Landseer’s Poodle, Koons’ Balloon Dog and Why Museum Curators Should Hedge Their Bets for the Future

Gallery Dogs by Koons and Landseer (Digital collage)
"Edwin Landseer is one of the few, the very few, modern artists, whose works will bear to hang in the same room with the old masters and lose nothing by contrast." - Anna Eliza Bray (British Novelist), 1841
Unless you are a poodle breeder, or a print-collecting British barrister, it is unlikely that you have ever heard of Sir Edwin Landseer's once highly-esteemed doggie picture: "Laying Down the Law." Landseer's canvas, which satirizes the legal profession by portraying the Lord Chancellor as a French poodle, surrounded by glossy-eyed canine mignons, is the work of an artist who was widely viewed as a genius during his lifetime. "Sir Edwin's dogs have generally more expression in them," gushed one Victorian critic, "more intelligence, and more mind, than most portrait-painter's men and women."

Sir Edwin Landseer, Laying Down the Law, Oil on canvas, 28 in × 37 inches

After being exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840, "Laying Down the Law" was promptly acquired by William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire and remains on public view today at Chatsworth House. A mass-market engraving of the subject made by the artist's brother Thomas was hugely popular with the British public: one art dealer of the era chillingly bragged that a single copy of the print was "worth a Jew's eye."

 Today, Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) barely rates a footnote in art history texts--if he is mentioned at all--so it might be worth briefly recounting a few facts of his life. Sir Edwin (knighted in 1850) was a brilliant hypochondriac who abused drugs and alcohol and who could reportedly paint with both hands at once to help keep up with the demand for his work. He was the "unrivaled" animal portraitist of his time. After turning down the Presidency of the Royal Academy in 1866, he died at the age of seventy-one in 1873, nine months after his family reluctantly had him declared insane. Landseer's anthropomorphized dog pictures, such as "Good Doggie" and "A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society" are now regarded as period pieces, the high-brow antecedents of "Dogs Playing Poker." His reputation did at least linger into the early 20th century: while an art student in Vienna, Adolf Hitler made a rather poor copy of one of Landseer's vaunted stag paintings.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Blue), at The Broad

The art and career of Edwin Landseer should serve as a reminder of a very important fact: tastes in art can change radically across time and place. To think otherwise -- that you or anyone else has acute enough taste to tell us what art from their era will be considered "great" in the future -- is vanity. Taste is human and variable, subject to momentary infatuation and the magnetism of power and fashion.

I was having some thoughts about all of this as I looked over a recent example of dog art -- Jeff Koon's "Balloon Dog (Blue)"-- which I saw for the first time when I visited The Broad last month. Honestly, I found it pretty dazzling and enjoyed watching the way that the Broad's visitors were drawn to it. The "Balloon Dog (Blue)" makes a phenomenal backdrop for photos, and its reflective surface is irresistible, especially to kids. When I walked past it a second time on my way to the elevator, I even witnessed an homage: a professional balloon man (sorry, but I have lost his name) was posing with a poodle balloon that he had made on the spot. "I have been waiting for months to come here and do this," he told me.

The balloon man's homage to Koons...

Critics have sparred quite a bit over the "Balloon Dogs," and about Koon's work in general, but the art market has certainly conferred a notable distinction on it in terms of pure cash value: Koons' "Balloon Dog (Orange)" -- a variant on the Broad's piece -- realized $58,405,000 at auction on November 12, 2013, making it the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold. Mr. Broad, with characteristic foresight and shrewdness, paid far less for his by serving as a financier for the fabrication of the prototype of the series.

The staggering $58 mil. price came a bit more than six months after the then-Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Jeffrey Deitch, had argued in a public debate held at Art Basel, Hong Kong that "The market is the best judge of art's quality." By that standard, at least, Koon's "Balloon Dogs" (there are a number of them) are the finest works of contemporary art in the world. And, unlike Sir Edwin Landseer, Koons doesn't have to use both hands at once to keep up with demand: his many fabricators serve as nimble extra hands. As curator Paul Schimmel commented admiringly in a recent public panel: "I think Jeff Koons turns those fabricators into his bitches and gets things that are unbelievable." Nice dog reference!

Like Landseer's "Laying Down the Law," Koon's popular balloon dog series has also inspired expensive multiples: you can buy an "Authentic Jeff Koons Yellow Dog Plate" (Brand new, in box, numbered and signed) on eBay for $9,850 or best offer. Just the thing for your condo in the Marina, right?
As seen on eBay: A Limited-Edition Koons Plate

Who knows what people in the future will think of Jeff Koons, of his sculptures, and of contemporary art in general. If you see "Balloon Dog (Blue) at the Broad, as I did, there is a chance that the sheen and the setting will knock your sense of moderation in taste sideways. Still, it remains to be see if Jeff Koons will be the "Landseer" of American early 21st century culture, a forgettable artist who made "period pieces" for a gilded age of billionaires. It certainly could happen, or maybe just the reverse: the "Balloon Dog" might be our culture's Mona Lisa...

If I were a museum curator today, I would hedge my bets and collect broadly. Yes, I believe I just suggested that museum curators should be a bit more like hedge fund managers. Especially in this cultural situation where markets are seen as taste-makers, reputations can rise and fall rapidly, just like stocks.

And regarding Landseer, here is a thought: perhaps he is about to be re-discovered, taken up by some mega-dealer who will burnish his reputation and get his friends--whoops, I mean clients--to bid the Landseer market up a few notches. Isn't that how "Blue Chip" taste is determined these days: by a cartel of auction houses, dealers, and speculators?

Besides, dog art apparently remains a public favorite.

Speaking for myself, I'm going to try and keep my own taste independent from the market, and refuse to flatter myself by fantasizing that I have the ability to predict what history will anoint as culturally significant and worth revering. It all just seems too variable to me.

After all, as Oscar Wilde--a Victorian whose reputation has lasted--once wrote:

"We all have our different tastes, have we not?"