Johnny Depp who recites paint-by-number bromides in the press like, "Revealing the truth within one's self is what makes art great."

In 1985, Koons, a former commodities broker and rising young artist, made a sculpture consisting of three basketballs floating in an aquarium. Although it trailed Marcel Duchamp's urinal-as-sculpture by almost 70 years, the piece looked eerily like both Stephen King and Mies van der Rohe had collaborated on it. This year, the Museum of Modern Art snapped it up for its permanent collection. Then Koons jacked up the absurdity quotient by replicating inflatable rabbits and Jim Beam train decanters in stainless steel. But by the time he came up with a larger-than-life statue of Michael Jackson with his chimp Bubbles in 1988, it was all too clear that Koons was much more interested in cultural farce than sculptural form. The fact that Koons had made millions from art he hired others to manufacture only fueled the resentment simmering in many quarters of the art world. At the 1990 Venice Biennale, Koons went over the top. He exhibited photo-derived soft-core porn paintings of himself and then-fiancce Ilona ("La Cicciolina") Staller, the Hungarian-born X-rated actress who'd been elected to the Italian Parliament. Grumbling turned to outrage among many critics, who now felt Koons was merely the star of an ongoing publicity stunt.

Which means, of course, that the time is ripe for Koons's next calculated assault on the limits of taste. And here it comes, starting Nov. 23 at New York's prestigious Sonnabend Gallery, where Koons is regarded as an essential link between pop and conceptual art. Koons will show more truth-or-dare computerized paintings of himself and his new bride, La Cicciolina. But this time, says the gallery, the paintings are hard core, with the principals engaged in explicit sex acts. In fact, the gallery is planning to station a guard at the door to keep out anyone under 18. Koons, who divides his time between New York and Munich, purports to object to keeping out kids and to be worried about censorship. "I want my work to be seen by young people, who are forming their opinions. If the work is closed down, it won't be effective," he says. "I think when people view these images, they will find not perversity, but something that is beautiful, like a flower."

Koons knows it's smart (profitable and fun) to be the artist everyone loves to hate. The granddaddy of the gambit was Andy Warhol, with his narcotized films and garish silk-screen paintings in the 1960s. But by the time he died in 1987, blissful immersion in inanity had transformed him into Saint Andy. For a brief moment, the graffitist and Pop Shop entrepreneur Keith Haring seemed to be a successor, but his art was too friendly. Then came Mark Kostabi, a painter who advertised in The Village Voice for ideas for bad surrealist paintings and paid other people to execute them. But he was a one-trick pony. So the title passes to Koons. And with any luck, we won't see a serious challenger for years.