The Summer of Jeff Koons

In New York this summer, the highly popular and controversial artist Jeff Koons is holding court.

In the middle of Rockefeller Center, his monumental piece, Split-Rocker, stands in bloom. I found it quirky yet arresting when I first saw it, a gargantuan topiary depicting slices of a rocking horse head and a dinosaur fused into one. As with other Koons sculptures I've seen, I was entertained and impressed, albeit slightly unsettled, by this piece—but I didn't ponder it further until after I viewed Jeff Koons: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

As I walked through four floors filled with Koons' body of work, I began to grasp his fascination with duality and juxtaposition. The first pieces displayed were from his 2013 Gazing Ball series, with two sculptures inspired by classical antiquity and another by classic Americana. The choice of contrasting subjects was the first juxtaposition; the choice of material, chalky 19th century-favorite plaster and the shiny metallic gazing balls of Koons' childhood, was the second.

From there, it was a flashback to the beginning of Koons' career in the late 1970s. In the Inflatables series, I could see the beginnings of what would become his most famous pieces. Koons says he was drawn to these inflatable objects because of the similarity between them and us humans, in that both share a similarly optimistic spirit and that breaths of air keep both alive.

In The New series, the glass-encased vacuum cleaners, relics from the 1980s, were at first confounding then quite entertaining. Imagine that: appliances created for the purpose of sucking up dust, kept dust-free forever! The Equilibrium series held my attention less because of the underlying meaning and more because it demonstrated Koons' fastidiousness at finding a way to keep the basketballs fixed in place inside a water tank (a mixture of fresh and saltwater supposedly did the trick).

Next, on the third floor: Statuaries, in which Koons features stainless silver casts of classical figures and kitschy tchotchkes: Louis XIV next to Bob Hope, a classical Italian woman's bust against a mermaid troll. In the middle of it all, there's Koons' famous piece The Rabbit, a stainless silver cast of the inflatable toy from his earlier work. This sculpture is fascinating for the level of detail put into making a heavy and solid material believably portray a light and airy object. Another interesting juxtaposition in this series: the conscious choice to use a material typically used for cheap everyday things to create costly art.

Banality was a series designed, according to the artist, to free us from our embarassment of the kitschy relics of our childhood. In the middle of a row of life-size tchotchkes was another of Koons' most popular pieces: Michael Jackson and Bubbles. With its porcelain tones and Pieta-inspired pose, Koons meant to convey the sacrifice of self and identity that the late pop star had to go through to be accepted by the public. Another piece that caught my eye was Amore, which combined two of my favorite childhood toys: a teddy bear and Cabbage Patch Kid, arms outstretched in an unsettling plea for love.

The next part of the exhibition, Made in Heaven, is not for the prudish. Here, we are thrown into the lusty maelstrom of Koons' first marriage to an Italian porn star (later turned politician, interestingly enough). While I mostly ignored the explicit floor-to-ceiling paintings of the couple, I did like the contrast between the self-love oozing out of Self-Portrait and the couple's rapt absorption with each other in Bourgeois Bust

After that, I was rewarded with a happy and colorful little Jeff Koons Elephant, a welcome visual treat. Again, it's fun to see how heavy stainless steel was made to look believably like a foil balloon. You'll note from the background of this photo that there were also paintings in the exhibition (though clearly from my images, I was far more smitten with the sculptures). This is a glimpse of his Easy Fun-Ethereal series, which started out as collages which were then handpainted with oils on canvas. Here we get a glimpse of the surrealist painter that Koons started out as in his student years. 

It was the perfect segue to the next floor, which contained some of Koons' most exuberant work, the Celebration series. Here you could see Koons' iconic Balloon Dog, the colorful and collosal Play-Doh, and the $23 million Hanging Heart. Play-Doh took 20 years to complete, entailing painstaking effort to make hunks of metal look like pliant clay. The curator's commentary on the guide gave an added dimension to the piece, explaining that what makes this sculpture interesting is that it appears abstract but is in fact incredibly realistic because of how truthful it is to the original subject, fistfuls of Play-Doh piled up by Koons' son.

The next series was titled Popeye – ... a bit confusing as Koons' Popeye ended up being displayed on the outside terrace and not with the rest of the pieces. I quite liked the formidable granite Popeye, detailed down to the anchor tattoo on his bulging bicep, with flowers growing out of his spinach can. The use of fresh flowers with sculptures is, again, a juxtaposition of the ephemeral and the permanent. Also in this series were deceptively simple-looking sculptures of inflatable walruses impaled on trash cans and plastic chairs. While they weren't my favorite, I marveled at how realistic the toys looked (considering the real thing would've been instantly deflated by the objects they were displayed with). Also: that Hulk Organ is actually a functioning organ!

My favorite part of the exhibition was Antiquity, some of Koons' most recent work, which takes figures from the Paleolithic, Greek and Roman periods and fashions them into the metallic sculptures that have now become the artist's mark. Balloon Venus is styled after the prehistoric Venus figures but is made with careful attention to detail to also look like a real balloon sculpture. In Metallic Venus and Pluto and Proserpina, the contrast is now between the rigidity of the metal used and the fluidity of the sculptures' appearance. Flowers are again used, evoking transcience but also giving that funny feeling that we're looking at what must be the world's most expensive planters. Pluto and Proserpina is my favorite Koons piece to date, catching my fancy with the detail and movement captured by a sculpture, much like Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women, which captivated me when I first laid eyes on the sculpture in Firenze's Loggia dei Lanzi.

A lot has been said, both effusive and scathing, about Jeff Koons—but there's no denying that he creates stunning art, made with an effort to reach out to everyone and to make art a relatable, rather than intimidating, experience. Whether you are an art enthusiast or simply just enjoy seeing cool things, Jeff Koons' retrospective is worth a visit.

What will your verse be?

I didn't realize that Robin Williams had carved out a little nook in my heart until I heard the unbidden "No!" come out of my mouth immediately after hearing the tragic news of his passing. From the tributes that have poured in since then, it's clear that he had the same effect on countless people all over the world. We've lost our dear Captain, and we will all laugh a little bit less now that he is gone—but his verse, brimming with that uncontainable energy, poignant insight, and boundless sense of wonder, will always remain.

"They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you.
Invincible, just like you feel.
The world is their oyster.
They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you,
their eyes are full of hope, just like you.
Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.
But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you.
Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it?
Carpe ... hear it? Carpe ...
Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys.
Make your lives extraordinary."

"But oh, to be free.
Not to have to go, 'Poof! What do you need?' 
'Poof! What do you need?' 
'Poof! What do you need?'
To be my own master.
Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world.

"You'll have bad times, but it'll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren't paying attention to.
People call these things imperfections, but they're not.
Oh, that's the good stuff.
And then we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds.
You're not perfect, sport, and let me save you the suspense:
this girl you've met, she's not perfect either.
But the question is whether or not you're perfect for each other."

"All of life is a coming home.
Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us.
All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home.
It's hard to describe what I felt like then. Picture yourself walking for days in the driving snow;
you don't even know you're walking in circles.
The heaviness of your legs in the drifts, your shouts disappearing into the wind.
How small you can feel, and how far away home can be.
Home. The dictionary defines it as both a place of origin and a goal or destination.
And the storm? The storm was all in my mind.
Or as the poet Dante put it: In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood,
for I had lost the right path.
Eventually I would find the right path, but in the most unlikely place."

"To quote from Whitman, 'Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish ...
What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.'
What will your verse be?"


You say ข้าวคลุกกะปิ, we say bagoong rice.
It's funny how different each country's experience of a specific cuisine can be. I had never eaten pad thai prior to moving to New York, even though our family loved to frequent both Thai restaurants and Thailand itself. Where pad thai is the go-to order in the US, bagoong rice tops every Filipino's picks of Thai entrees. Bagoong rice is not the actual name of this dish; it is khao kluk gapi (more accurately written in Thai script above), which translates as shrimp paste rice. We Filipinos call it bagoong rice after the moniker of our own pungent blend of fermented shrimp paste.

Various Southeast nations have their own names and recipes for shrimp paste, but this much is universal: you either love shrimp paste or you hate it. The smell alone can be rather challenging to stomach if you weren't raised eating the stuff. Its highly concentrated flavor profile doesn't hold back, pummeling you with salty, sweet and umami even with the tiniest dollop. Hence, the automatic question of every server when you attempt to order this dish: "Have you had this before?" Answer with a vigorous nod indicating you are part of the club and you'll be rewarded with a plate artfully layered with green mango, red onion, egg, chili, tiny deep fried shrimps, sweet and savory pork, and that heavenly jasmine rice generously flavored with shrimp paste. Mix it all up, dig in, swoon. Repeat.

As with most sublime food experiences, this one isn't that easy to come by. In my seven years in New York, I've only seen the dish on Thai menus twice, with the very best version at SriPraPhai deep in Woodside, Queens. It is a trek worth taking, if the smell and taste of shrimp paste makes your heart sing.

SriPraPhai is located at 64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside, New York.

Westchester: From Farm to Table

Westchester is the stuff of which American fairy tales are made. The winding streets are lined with stately homes edged with manicured lawns and lush expanses of fields for horses to run and trot. And the food on your table comes from places your childhood imagination would've conjured up—farms where hens roam freely (rather than being de-beaked and packed tightly in cages), lambs are herded by adorable (though not always effective) puppies, and pigs frolic in the mud and snack on farm-fresh eggs.

We drove a little over an hour out from the city to Westchester last Sunday to enjoy the farm-to-table experience, starting with brunch at The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges followed by a tour of the farm at Stone Barns. Stone Barns is best known as the site of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, with its phenomenal (in both taste and price) multi-course farmers feasts. While we weren't fortunate enough to dine there this time, I am definitely saving up for that special day! 

That said, I can't bemoan our alternative, which is a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant after all. Despite the flannel-clad servers and swathes of reclaimed wood, The Inn can't quite pull off barnyard rustic—it's pretty tough when the crowd is blond-and-blue-eyed country club chic (then again, if the chorus line is "everything local", then the country club vibe comes with). Posh jokes aside, dining at The Inn was a very lovely experience.
We ordered an impressive spread (reeling as we were from a late, cocktail-fueled night) so I'll focus on our favorites. The tuna tartare was a beautiful interplay of textures, with creamy avocado, succulent cubed tuna, and crisp radish slices molded into a puck and slid atop a mixture of soy and ginger sauce. Also delightful: delicate chunks of sweet Peekytoe crab meat, spiked with garlic aioli and piled up on crunchy crostini. As someone who grew up eating crab lovingly picked off the shell for me by grown-ups, I have a soft spot for Peekytoe crab, which requires painstaking cooking and picking by Maine lobstermen's wives to end up on restaurant tables (this New York Times article from 1998 hints from whence our Peekytoe crab came). The croque madame was also a showstopper—layers of bread and ham seductively slathered with melted comté and gruyère then topped with tiny sunny side up quail eggs. Another pleasant surprise: the parmesan crusted chicken, which did not look terribly exciting but was the tastiest dish of all. The meat was tender and flavorful underneath the addictive parmesan crust, and complemented perfectly by the artichokes in lemon-basil sauce. Our dessert, strawberry shortcake, would have been a letdown as the cake was quite dry, but Hudson Valley's beautiful strawberries and the delicious raspberry and lemon yoghurt sherberts accompanying it salvaged the dish and ended our meal on a sweeet note.

With full tummies, we ventured to Stone Barns next, where we had booked the Insider's Tour. The 2 1/2 hour tour excursion took us through the vast property, which was once part of the Rockefeller estate, Pocantico. John D. Rockefeller commissioned the barns to be used as a dairy farm and in the 1970s, Peggy Rockefeller started cattle breeding on the property. After her passing, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture was created in her memory and since 2004, it has advocated for a healthy and sustainable food system.

The tour took us through the farm plots, where we saw how the farmers practice crop rotation and take great pains to keep the soil rich and nourished. We visited with their livestock, giggling at the flock of heritage turkeys newly put out to graze and easily distracted by the mere wave of a colored flag. We watched the egg-laying hens, some of which sat and clucked in a row outside their sheds, as if they were chatting as young women do. 

We walked through the woods, snacking on wild wine berries picked right from the brambles. We said hello to the dashing Don Julio, a Spanish hog who bred with many a Berkshire dame in his younger days. We saw chicks grow from puffy little furballs to beautiful "teens", the redheads (hens) mingling with the elegantly cloaked heritage turkeys. We also wandered into the greenhouse where we saw rows of herbs, as well as my favorite shiso leaves and shishito peppers.  
On our way out, we stopped by the bee apiary to take a look at one of the more intriguing Seven Bells for Stone Barns. Sound artist Bruce Odland created seven installations throughout the property to highlight the way various ecosystems work. The bells at the bee farm tinkle according to the coming and going of the bees.

It was such a pleasant and dreamy afternoon in Westchester. I truly look forward to coming back to experience more—a visit to the Rockefeller estate Kykuit perhaps and a feast at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for sure. I can hear almost hear Snow White singing in my head ... I'm wishing ...

The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges is located at 258 Westchester Avenue,
Pound Ridge, New York.
Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is located at 630 Bedford Road,
Pocantico Hills, New York.