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.
Jeff Koons: Split-Rocker is presented by the Gagosian Gallery, and organized by Public Art Fund and Tishman Speyer. It will be on view at Rockefeller Center until 12 September 2014.