Leaving a museum exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn paintings, I heard a man with a grey beard say to his friend that the work of art he “hates the most” is Michael Jackson and Bubbles by Jeff Koons. “If I could do it and get away with it, I’d smash it to pieces,” he said and tightened the draw-string under his chin, securing his safari hat.

I thought of Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, in a fury to cut the sound cables when Bob Dylan started playing an electric guitar. Only a short-circuit in the survival instinct could inspire such fascist proposals as smashing a sculpture or suppressing the electric guitar. Where indeed have all the flowers gone?

JEFF KOONS, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. photo by MKM

JEFF KOONS, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. photo by MKM

I saw Michael Jackson and Bubbles in person for the first time this summer in the Gorgeous exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Approaching the work, I thought about the guy that hated it so much. I bet he’s afraid of it on some level, what it is and what it represents (or whatever he thinks it represents). And who wants a ceramic Jacko creeping them out when they’ve driven all the way from Emeryville on a formalist safari? I was a little uncomfortable in front of it myself, which surprised me.

Bleak subtexts of celebrity and race are as clear in Michael Jackson and Bubbles as its formal qualities. The bone-white porcelain and reclined pieta-like figure bring to mind the physical transformation Jackson underwent as his celebrity grew until his untimely death. Michael Jackson and Bubbles addresses issues of taste, class and economy in a way that is 1980s to the max. Being unapologetically conceived as a luxury item for an exclusive market of the very rich is part of it’s mystique.

Michael Jackson, 1988 Bad World Tour

Michael Jackson, 1988 Bad World Tour. photo by the internet

It was part of Koons’ 1988 Banality series. That year, the flesh and blood Michael Jackson was touring the world in support of the record-breaking Bad, a brilliant artist at the top of his game. Koons recognizes that such singular talent reaches its greatest potential through banal media, at least in some very famous cases. Banality as the language or delivery system of ideas that are complex or difficult can still unsettle, and it’s not a easy trick to turn. Michael Jackson and Jeff Koons obviously mastered it and it’s why you know who they are. And it’s why we’re so ambivalent about “very special episodes” of sitcoms.

The "Bicycle Man" epsiode of Diff'rent Strokes, 1983

The traumatic “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes, 1983.

I think Michael Jackson and Bubbles is great and I think Poe’s tell-tale-heart beats inside of it. It’s got a creepy presence for sure, but wanting to smash it to pieces, even if you can get away with it, is pitiful.

There was a Mark Rothko in the last room of the Gorgeous exhibition. I never see a Mark Rothko painting that I don’t immediately think of his depression and suicide. I’ll never know what it’s like to see one of his paintings without that initial association. For good or ill, it’s what I bring to the table, and Rothko’s work is for me, however impossibly, partly about his suicide. But only partly.

Mark Rothko, 1903-1970

Mark Rothko, 1903-1970

I once helped install a Rothko in a private viewing room for a client and some dealers at Pace. The reverence for the work was palpable on everyone’s part. Spending so much time so close to the painting, I became aware of my privilege and how great the work really is in person. I quit thinking about how the painting was made by someone who was depressed, and I began to appreciate the painting on a formal level. It just took a commitment to look until I wasn’t thinking of quite so many words. It works. What they say is true.

On the bench in front of the Rothko at the Asian Art Museum was a young couple cuddled up like they were on the couch watching How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days with the lights out. I got the feeling that they could have been sitting in front of anything, but still.

MARK ROTHKO, No. 14, 1960, 1960. photo by MKM

MARK ROTHKO, No. 14, 1960, 1960. photo by MKM