Although art world antics — the star artists, the global fair circuit, the multi-billion-dollar market — have become regular fodder for daily news headlines, it's still unusual to see a contemporary artist signing autographs in a plaza for adoring fans of the general public. Yet that was exactly the case in Bilbao, Spain, when the Guggenheim Museum there unveiled the third and last edition of the touring exhibition, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, on show until 27 September.
A massive success at its first stop as the final program of the Whitney Museum of American Art before vacating its iconic Marcel Breuer building in New York last October, the Koons retrospective received some 250,000 visitors, extended museum hours to open on the normally closed Monday, and on its final weekend was open to the public for a 36-hour-marathon.
The show's second stop at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris even made a splash among the blasé viewers of that art capital, breaking daily records for attendance. But in comparison to the frenzied adulation of Manhattan and the respectful Parisian ardour, Bilbao’s love for Koons is decidedly more familial.
He's taken stainless steel — originally recognised as a modest material — and elevated it to the height of luxury
After the artist’s colossal, flower-covered Puppy, 1992, was the interventionist hit of Documenta 9 that year (not an official part of the show, Puppy drew crowds 20 miles outside Kassel, the quinquennial exhibition's German home base, to become its de-facto mascot), the Guggenheim seized on the piece, installing it at the entrance of its headline-making Frank Gehry satellite in 1997, affecting what is now well known as the ‘Bilbao Effect’, for which municipal governments hope architecturally distinctive museum buildings will boost the tourism of economically challenged cities. It was a genius move on the part of Guggenheim officials, who watched the Bilbao citizenry embrace the museum and adopt Koons as a native son.
Now nearly 20 years later, Koons makes his Spanish homecoming with this critically acclaimed retrospective, the selected pieces for which look as at home in Gehry’s galleries as The Matter of Time, the permanent installation of large-scale Richard Serra sculptures that occupies a 130-metre-long interior room originally conceptualised for one of them.
Left: Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White, Pink Bunny), 1979. Vinyl, mirrors. 81.3 x 63.5 x 48.3 cm. The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica © Jeff Koons. Right: Jeff Koons, Chainlink, 2003. Polychromed aluminum, galvanized steel. 264.2 x 174 x 48.9 cm. Edition no. 3/3. Private Collection. © Jeff Koons
‘Artforum editor Michelle Kuo claims no one is pushing fabrication like Koons,’ says exhibition curator Scott Rothkopf, associate director of programs at the Whitney. Indeed, just as Gehry pushes technology to enhance stylistic tensions between contemporary and historic architectural forms, Rothkopf posits Koons as an innovator who uses material and process to examine the clash of cultural forces on psychological, economic, and social levels. For his part, Koons merely comments, ‘Technology is a tool.’
The chronological format of Rothkopf’s show perfectly showcases the artist’s longtime fascination with opulence from his art-school inspired early work, which Koons says tips a hat to Robert Smithson through the use of reflective materials, and his appropriated high-end advertising, to the exquisitely produced three-dimensional wood and porcelain reproductions of pop-culture images, such as 1988's Michael Jackson and Bubbles, and the mirror-polished stainless-steel works that have become the artist’s signature.
Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. Porcelain. 106.7 x 179.1 x 82.6 cm. Edition no. 1/3. Private Collection © Jeff Koons
Among these last pieces is Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994-2000, which fetched a record-breaking $58 million at Christie’s New York in 2013. The fact that these have become so highly valued in the marketplace is testament to Rothkopf’s take on the artist’s conceptual project. ‘He's taken stainless steel — originally recognised as a modest material — and elevated it to the height of luxury,’ he begins. ‘Typically, luxury is consumed as a vehicle for transformation. In Koons’s work, we see exquisite process become the vehicle for the transformation of value.’
In quiet corners, Koons sometimes gets a bad wrap for the easy appeal of his objects. The cultural critiques of consumerism and anti-intellectualism of his early work are often written off to the prevailing art world sentiment at the time of their creation. The challenging nature of his pornographic Made in Heaven series, for which he created photographs and large-scale glass sculptures of himself and his then porn-star wife in a various states of coitus, were largely dismissed by a baffled viewership as narcissistic attention-whoring when they were unveiled. (The hardest core images of the series, which were relegated to an insular space in the Breuer building, do not appear in Gehry’s flowing, open plan in Bilbao, as a concession to what the museum assumes to be a more sensitive viewership.)
Left: Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Magenta), 1994–2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating. 307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm. One of five unique versions. Collection Pinault. © Jeff Koons. Eright: Jeff Koons, Popeye, 2009–2011. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating. 198.1 x 131.4 x 71.8 cm. Edition no. 1/3. Gagosian Gallery. © Jeff Koons
The artist, himself, makes it hard not to side with such cynics. With his actor-model good looks and pristine custom-made suits, he further shirks the image of the subversive artist with remarks like, ‘Follow your bliss and it will take you to the true reality’ or ‘Weakness is not reaching the highest state of consciousness’. Of Made in Heaven, he says the work is about ‘the removal of guilt and shame.’ (Rothkopf quips that the pieces were prescient precursors to a Kim-and-Kanye reality culture.) He distinctly backs away from the form of conventional art dialogue as well as comparison to his contemporaries, preferring to think about his work in the context of Picasso, Goya, and Duchamp.
Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Ariadne), 2013. Plaster and glass. 112.7 x 238.4 x 93 cm. Edition no. 3/3. Monsoon Art Collection. © Jeff Koons
Despite the frustration this can create for art writers and critics, who somewhat depend on artists playing according the rules of pedagogy, it's nearly impossible to argue with anything Koons says. His largely populist thoughts make clear that he’s not interested in wasting any time on judgment, preferring to pursue his lifelong project, which has never failed to garner an exceptional reaction, whether revered or abhorred, with an open mind. He is quick to say, however, he is not Buddhist.
Inevitably, it’s hard for even the most cynical critic to deny Koons’s achievement as an artist. Bunnies, basketballs, balloons — they all capture the gaze and more than several hold it for longer than the typical three seconds deemed by institutional statisticians as the average time viewers spend with a work that catches the eye.
But despite the saccharine, Koons is more than candy. Upon examining Puppy in his review of Documenta 9 for the September 1992 Art in America, critic Peter Scheldahl crowned Koons a political artist: ‘This being Koons, the politics are neo- or faux-royalist,’ he wrote. ‘Materialized noblesse oblige, Puppy radiate[s] the benevolence of privilege, condescending — in the word’s old, positive sense — to folks of all conceivable tastes and classes, in one seamless package providing aesthetic sophistication for sophisticates, innocent joy for the naive, and vulgar jollies for the vulgar.’
Or as the artist himself explains, ‘The key impetus is the interior gaze. The journey inward offers confidence to take in the outside world.’
Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, is on show at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, until 27 September
Main image at top: (Left) Jeff Koons, Puppy, 1992. Stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants. 1,240 x 830 x 910 cm. Edition no. 1/1. © FMGB, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, 2015 Photo: Erika Ede © Jeff Koons. Right: Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986. Stainless steel. 104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm. Edition 1/3. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; partial gift of Stefan T. Edlis and H. Gael Neeson, 2000.21. © Jeff Koons
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