Keen on Koons

Published: 21st September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th September 2014 11:24 PM   |  A+A-


Jeff Koons is widely regarded as one of the most important, influential, popular, and controversial artists of the postwar era. Throughout his career, he has pioneered new approaches to the readymade, tested the boundaries between advanced art and mass culture, challenged the limits of industrial fabrication, and transformed the relationship of artists to the cult of celebrity and the global market. He is best known for his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. Yet despite these achievements, Koons has never been the subject of a retrospective surveying the full scope of his career. Comprising almost 150 objects dating from 1978 to the present, this exhibition will be the most comprehensive ever devoted to the artist’s groundbreaking oeuvre. By reconstituting all of his most iconic works and significant series in a chronological narrative, the retrospective will allow visitors to understand Koons’s remarkably diverse output as a multifaceted whole. The collection comprises six pieces of gleaming vacuum cleaners encased in plexiglass and suffused with an insistent glow: Every appliance, or pair of them, rests on a raft of fluorescent lights that almost deflect your gaze. Impersonal yet deeply familiar, the vacuum cleaner pieces introduce the essential seduction-repulsion dynamic that is basic to most of Koons’s art. Further along in the show, you may be taken by a vase of outsize flowers, carved in wood by skillful German artisans. It is gorgeously colorful, deliciously magnified and a respite from the sex paintings surrounding it. But look more closely: Many of the flowers’ centers are brown bumpy discs that broadcast a creepy fecundity suggestive of erupting skin, simmering mud or sewage.

Jolting shifts in colour, scale or subject matter encourage the heightened visual awareness that Koons’s work demands. There are surprises around every corner. On the third floor, a row of 10 figures in polychrome wood or porcelain from Koons’s “Banality” series of 1988 form a single confrontational row in a narrow gallery. Including an amorous Pink Panther; a pig flanked by angels; a London bobby befriending a goofy bear; and, best of all, an ostentatious yet poignant rendition of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey, Bubbles, each of these works is a different collision of art with religion, sex or kitsch.

Children’s toys and antiquities—forms retrieved from deep in our personal or cultural pasts—inspire many works on the fourth floor. Here you will find “Play Doh,” “Balloon Dog (Yellow)” and “Balloon Venus (Orange),” an extraordinary study in voluptuous geometry inspired by the Venus of Willendorf. There are also less felicitous efforts like “Hulk (Organ),” “Dogpool (Panties)” and the stupefying “Liberty Bell,” an exact copy, apparently indistinguishable from the one in Philadelphia that Mr Koons visited as a child. A fake ready-made?

This exhibition will be the artist’s first major museum presentation in New York, and the first to fill nearly the entirety of the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer building with a single artist’s work. It will also be the final exhibition to take place there before the Museum opens its new building in the Meatpacking District in 2015.


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