As you know, 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. 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 is 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.
This exhibition is 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.
Jeff Koons: A Retrospective is organized by Scott Rothkopf, Nancy and Steve Crown Family Curator and Associate Director of Programs.
The exhibition ends October 19 then travels to the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris (November 26, 2014–April 27, 2015) and to the Guggenheim Bilbao (June 5–September 27, 2015).
Inflatables and Pre-New
Koons moved to New York in 1977 after completing his studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While there he had been making paintings inspired by his dreams and the work of his hero Salvador Dalí. In New York, he took a job selling memberships at the Museum of Modern Art, where he encountered recent Conceptual Art and the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. For Koons, these unaltered industrial products—a urinal or shovel—engaged the everyday world more directly than the images he had painted from his fantasies. His ﬁrst experiments with the readymade involved the cheap inﬂatables he found scouring novelty shops in downtown Manhattan. He used these toys to turn his East Village apartment into a riotous installation and to make sculptures that explore the fetishes and other irrational forces driving consumer culture.
In 1980 Koons unveiled the earliest works from his breakout series The New in his first exhibition, held in the New Museum’s storefront window on Fourteenth Street. The display featured three illuminated wall reliefs affixed with vacuum cleaners as well as a lighted sign announcing the title of the series and the show. With these works and the freestanding encased examples that followed, Koons sought to capture the very essence of newness. Yet, almost paradoxically, the appliances in their antiseptic chambers have inevitably grown dated, suggesting that the eternal and inexorable quest for the “new and improved” in both art and commerce is inherently shadowed by the threat of obsolescence. The New also includes works that occupy the space of painting, in this case billboards that trumpet new products and toy with the distinction between art and advertising.
Koons staged his first solo gallery exhibition, Equilibrium, in 1985. The show presented a multilayered allegory of, in Koons’s words, unattainable “states of being” or salvation. Cast-bronze floatation devices, for example, maintained a permanent inflatedness, yet they would kill rather than save their users. On the walls hung framed, unaltered Nike posters, procured by Koons from the company’s headquarters, that conjoined the perfection of 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 sculptures 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’s this ultimate state of the eternal that is reflected in this moment.”
Luxury and Degradation
The works in Luxury and Degradation address the marketing and consumption of alcohol to raise questions about the relationships among 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,” he remarked. “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.” If in his previous series Koons largely employed objects that had practical functions, here he points to the “degradation” of being in thrall to things primarily intended to decorate our lives and confer social status—or at least nurture fantasies of it.
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 borderland just outside the domain of sculpture. Fittingly, Koons based this series on a broad range of readymade models, from corny mass-market curios to distinguished portrait busts and rendered all of these models in stainless steel. By transforming his lowbrow readymades into highbrow art and making his historical sources more contemporary, Koons achieved a kind of democratic leveling of culture. Taken together, the Statuary works evoke a panoply of emotions and styles—melancholy or joy, realism or caricature—and demonstrate Koons’s keen manipulation of ingrained ideas about art and taste.
Expanding on the lowbrow subjects of Statuary, Koons’s next series, Banality, ventured further into the realm of kitsch. Unlike his earlier sculptures based on readymade sources, those in Banality are mash-ups 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. As with his previous series, he conceived of Banality as an elaborate allegory, this one aimed at freeing us to embrace without embarrassment our childhood affection for toys or the trinkets lining our grandparents’ shelves.
Made in Heaven
If with Banality 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 announced a feature film that Koons planned to realize with the world-famous porn star Ilona Staller (also known as La Cicciolina), whom he hired to pose with him on her sets. Although Koons ultimately decided not to make the film, he fell in love with his costar 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. Koons’s work and public relationship caused a media sensation, which climaxed with the couple’s marriage and the opening of Made in Heaven in New York. 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 conceived his series Celebration in 1994 as a paean to the milestones that mark a year and the cycle of life. Fittingly, it was inspired by an invitation to design a calendar for which he created photographs that referred to holidays and other joyous 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 the boy was constantly on his father’s mind. Taken as a whole, the sixteen paintings and twenty sculptures of Celebration evoke birth, love, religious observances, and procreation, whether in the form of a cracked egg, a giant heart, the paraphernalia of a birthday party, or the sexually suggestive curves and crevices of a balloon animal.