“I believe in art morally. When I make an artwork, I try to use craft as a way, hopefully, to give the viewer a sense of trust.”Jeff Koons
I attended the Jeff Koons retrospective while I was in Manhattan doing a summer acting program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
It was July 2014, my first time visiting the US, and I was eager to see and discover as much as possible, trying to make the most of my time in the city.
“Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” was the last exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of American Art old location, the Breuer building, at the corner of 75th Street and Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; the museum closed in October 2014 before relocating to its current venue at 99 Gansevoort Street, in a building designed by Renzo Piano (I visited the new location later on and it’s amazing, but I will talk about it in an article about NYC museums).
I didn’t know anything about Jeff Koons before seeing the retrospective; what brought me to see it is the fact that I am a huge fan of museums and the arts in general. This exhibition celebrated 35 years of the artist’s activity; to this day, Koons is considered one of the most popular and controversial artists of his generation.
This retrospective was his first large-scale museum presentation in New York, exploring three decades of his art and including works from each stage of his career. All the series Koons is known for were present in the exhibition: Banality, The New Equilibrium, Celebration, Inflatables and so on.
I took lots of pictures with my iPhone 5s (which is starting to have vintage vibes!) so they are in the classic Instagram square format, but there are also a couple of pictures I took with my old Canon 1000D.
What follows is a series of works by Jeff Koons I liked the most and a brief summary for each one of them. I hope you enjoy it and if you are interested, keep an eye out for when your country might held an exhibition of his (last January he was in Florence, Italy, at Palazzo Strozzi, and I was so disappointed I couldn’t see it!).
1) Cake, 1995-1997: part of the Celebration series, which finds its origins in the ups and downs of the artist’s personal life, referring to his divorce from Ilona Staller and the battle for custody of their son. Celebration is made of 16 paintings and 20 stainless steel sculptures and it draws upon the objects associated with the observance of life’s various rituals, mainly festive occasions. Cake works as a “photo-realist” painting, hypnotizing us with its kind of psychedelic colors, and according to critics the rose may symbolize beauty and the season of love. It is one of the “mass-produced objects” which often show up in Jeff Koons’s body of work. I love this painting, I saw it again at Triennale Milano in 2015 for the EXPO and the beauty of its shades of pink never ceases to amaze me.
2) Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988: part of his Banality series, this is a giant porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson, iconic pop singer, and Bubbles, his chimpanzee pet. This work was based on a press photo and Koons wants to reimagine Jackson as a god-like creature, referencing the culture of celebrity worship; it was realized in golden and white shades Rococo style. Michael Jackson seemed to channel a lot of Koons’s themes at the time: innocence, fame, caring for animals and kids. Its structure reminded me of previous classical works, and Koons himself admitted that the composition was inspired by Michelangelo’s Pietà and Baroque Art in general.
3) Play-Doh, 1994-2014: part of the Celebration series, this work in particular is meant to evoke his son Ludwig’s childhood, when the kid used to play and create forms with this colorful material. The complexity and hugeness of this sculpture, which was assembled using 27 interlocking sections of painted aluminium, is so evident when seeing it in person; it took up so much space in the exhibition room. I still haven’t forgotten the amazingness of its matte colors; for many of us it would trigger childhood memories of creativity, moments of play and discovery. Koons said “I wanted to create something archetypal, that would connect you to what it really means to be human.”
4) Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994-2000: the Celebration series has an ambiguous nature, conferring to its works a feeling of unease, in opposition to the happiness they express at first glance. This becomes evident in Koons’s balloon animals, which are his most recognizable pieces to date. Realized in a mirror-finished stainless steel in a variety of colors, they are reminiscent of childhood play, too. Dogs in particular have always represented connection and companionship for human beings. Koons is creating an object that represents the joys of life and its positive values like loyalty and dedication, which are emblematic of the dog’s nature. The giant depiction of the Balloon Dog on the H&M building façade in Midtown is what probably drew me to find out more about Jeff Koons and his artistic works and what eventually led me to see the retrospective at Whitney Museum.
5) Hanging Heart (Purple), 1994-2006: according to Koons, Hanging Heart is “a symbol of warmth, humanity, spirituality and romance.” Another work from the Celebration series, it is again a sculpture made of mirror-polished stainless steel and transparent color coating. The heart hovers in the air and it is hanging from a gigantic golden ribbon. Koons explained that the whole Celebration series was thought of as an attempt to communicate with his son after his divorce; he wanted to recreate the major celebrating occasions in life, like birthdays and moments of happiness. The heart is meant to be an expression of his fatherly love towards his son Ludwig. I found there was something moving and magically pure in this work of art, so beautiful and perfect in its simplicity.
6) Hulk Elvis, 2004-2014: Koons said “In the Hulk Elvis series I’m working with the comic book figure of the Hulk. For me, the Hulk is functioning globally. It’s representing not only a Western action figure, but also an Asian guardian god, a protector that at the same time is capable of bringing the house down.” It is meant to represent both Western and Eastern culture and it was inspired by an inflatable of the comic book hero; it combines Hulk with the pop icon Elvis Presley. I think it is very charged with symbolism and it exudes strength when seeing it live.
7) New Rooomy Toyota Family Camry, 1983: this is part of The New series, which evolved as a conceptual project in the 80s and it is a companion to Koons’s vacuum cleaners sculptures, as he started placing these posters beside the vacuum cleaners during exhibitions. The images he used all came from ads of famous products around that time; Merit cigarettes, Vodka Smirnoff and Toyota cars. The word “new” is recurring in all these ads, prompting a reflection on how they will become obsolete in the future. These advertisements of debuting products were shown alongside ready-made household appliances like the Hoover vacuum cleaner. Being a car enthusiast myself and having read Taschen’s series “All-American Ads”, I really enjoyed this work (as is the case with the Luxury and Degradation series).
8) I Could Go for Something Gordon’s, 1986: the afore-mentioned Luxury and Degradation series is a group of work thematically centered on alcohol advertisements. This is a framed ad for Gordon’s Gin, reproduced as oil on canvas in very intense colors. Koons revalued ads like this one by redefining them into works of art. Some stainless steel objects are also part of this series, like the Jim Beam – J.B. Turner train he once saw in a liquor store window on Fifth Avenue.
9) Inflatable Flowers (Tall Yellow and Tall Orange), 1979: “Everything already exists in this world. I would go to a store and buy these inflatable flowers. I’d go to another store, a hardware store, and buy these pre-cut glass mirrors, and I would display them. Or rather, these objects are just displaying themselves.” Koons’s inflatable flowers have cartoon-like qualities but also a touch of sexiness; Koons said they symbolize life and optimism, reminding him of the human body, as when we breathe we are full of air, and this keeps us in a state of vulnerability and constant change. The Inflatable series is part of the artist’s early works, since he started creating it in 1978; Koons said it was made “to conjure states of equilibrium and instability, fullness and emptiness, joy and disgust, life and death.” The inflatables basically construct a dialogue between minimalism and pop art, being both an homage to Andy Warhol’s flowers of the 60s and reminiscing Poor Art. The inflatable object, which could deflate at any moment, represents the precarious nature of life. These are probably the first works by Koons I got to see when entering the exhibition rooms and I found them inspiring and brilliantly conceived.
10) Three-Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985: part of a series of tanks Koons made for his first solo exhibition called Equilibrium; the tanks were made in three sizes holding one, two or, in this case, three professional basketballs. The tanks were filled with distilled water and a small quantity of sodium chloride reagent, which allows the basketballs to remain suspended in the centre of the liquid. The basketballs are identified as idealized objects which may refer to something unattainable, be it nostalgia or ambition. With being suspended in immobility, they recall a state of perfection. Exploring once more the concept of ready-made, it is incredible how Koons manages to give an immense artistic power to simple Spalding basketballs and it was so fascinating to explore these series, to see how daily objects “exit” the world of sports to take their place in the art world, making the observer wonder about their newfound meaning.
These were probably my favorite works from “Jeff Koons: a Retrospective”; I got to see the Tulips stainless steel sculpture at Fondazione Prada in Milan not so longo ago and it brought to mind this amazing exhibition. Being there was one of the highlights of 2014 for me, so I recommend you check out his artistic work if you liked any of these pieces!
Ingrid Sischy, Eckhard Schneider, Katy Siegel,”Jeff Koons”, Taschen, 2009
Christie’s, “Capturing a feeling of creation: Jeff Koons on Play-Doh”, 16 May 2018
Christie’s, additional notes on Jeff Koons’s body of work
All pictures are my own.
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