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Jeff Koons: A Retrospective
The Whitney Museum of American Art
, New York, June 27-October 19, 2014

Centre Pompidou, Paris, November 16, 2014-April 27, 2015
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, June 5-September 27, 2015

Koons Puppy at Rockefeller Center 1992
"Puppy," by Jeff Koons, 1992, installed at Rockefeller Center, New York, 2000, photo © Carter B. Horsley 2000

By Michele Leight

I took Jeff Koons really seriously when I found myself gazing up at winsome, leafy "Puppy" by the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center, whose coat was being trimmed by dedicated individuals with clippers, perched on ladders. Puppy commanded attention in this awe-inspiring venue, and the tender clipping to preserve its contours conveyed the practical challenges (and expense) of maintaining an outdoor sculpture of this magnitude.  Iconic buildings soared above Puppy, and passers by posed enthusiastically around the leafy canine while cameras clicked. It was a show-stopping, crowd-pleasing sculpture to top all outdoor - or indoor - sculptures.

The only disappointment at the opening of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective," at The Whitney Museum of American Art was that there was no larger than life, leafy Pup, although there were several small, ceramic versions at the show, and there was "Split-Rocker" from Koons's Easyfun series, installed to coincide with the retrospective, in the same venue as the fabled Christmas tree, where I first saw Puppy years ago.

Koons dog
"Balloon Dog (Yellow)" creates a stir at The Whitney opening of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective;" Rear "Moon (Light Pink)," 1995-2000. Mirror -polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 130 by 130 by 40 inches. Collection of the artist. Photo © Michele Leight 2014

With Puppy,
Koons the artist struck gold and entered mainstream consciousness. Other iconic indoor/outdoor sculptures followed, including Koon's fantastic "Balloon Dog (Yellow)," from the "Celebration" series, a version illustrated above wowing the crowds at The Whitney show. On the rear wall is "Moon (Light Pink)," also from this joyful series. 

Splitrocker by Koons

Front and side views of "Split-Rocker" by Jeff Koons, in Rockefeller Plaza, created with thousands of pansies! Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Sideview of Splitrocker

Side view of "Split-Rocker" in Rockefeller Plaza, 2014: Photo ©Carter B. Horsley 2014

Who, in the pantheon of art, besides Koons, has come up with the winning formula of a gigantic puppy dog fashioned not from the usual materials associated with sculpture but with living - growing - organic greenery including thousands of impatiens in bright Warholian colors? It was one of those aha-moments when I said to myself  Koons was really onto something (besides being hopelessly in love with the pup myself in a purely sentimental/schmaltzy way).

By any standards, "Puppy" was a phenomenon. It moved people in inexplicable ways, and for me personally, highlighted the important role that public sculpture has played in human consciousness since Michelangelo's time and much earlier, when monarchs or rulers of powerful nations commissioned or ordered great sculptures for their grandest public spaces. In Puppy's case - and in the procession of monumental Koons sculptures that followed - it was the artist and those that believed in his work that made its presence possible for all of us to see.

This is no ordinary achievement, because some of Koons's sculptures - notably the largest, from the "Celebration" series - cost millions of dollars to produce, before they are even sold. The scale of Koon's most famous sculptures inspires awe and recalls past civilizations. In his essay entitled "No Limits" in the catalogue accompanying the show, Scott Rothkopf writes:

"Take, for example, Balloon Dog. It's not for nothing that Koons has called the sculpture a Trojan Horse. It's cold, shiny surfaces seem to condense the hothouse flows of capital and desire that both bring it into being and buoy its movement around the globe. We can almost imagine it sweating like a crystal tumbler on a billionaire's yatch (and Koons has designed one of those, too). Balloon Dog works its hardest and looks its best in places like the crisp lobby of the Seagram Building or the ornate Salon d'Hercule at the Chateau de Versailles, or standing proudly outside Christie's Rockefeller Center edifice, venues where most modern sculptures would appear as compromised as priests at a brothel. Balloon Dog understands and even shares the logics of these sites, all conceived under disparate formal programs and the unifying sign of money. It seizes and distorts them within its seductive reflective curves. Like so many of Koons's sculptures, Balloon Dog is, paradoxically, at once solicitous and tough. The latter quality should not be underestimated at a time when so much art seems to buckle with embarrassment under a pecuniary attention it neither seeks nor sustains. Koons's example is not that of an artist playing to or just riffing on a market, but of one who in supple ways uses that market to create something that could never have been made before and could now be made only by him. We might wish Koons to overturn the table rather than take his place at it, but in choosing the latter he serves as a beacon of an artist's empowerment when many feel like pawns in a game they'd prefer not to play. He is a singular case for a singular time, and the cause of art is somehow richer for it..."

Koons with press

Jeff Koons interacts enthusiastically with the press at the preview of his show, "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective" Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Since Puppy, Koons has charmed us with super-sized Balloon Dogs, diamonds, hearts, Playdough, and all manner of instantly recognizable, fun sculpture. Koons is an intrepid and self-assured artist who has spent the better part of his creative life poking fun at our inhibitions, hypocrisies, double-standards and foibles. It was clear from the artist's easy-going interactions with the media at the preview of his Whitney retrospective that he thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle and sharing his time and experiences with those that have helped propel him to fame.

In his essay Scott Rothkopf continues:

"Koons has pushed art's limits, sometimes to uncomfortable ends. He has challenged the art world's critical pieties, and in the process has been described both as a symptom of our age and as one of its architects. Saying as much risks aligning him with some of the less salubrious forces at play in the art world and the world beyond, two spheres he has endeavoured to enmesh. Early in his career he spoke of the contemporary artist's limited cultural power relative to that of the pop star or the designer of a Baroque church - a narrow purview that he hoped his work might transcend. He has certainly done this, in part through his individual artworks, and in part through his personal and professional conduct. It is impossible to deny that Koon's art and career stand as a series of limited cases, and this, finally, may be what matters about him most..."

Rothkopf also references Koons's ease with the materialistic aspect of his

"All along, Koons's expert salesmanship has served as the grease that keeps the wheels of his system turning. I remember a studio visit when one of his dealers told me he felt guilty for having distracted the artist from his work by bringing a favored client for a dazzling tour, but later I realized that what we had witnessed was Koons's work; not performance art exactly, but the perfect pitch for selling multimillion-dollar sculptures on the basis of foamcore maquettes to patrons, who must often wait longer to claim the finished piece than they would the fruits of a speculative real-estate venture. If Koons seems unnaturally interested in his auction prices, more accommodating of requests from Christie's or Sotheby's to shill for a sale of which he will receive no cut, this is in part because his very ability to produce new work depends on his prices remaining lofty enough to induce people to pay so dearly for it. (The "Celebration" sculptures, for example, only began flowing again by virtue of a broader rise in Koons's market, which began around 1999, when "Pink Panther" sold at auction for a record $1.8 million). It's easy as an artist or critic to be contemptuous of such finagling, especially if one's working method appears to allow one independence from some of the art world's least wholesome structures. After all, any half-decent talent with a bolt of canvas and a tube of paint is poised to realize far greater profit margins. Yet if those same artists look out of place - nervous, guilty, conflicted - at an art fair, at a museum gala, or smiling from within a magazine spread, Koons seems at ease not just by dint of his cheery disposition but because such appearances are indispensable to the creation of his art, and therefore central to his practice. A strangely pragmatic absolution attends the untold and and unconflicted handshakes and smiles on trips from Los Angles to Qatar to sell clients with a taste for the unique what are often essentially high-priced multiples distinguished by color."


Pink rabbit by Koons
Jeff Koons: "Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White, Pink Bunny)," 1979, Vinyl, and mirrors; 32 by 25 by 18 inches, The Broad Art Foundation Photo © Carter B. Horsley 2014 

Jeff Koons: Center: "Inflatable Flowers (Short Pink, Tall Purple), 1979, 16 by 25 by 18 inches, Collection of Norman and Norah Stone; Right: "Inflatable Flower (Tall Yellow)," 1979, vinyl, mirror and acrylic,16 by 12 by 19 inches, Rubell Family Collection Photo © Carter B. Horsley 2014

Populist, controversial, never afraid to offend or to tickle our inhibitions, Koons must have been pleased with the extravaganza and excitement generated by 130 of his most prized objects displayed to maximum effect at the Whitney retrospective in New York, the city he moved to after completing his studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1977.

Like other artists and art enthusiasts, Koons found his way to MoMA, where he encountered the readymades of Marcel Duchamp while selling memberships for the Museum. Inspired, he chose to immortalize the cheap inflatable toys he found in novelty shops in downtown Manhattan instead of the now iconic urinals and shovels made famous by Duchamp. Koons's East village apartment was soon filled with an "inflatables installation," represented at the show by "inflatable flowers" and other contemporary artifacts illustrated above, and store-bought household appliances eerily displayed mounted to fluorescent light fixtures, shown at The Whitney retrospective installation illustrated below, in a section entitled "Pre-New" and "The New."

Koons's unfolding series are described below chronologically, as they occurred. Some span a decade or more, due to the expense of production.

Pre-New and The New

Koons hoovers
Jeff Koons: Front: "New Hoover, Convertibles Green, Blue, New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue Doubledecker, 1981-87. Four vacuum cleaners, acrylic and fluorescent lights; 116 by 41 by 28 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase with funds from the Sondra and Charles Gilman, Jr. Foundation, Inc., and the Painting and Sculpture Committee. 89.30a-v. Copyright Jeff Koons; Rear: "New! New! Too!" 1983. Lithograph billboard mounted on cotton. 123 by 272 inches. Collection of the artist. Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Koons 4 hoovers

Jeff Koons: Front Left: "New Hoover Convertibles Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker," 1981-87; Front right: "New Shelton Wet/Drys 10 Gallon Tripledecker," 1981; Rear wall: "New Roomy Toyota Family Camry," 1983 Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Koons's now famous vacuum cleaners made their debut in 1980  in his breakout series entitled "The New," ("exhibited" in the New Museum's storefront window on Fourteenth Street), and made a dramatic statement at the Whitney show, where they looked like alien creatures straight out of Star Wars instead of the familiar, utilitarian cleaning machines we know they are. None of these sculptures have been used, as Koons seeks to capture their pristine newness, claiming that using them would destroy them. Instead, they are marketed as cutting-edge objects of desire, enhanced by the lighting, as if they are movie-stars or precious gems in a store window. Sealed in their clinical lightboxes, Koons's once-new vacuums are now old, underscoring the futility of our eternal quest for "fresh and new" in art, commerce, and life, where everything - at some point - becomes obsolete. "The New" began in the 1980s, but many sculptures were not completed until late in the decade because they were prohibitively expensive to produce (as are all Koon's pieces). Notable at the show and from "The New" series were works that looked like billboards advertising new products that highlight the distinction between high art and advertising, such as "New Roomy Toyota Family Camry," circa 1983.


One Ball equilibrium

Jeff Koons: "One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series," 1985. Glass, Steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water, basketball; 64 3/4 by 30 3/4 by 13 1/4 inches. Collection of B.Z. and Michael Schwartz. Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Koons staged his first solo gallery exhibition in 1985 at International with Monument, a center of activity amid the flourishing Lower East Side art scene. Entitled "Equilibrium", the show presented a multi-layered allegory of, in Koon's words, unattainable "states of being" or salvation. There were cast-bronze inflated floatation devices at that show and at the Whitney show - including a life raft and life vest - that would kill rather than save their users.

In the '85 show Koons hung framed, unaltered Nike posters on the walls whose stars Koons saw as "sirens" beckoning young people (particularly African Americans) with the promise of social mobility through sports. He had traveled to the company's Oregon headquarters to get copies of the posters that united the perfection of his appropriated prints with that of the famous athletes they featured. The exhibition's best-known works remain the tanks in which basketballs miraculously hover. These suclptures expand philosophically on The New. While that series addressed the perfect moment of creation, Koons considers "Equilibrium" a moment of pure potential:

"Equilibrium is before birth, it's in the womb, it's about what is prior to life and after death. It is this ultimate state of the eternal that is reflected in this moment."

Koons ran out of money in 1982 and could not continue to fabricate his work to the meticulous standards he insisted upon. He spent six months with his parents in Florida and also held jobs on Wall Street to finance his artistic projects. However, the Equilibrium exhibition made an impact, and critics and collectors started to take his work seriously.

Luxury and Degradation

Jim Beam-JB Turner train by Koons

Jeff Koons: Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train, 1986, Stainless steel and bourbon, 11 by 114 by 6 1/2 inches; Edition no. 3/3, Julie and Edward J. Minskoff
 Photo ©Carter B. Horsley 2014

The works in Koon's "Luxury and Degradation" series address the marketing and consumption of alcohol to raise questions about the relationships between advertising, class, vice and art. Canvases printed with oil-based inks make artworks out of liquor ads, while Koons further seduces viewers with shiny stainless-steel casts of vessels and accessories for serving alcohol.

"I thought stainless steel would be a wonderful material. I could polish it, and I could create a fake luxury. I never wanted real luxury, instead I wanted proletarian luxury, something visually intoxicating, disorienting," said Koons.

While these luxurious surfaces may draw us in, they are also a ruse, since the steel is not a precious metal but one more common to household appliances than fine art. If in his previous series Koons for the most part employed objects that had practical functions (a vacuum or a raft), here he points to the "degradation" of being awed by things primarily intended to decorate our lives and confer social status - and that encourage fantasies of it. Koons readymades draw on a variety of sources from a pail to a Baccarat crystal set, or cocktail shaker, transformed into artworks that promise viewers a superior level of sophistication. In the 1980s, contemporary artworks were viewed as accessories of the good life and commodities to be traded - reflected in these sculptures.

In her catalogue essay "Happy Hour, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Message," Rachel Kushner writes:

"The young Koons seemed like he wanted to be cool, and he was cool: he was interviewing one of the hipest downtown musicians. He wasn't yet claiming that happiness was a full box of cereal and a full carton of milk, but some of Koons's own artwork has pleasantly interfered with his breakfast-cereal persona, too. I'm thinking in particular of the series "Luxury and Degradation," which features exact reproductions, in oil on canvas, of liquor advertisements that were contemporary when Koons made these pieces in 1986, paintings that repeat well-known slogans like 'I could go for something Gordon's' and 'I assume you drink Martell' paired with staged images - combinations whose effects are both curiously meaningless and strangely charged. Replicated and monumentalized as art, they are not bubblegum Koons world - dazzle that masquerades as innocence and puerility, under which lies a kind of darkness, even nastiness - but rather a different approach to darkness. Hard liquor is not the aesthetic or spiritual hearth of a feel good world, the mirror in which people want to see themselves. Even if liquor does hold some promise of revelry, or of escape, the ads for it are a mediated layer away from that. They are corporate, and they are static fictions, which do not ignite memories of privately stored images and sensations from good times, or any times. Mostly they ignite memories of looking at the ads themselves - magazines, on roadway billboards, or elsewhere - giving a sense of deja vu (What is being done to me? Something, but I can't name what) and demonic tautology. Koons himself, whenever discussing Luxury and Degradation - in a MoMA lecture, in a TV documentary made about him - seems habitually to absent the conjunction, saying instead, 'Luxury Degradation,' suggesting that one modifies the other, the degradation of luxury, or luxurous degradation. If bodies of work like Celebration, Easyfun-Ethereal, and even Banality are about gazing upon images and objects that reflect back as splendid and universal - so the account goes, of Koons's populist appeal - liquor, too, is universal. But it isn't a touchstone of carefree moments. The pieces in Luxury and Degradation don't contribute to Koons's undisputed status as the artist most loved by children, a Bernini for the masses with a monopoly on the kitsch-sublime. Children wouldn't know that the liquor ads are art. And because they are such uninflected appropriation - reprints in oil on canvas or the original ads - the average museum-goer may see the ads as generational, nostalgic, but remain unsure what they are, what they are doing. And without that nostalgic layer - let's pretend it's 1986 - what is the effect? Something even weirder, and starker, because the images, when they were contemporary, bore not hints on how to look..."


Two Kids by Koons

Jeff Koons: "Two Kids," 1986, Stainless steel, 23 by 14 1/1 by 14 1/2 inches, Edition 2/3, Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Rabbit by Koons

Jeff Koons: "Rabbit," 1986, Stainless steel, 41 by 19 by 12 inches, Edition 1/3, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, partial gift of Stefan T. Edlis and H. Gael Neeson, 2000. Photo ©Carter B. Horsley 2014

Equilibrium, and Luxury and Degradation established Koons as one of New York's hottest young artists, and in 1986 he was invited to show his work at the prestigious Sonnabend Gallery in Soho. He conceived of a series titled "Statuary," a term that suggests a domain just outside sculpture. Koons based this series on a varied range of readymades, from kitsch mass-market curios to elegant portrait busts. Statuary's interest derives from the tension between these sources, which might and might not properly be called art. Louis XIV has historical precedents, while Bob Hope is cast from cheap collectibles and souvenirs.

Koons amplified and confused the distinction between these opposites by creating all the models for this series in stainless steel, a metal more often used for pots, pans and utensils than fine art. By tranforming his lowbrow readymades into highbrow art and making his historical sources more contemporary, Koons democratized culture. As a body of work, "Statuary" evokes a wide range of emotions and styles - melancholy or joy, realizm or caricature - and demonstrate Koons's keen manipulation of ingrained ideas about art and taste.

Michael with Bubbles

Jeff Koons: "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," 1988. Porcelain; 42 by 70 1/2 by 32 1/2 inches. Private collection. Photo©Michele Leight 2014

Pink Panther]

Jeff Koons: "Pink Panther," 1988, Porcelain, 41 by 20 1/2 by 19 inches, Edition 1/3, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser, 1966.
Photo ©Carter B. Horsley 2014

In an catalogue essay entitled "Objects That Are Only Boundaries,"  Alexander Nagel writes:

"Jeff Koons consecrates not just living beings but also ordinary things, and that is why when I look at his work I am always checking it against the Christian relic cult. There is no one-to-one correlation, and yet setting the two in relation to one another helps to bring the protocols adopted by the artist into focus. The Christian cult of relics democratized the sacred. Religious objects didn't have to appear in the form of awe-inspiring figures. A divinity had lived and died on earth in human form, and that meant that from then on low didn't have to stay low. Anything might be touched by God, recognized as such, and acquire a halo of real gold..."

Whether a religious relic or a touristy tchottske, take home treasures have become part of contemporary life yet there was a time when that was just not possible, when the object of desire or devotion grew in the imagination of the beholder, and was not available for gazing at on a bedroom or living room shelf. The gaudiness of these commercialized treasures are irresistible, evidenced in the widespread popularity of trinkets from movies like "Frozen" or any cartoon character relpica from Disneyworld or blockbuster movies.

On another level, they make you uncomfortable because they are so tacky, and you wonder why you love them so.

Alexander Nagel continues:

"My first encounter with the work of Jeff Koons occurred in December 1988 at the "Banality" show at Sonnabend Gallery in New York. The peculiarity of the experience, produced in part by the excitement and alarm whipped up around the exhibition, forms the core of what I feel about his work. I would like to describe it as I felt it then...The work made me a little sick, even as I felt an almost irresistible invitation to submit to it. It was a giving over, but not just in the way you give in to fun things like action movies and fashion magazines. This was stranger, more concentrated, not really fun. It was also clear that everything was here. I didn't have to do anything other than accept it. Each thing was complete in its familiarity and strangeness. Nothing about it was lying. Koons's Michael was more real than the real Michael Jackson, who was altering his own shape and surface anyway. It insisted that it was more than a likeness, that it came from elsewhere but was now here. It looked like Michael but not really, and yet that didn't seem wrong, or rather the estrangement seemed right given the strangeness of the whole thing....My eyes wandered to the flowers strewn around him, and I thought, 'Yes of course.' I felt the queasy joy of the devotee. I both inhibited that role and stood outside it, I remember thinking that this is how people throughout history must have felt in the presence of cult statues, a touch of hilarity enlivening the tremor, a moment of recognition amid the surrounding hubbub of profanity and desire. If you really want to see what happens when you turn people into gods, the statue was saying here it is..."


Jeff Koons: "Ushering In Banality," 1988, Polychromed wood, 38 by 62 by 30 inches, Edition no. 2/3, Private collection. Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Big Bear

Jeff Koons: "Bear and Policeman," 1988, Polychromed wood, 85 by 43 by 37 inches, Artists proof, Collection of Jeffrey Deitch
Photo ©Carter B. Horsley  2014

Koons's "Banality" series plunged headlong into the realm of kitsch. He even adopted the strategies of a commercial product launch to unveil his new work in simultaneous exhibitions in New York, Chicago, and Cologne, which he publicized with a glossy advertising campaign. Koons seized on the increasing role of advertising and celebrity in the art world of the 1980s and provocatively acknowledged that his work was often perceived as embodying the crass ostentation for which the 80s had become known.

Unlike Koons's earlier sculptures that were based on readymade sources, those in "Banality" are composites of stuffed animals, gift shop figurines, and images taken from magazines, product packaging, films, and even Leonardo da Vinci. Nothing was too corny, too cloying or too cute. Working with traditional German and Italian craftsmen who made decorative and religious objects, Koons enlarged his subjects and rendered them in gilt porcelain and polychromed wood, materials more associated with housewares and tchotchkes than contemporary art. With the "Banality" series, Koons gave us permission to embrace our childhood affection for toys or trinkets, including those lining our grandparents shelves. By taking on avant-garde critical and artistic standards, "Banality" caused a sensation in New York, where many observers felt Koons had taken his love affair with mass culture too far, surpassing even the Pop artists of the 1960s. Yet this can also be viewed as the artist's criticism of a world in which the cute becomes monstrous and the banal can turn subversive and menacing.

Made In Heaven

Made In Heaven

Jeff Koons: "Made in Heaven," 1989. Lithograph on paper on canvas; 125 by 272 inches. Rudolf and Ute Scharpff Collection. Photo ©Michele Leight  2014

If with the "Banality" series Koons proposed to liberate his audience from the stigma of bad taste, with "Made in Heaven" he promised nothing less than emancipation from the shame of sex.

The billboard from 1989 illustrated above announced a feature film that Koons planned to realize with the world-famous porn star and Italian parliamentarian Illona Staller (also known as La Cicciolina), whom he hired to pose with him on her sets. Koons was drawn to the fairytale aesthetic of Staller's pornography, as well as to her unapologetic celebration of her sexuality, which he felt made her immune to the degradation of sleazy voyeurism. Koons did not make the film, but he fell in love with his co-star and produced a body of increasingly explicit work in which the pair played a contemporary Adam and Eve surrounded by symbols of fidelity and affection, such as dogs and flowers.

Vase of flowers
"Large vase of Flowers," 1991. Polychromed wood. 52 by 43 by 43 inches. Edition No. 2/3. Collection of Norman and Norah Stone Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Koons's work and public relationship caused a media sensation, which climaxed in 1991 with the couple's  marriage and the opening of "Made in Heaven" in New York. The works forcefully blurred the line between Koons's life and art by portraying graphic sex acts between the artist and his muse, who had become his wife. Critics at the time decried Koons as narcissistic and misogynistic, calling his images of unprotected sex irresponsible at the height of the AIDS crisis. However, one might also consider the strange ways in which "Made in Heaven" scrambled social and gender codes. Wearing heavy makeup and trailed by butterflies, the male artist is seen as a visitor to the fantasy world created by his wife. To this day, the work stands not as pornography but an extremely risky and vulnerable form of self-portraiture as well as an enduring experiment in fame.


Koons Surrounded by Press

Jeff Koons surrounded by members of the press at the opening of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective," at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, reflected in "Moon (Light Pink)," 1995-2000, mirror polished steel with transparentcolor coating, 130 by 130 by 40 inches. Collection of the artist.
Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

Jeff Koons: "Hanging Heart (Violet Gold)," 1994-2006, Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 114 5/8 by 110 1/4 by 40 inches, One of five unique versions, Private collection. Photo ©Carter B. Horsley 2014

Play dough
Jeff Koons: "Play-doh," 1994-2014, Polychromed aluminium, 120 by 108 by 108 inches, Bill Bell Collection Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

With the "Banality" series, Koons's "Celebration" series is perhaps his best known, with its emphasis on size and its nod to the the milestones that punctuate the year, and that mark the cycles of life. The series was conceived in 1994, inspired by an invitation to design a calendar for which he had created photographs that referred to holidays and other joyful events. These images formed the basis for large-scale sculptures and paintings that the artist hoped might serve both as archetypal symbols accessible to a broad public and as a personal reminder to his abducted son that he was constantly on his father's mind. As a body of work, the sixteen paintings and twenty one sculptures of "Celebration" evoke birth, love, religious observances, and procreation, whether in the form of a cracked egg, a giant Valentine's Day heart, the paraphernalia of a birthday party, or the sexually suggestive curves and crevices of a balloon animal.

Process must be noted with awe in the "Celebration" series, an ambitious collection of pieces that include some of the most technologically demanding objects ever produced in the history of postwar art. Although a sculpture Cat on a Clothesline might look deceptively simple, no commercial fabricator was equipped to cast plastic in the style of a toy at such a large scale, nor was it easy to achieve many of Koon's sculpture's complex, curving steel surfaces without the slightest ripples or surface distortions. In his pursuit of perfection, Koons pushed specialized fabricators in sites around the world of work in ways they never had before, and the most challenging sculptures in the series remain unfinished even after twenty years. These high-production standards are central to the meaning of Koons's work since they amplify the emotional impact and sense of wonder his art inspires.

Several pieces from the Celebration series are illustrated in this review. They are"Balloon Dog (Yellow)," "Moon (Light Pink)," Hanging Heart (Violet/Gold)", and "Play-doh," illustrated above, circa 1994-2014. Due to the complexity of their fabrication, they take years to complete.



Left: The Easyfun Series: "Sheep (Yellow)," 1999, Crystal glass, mirrored glass, carbon fier, foam, colored plastic interlayer, and stainless steel, 70 5/8 by 59 7/8 by 1 1/2 inches, Private collection, courtesy Segalot; Center: "Split-Rocker (Orange/Red)," 1999; Polychromed aluminium, 13 1/2 by 14 1/2 by 13 inches; Collection of B.Z. and Michael Schwartz; Right: "Kangaroo (Red)," 1999, Crystal glass, mirrored glass, carbon fiber, foam, colored plastic interlayer, and stainless steel; 92 by 59 by 1 1/2 inches, courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York Photo ©Michele Leight 2014

The "Celebration" series commenced after "Made In Heaven," and at the beginning of one of the most difficult periods in Koons artistic and personal life, when his marriage to Staller ended, and she abducted their young son, leading to a long international custody battle. It was then that Koons embarked on "Celebration," a series of large paintings and sculptures that were extremely difficult to execute for technical and financial reasons.

After years of frustration, with "Celebration" still underway, Koons created "Easyfun" in 1999 as a deliberate attempt to free himself from these difficulties and to work in a faster and more direct manner.

The colorful mirrors illustrated above depict a joyous menagerie of cartoon animal silhouettes - a kangaroo, a sheep - yet their blank faces and exaggerated scale also evoke a darker sense of foreboding. Crisp and cool, these works substitute the Baroque and Rococo references of "Made in Heaven" with modern stylistic attributes, such as monochrome color and abstract forms. Importantly, they also shift attention from their maker to their viewers. We find ourselves reflected and distorted in these oversized mirrors, which act like Rorschach blots to trigger our psychological projections.

Leafy "Split-Rocker" - based on a childs plastic rocker - is from the "Easyfun" series, a winning, gargantuan, leafy sculpture in the mold of Puppy, illustrated at the beginning of this review at its imposing location at Rockefeller Center, where it was on view from June 25 to September 12, 2014. Presented by Gagosian Gallery and organized by Pulic Art Fund and Tishman Speyer, Split-Rocker is a planted form that measures thirty-seven feet high and features more than 50,000 flowering plants. It was first exhibited at Palais des Papes, Avignon, in 2000, and subsequently at Chateau de Versailles (2008) and Fondation Beyeler (2012). It is also in the collection of the Glenstone private museum in Potomac, Maryland, where it has been on view since June of 2013. For more information please visit



Jeff Koons: "Elephant," 2003, Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 36 1/2 by 29 by 19 inches, Edition no. 3/3, Private collection
Photo ©Carter B. Horsley 2014

The next series, "Easyfun-Ethereal," departs from sculptures and concentrates primarily on painting, with the exception of some sculpture, such as "Elephant" illustrated here.

Although Koons had explored different forms of painting since the early 1980s, Easyfun and Easyfun-Ethereal signal the start of his engagement with hand-painted oils on canvas, a medium he continues to use today. For Koons, this centuries-old tradition conveyed a greater warmth and psychological energy than the more mechanical means of his earlier paintings, yet his new process was anything but old fashioned. As with the banality sculptures, he began each composition with readymade images culled from product packaging, advertisements, and magazine photography, particularly those featuring the sensual pleasures of food and sex. He then imaginatively grafted these fragments within paper studies that he scanned and minipulated further, using the advanced cropping and layering tools of Photoshop software. To execute each painting, Koons worked with teams of assistants for up to six months, painstakingly transferring his digital collage to canvas entirely by hand. Koons's compositions became more intricately interwoven and the paint handling progressively finer. The Easyfun canvases, such as Loopy, (not illustrated), demonstrate a nostalgic and innocent, if warped, "take" on postwar American life and a relatively loose and open brushwork. Yet this sense of spontaneity disappears behind the tauter surfaces of Easyfun-Ethereal, in which adult sexuality mingles with the signifiers of childhood and mass-produced products to suggest the desires of the collective consumer unconscious. Although these canvases overflow with an unbridled exhuberance and abundance, their disjointed elements and phantom limbs can also hint at the manic and disorienting side of over-consumption.



Jeff Koons: "Popeye," 2009-12, Granite and live flowering plants, 78 by 52 3/8 by 28 3/8 inches, Edition No. 2/3, Bill Bell Collection
Photo © Carter B. Horsley 2014

The Popeye series is named after the muscular cartoon sailor, yet its true subject may be the artist's re-examination of the readymade, a device that played a central role in Koons's earlier bronze and steel casts of consumer products. Yet here, rather than transforming a found object into a sculpture by conspicuously translating it from one material into another, he concealed this metamorphosis entirely behind a faultless similarity  rarely achieved in the history of art.

The cast-aluminium and spray-painted menagerie of pool toys that populate Popeye are stunning feats of artifice, exhibiting minutely rendered crimps and puckers along their seams. (The metallic version is not illustrated here). The sculpture's hyperreal quality is heightened by the laborious paint handling that perfectly captures the subtle textural distinctions of the original floats, from their lustrous vinyl to their matte printing to their flossy handles and valves. Tough, granite Popeye, illustrated above, is brought to life by flowering plants nestled in one hand, an unusually fragile addition to the tough-guy character.

In some sculptures, Koons includes mass-produced objects, such as trash cans and chairs, leading us to wonder which elements he found and which he made. This contrast challenges and heightens the illusionism of Koons's casts and raises complex questions about the nature of representation - something he also explores in the related paintings. Through illusion, Koons deftly creates confusion, blending references to art history, and pop culture.

Hulk Elvis 
Gorrille pipes Hulk
Jeff Koons: "Hulk (Organ)," 2004-14, Polychromed bronze and mixed media, 93 1/2 by 48 5/8 by 27 7/8, Edition 1/3, Christie's
Photo ©Carter B. Horsley 2014
Fuse the Incredible Hulk with Elvis the Rock icon, and you have Koons improbable "Hulk Elvis," a green and purple fusion of the Pop Star and now famous hero, comicbook and blockbuster movie character. With Hulk Elvis, Koons returned to the readymade, and to meticulous process, using casting and cutting-edge technologies to further blur the boundaries between real things and their imitations. The techniques used for Hulk Elvis are complex, and include milling, by which machines carve solid materials like stone and wood. To create them, Koons has pioneered methods for capturing source data and fabricating objects that rival the most advanced capabilities of science and manufacturing. This approach facilitates unprecedented precision, making a sculpture like Gorilla (not illustrated) the perfect granite enlargement of an imperfect wax toy. The ripples of the Incredible Hulk's heavy bronze waistband appears as flexible as real vinyl.

"Hulk (Organ)," illustrated above, is created from polychromed bronze and mixed media, and features the cartoon character with a musical organ and pipes built into his form.
Portrayed in a heroic way, Hulk Elvis' stance recalls Elvis as painted by Andy Warhol in the early 1960s.

For all the sense of power, permanence and confidence symbolized by the Hulks, they too are also threatened by potential obsolescence and deflation.

Antiquity and Gazing Ball

Antiquity 3

Jeff Koons: "Antiquity 3," 2009-11, Oil on canvas, 102 by 138 inches, Private collection, courtesy Fundacion Almine y Bernard Ruiz Picasso el Arte
Photo ©Michele Leight, 2014

In his "Antiquity" series, and the most recent "Gazing Ball" series, Koons looks back to the Paleolithic and classical ancestors for themes of heroism, love, beauty and desire that have been persistent in his work, with different results. These ancient sources have been filtered through multiple lenses, as Koons's newest pieces acknowledge how the idea of classical sculpture has evolved and been re-created over time.

Not illustrated here is a lurid "Metallic Venus" that is based on a Greek or Roman original found in all great museums, but which is instead a porcelain knickknack based on a later copy of an original. Once again, Koons uses advanced technologies like CT scans and other forms of digital imaging to examine his sources before transposing them to stone or mirror-polished stainless steel. Like "Metallic Venus," some of his surfaces appear to be liquid, about to meltdown, like in the movie character "Terminator." They uncannily appear both precise and abstract, liquid and solid, like the fuzzy images enlarged on computer screens beyond their resolution. "Metallic Venus" is embellished with live flowers (like Popeye earlier), emphasizing the relationship between life and art. It is both a traditional rendering of a time-honored and often copied subject, and entirely new and startlingly alive.

"Gazing Ball" is the artist's most recent series that upends the traditional statuary of antiquity with a startlingly beautiful and new device - a glass ball - punctuating its past associations irrevocably. Instead of focusing on the images from antiquity - "Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules)" or "Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso)," illustrated below - our eye is drawn away to the piercing blue ball balancing improbably on the shoulder. A contemporary mailbox upends the theme of antiquity itself, and is propelled  into an alien world, also dominated by a glass blue ball.

In his essay in the cataloge accompanying the retrospective, "The Gift of Art," by Achim Hochdorfer, he writes:

"To come back to Koons's metaphor, the question of who deserves to triumph in the end - the Greeks, or possibly, the porported losers - remains open. After all, many of the Greek warriors who did not die, like Achilles, in battle fared badly after their victory: Ajax drowned on the way home, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife when he returned, and Odysseus has to wander for years on end. The Trojan Aeneas, on the other hand, escaped such a fate and went on to found a new empire that would in turn come to dominate the ancient world..."

Blue balls
Jeff Koons: Left: "Gazing Ball (Mailbox)," 2013, Plaster and glass, 74 1/4 by 24 3/8 by 41 1/2 inches, Private collection; Center: "Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso), 2013, Plaster and glass, 71 1/2 by 29 1/8 by 35 1/8 inches, Private collection; Right:"Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules), 2013, Plaster and glass, 128 1/2 by 67 by 48 5/8 inches, Amy and Vernon Faulconer and The Rachofsky Collection
Photo ©Carter B. Horsley 2014

In his essay "Designs For Living," in the catalogue accompanying the Whitney show, Antonio Damasio writes (in a section entitled "Accounting For Koons"):
"Why do people ract in the way that they do to Koons's work? To attempt an answer I will draw on a quesion that is central to Robert Altman's film "The Player." In the film, June, an exqusitely seductive artist, asks Griffin, a successful film producer on the way to even greater success, to tell her 'about the movies you make.' Almost imperceptibly Griffin shifts the target of his reply and lists a number of ingredients that are needed to market a movie succesfully: 'suspense,' then 'laughter,' 'violence,' 'hope,' 'heart,' 'nudity,' 'sex,' and 'happy endings, mainly happy endings.' To which the seductive artist responds with an unexpected query: And what about reality? Griffin evades the question. A large part of reality, as a subsequent scene will demonstrate, is the market. There is an amusing and excessive modesty to Altman's prescription. It fits his clear-eyed approach to consistently genial moviemaking, although it hardly suits cinema in general - some great successes have been born out of unsexy films with sad endings. I believe it also suits the art of Jeff Koons, who uses some of the same ingredients to great effect..."

Yellow Dog outside Christie's New York in Fall 2014

"Balloon Monkey (Orange)," by Jeff Koons, outside Christie's Rockefeller Center galleries, during viewing of the Contemporary Art sales in November 2014

Koons's popularity begins with outdoor sculptures are so suited to public display, especially those from his Celebration series. Whenever Christie's offers a Koons sculpture for sale, it is usually displayed outside their galleries in New York, at Rockefeller Center - illustrated above - to the delight of passers by. This shiny gem  is entitled "Balloon Monkey (Orange)," from the November Contemporary Art evening Auction at Christie's.

"Jeff Koons: A Retrospective," is the first large-scale museum presentation in New York and also the first time a single artist's workd filled nearly the entire Whitney Museum.

Organized by Nancy and Steve Crown Family Curator and Associate Director of Programs Scott Rothkopf, the exhibition surveys more than three decades of Koons;s art and includes approximately 150 works across a variety of mediums. On view from June 27 through October 19, 2014, this landmark retrospective was the Whitney's grand finale in its great uptown Marcel Breuer designed building before the Museum opens its new facility downtown in Spring 2015.

"Jeff Koons: A Retrospective" travels to the Centre Pompidou in Paris from November 26, 2014 to April 27, 2015, and to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from June 5 to September 27, 2015.

The Uptown Whitney building will become the Contemporary Art wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Leadership support for the exhibition is provided by Gagosian Gallery. The exhibition is sponsored by H & M, Bank of America and Hanjin Shipping. 

Order the lavish exhibition catalogue from for a third off its $65 list price

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