Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Contemporary Art: Jeff Koons - A Retrospective @ Whitney Museum, New York

(Drivebycuriosity) - Jeff Koons is one of the most influential,  most talked about and highest priced living artists, a rock star of the art world. Now you can get the "full Koons". New York´s Whitney Museum has a huge exhibition, called "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective" (whitney). They show the works of the artist`s full career so far on 4 floors.

"Throughout his career, Koons has pioneered new approaches to the readymade, tested the boundaries between art and mass cuture, and challenged the limits of industrial fabrication in works of great beauty and emotional intensity", claim the curators.

The NewYork show runs through October 19, 2014. The exhibition travels to the Centre Pompidou,  Paris (November 26, 2014–April 27, 2015) and to the Guggenheim Bilbao (June 5–September 27, 2015).

My wife and I went there (945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, Manhattan) on a Friday afternoon to avoid the masses and the school classes. We could indeed enjoy the exhibition relatively undisturbed. On Friday evenings you should calculate with lines, because then admission will be free, otherwise they charge $20 (students and seniors $16).

We were impressed how elobarate the displayed pieces are. Koon`s works are usually very expensive to produce. Like Andy Warhol before (Factory) and now Damien Hirst, he employes often more then 100 assistants in his studio and works with a lot of companies to get his ideas realized. Therefore the artist needs investors who are willing to risk millions of dollars for his projects. This got Koons into some crises in the past, but as the Whitney exhibition and record high auction sales prices proof ( totaling $177 million over the past year), the artist is back again. Vanity Fair has a lengthy article about the highs and depths of Koons`career (vanityfair).

                                                                     Woman in Tub

Koons is a "controversial" artist and likes to provoke. The Whitney show has many examples for that.

My favorite provocation is the "Woman in Tub" (1988, Porcelain) below, who is usually at home at the Art Institute Chicago. According to Koons himself: “There’s a snorkel and somebody is doing something to her under the water because she’s grabbing her breasts for protection. But the viewer also wants to victimize her.” (artic).

Koons holds the world record for "the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction" (wikipedia). On November 12, 2013, Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie`s auction in New York for $58.4 million. The Whitney shows another piece of the "Ballon Dog" series, the "Ballon Dog (Yellow)"(below). This is one of five unique versions, each in a different color.

On the first sight the sculpture looks like an inflated air baloon, but it isn`t. The piece is "mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color couting" and weighs around one ton! Koons worked with a spezialized foundry in California to cast and finish the sixty seperate precison-engineered, stainless steel parts. According to the museum "Koons imparted Balloon Dog (Yellow) with an air of innocent playfulness as well as elements that suggest sexual orifices and protuberances."

The exhibtion pieces make clear that Koons is a perfectionist. The artist is famous for his "laserlike routing of imperfection" (telegraph). He destroys pieces he’s been working on for two years because the paint has dried funny.

The sculpture below is called "Play-Doh". The piece looks indeed like a huge pile made of the educational modelling compound which children use to shape things. But this version is made from polychromed aluminum. Like the Balloon Dog, this piece is one of five unique versions. Surprisingly this art work is "one of the most complex sculptures Koons has ever made, requiring to decades to fabricate."

                                                       Aphrodite riding a dolphin

Below are works from Koon´s "Antiquity" series. There he used famous ancient or classical sculptures, meticulously rendered in oil paint and scaled to the same size as the sculptures.

The first painting (from above) is called: "Antiquity 3" (oil on canvas). As the curators explain, "the central image is based on a photograph Koons shot from the actress Gretchen Mol (imdb) posing as the 1950s pin-up star Bettie Page. Ringged by classical statues and riding an inflatable dolphin, she represents a contemporary Aphrodite, the Greek godess of love, whom the ancients often depicted astrided the dolphin that delivered her from the sea".

Below you can see more images from the "Antiquity" series, including the "Metallic Venus" , which was made of high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating and live flowering plants.

Below a glance on another series: Hulk Elvis. The Whitney shows "Hulk (Organ)" which is made from polychromed bronze and mixed media. According to the curators, the organ, which is functioning, "is a masculine symbol, not only because of its explosive phallic pipes, but also because it is know as ´the king of instruments". They call the whole sculpture "a paragon - and perhabs also parody - of machismo".

                                                                Optical Illusions

Below another example for Koon´s optical illusions. The piece, called "Dogpool (Panties),  looks like a children´s toy made of inflatable rubber. But in reality it is made from "polychromed aluminium, acrylic, chromogenic print, and coated steel chain", which needed a complicated and expensive production process - typical for Koon´s works. 

The sculpture "Rabbit" (1986, stainless steel) is Koon`s breakthrough into the world of art - and today one of his most famous artworks. This work, which belong to the series "Statuary",  " is the piece that won over previously unconvinced curators, art historians, and critics, who saw it as a dazzling contemporary update of a broad range of iconography, from Playboy Bunnies to Brancusi’s soaring forms", writes Vanity Fair (vanityfair).

The sculpture "Elephant" (2002, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color counting) shows how Koon`s techniques and technical knowledge had advanced over the years.

The painting below - "Boy with pony" (Oil on canvas)  - belongs actually to Koon´s "Celebration" series (like the "Balloon Dog" shown above), but I put into the center of this post because I like it there most and I think it fits well to the "Banality" series which follows then on my article.

The picture is also an example for Koon´s works which are in most cases much more sophisticated than they look on the first glance. The curators describe: "The artist began by photographing the toys against a reflective Mylar backdrop. He then broke down the image into thousands of discrete units separated by sinuous contours. This design was transferred to the canvas with the aid of a projector and stencils and filled by his assistants with myriad colors, each carefully distinguished from the next".

                                                   Michael Jackson and Bubbles

Below you can see Koon´s "Banality" series, which fills a whole room in the Whitney building. Here he worked 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. In this collection you can find a a gold-leaf plated, a life-sized statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, the singer’s pet chimpanzee, Buster Keaton, Saint John the Baptist and more.

                                                               Made in Heaven

The pictures above already signalled that Koon´s seemed to be obsessed with sex. His series "Made in Heaven" is another proof for that. It also shows his narcistic side. By producing these works he "promised nothing less than the emancipation from the shame of sex", tell us the curators. They claim "the work stands not as pornography but an extremely risky and vulnerable form of self-portraiture as well as an enduring experiment in fame".

I start my examples with his "Self-Portrait" (1991, Marble). I like the combination with the background which allows a glance into the museum`s neighborhood. I believe Jeff gained a lot by that.

The following paintings show himself with Illona Staller, a Hungarian-born Italian porn star -  and member of the Italian parlament -, whom he married in 1991. In 1992 they had a messy divorce because Illona decided to go back to Italy and to her porn movie & political career. Koons almost ruined himself by unsucessfully trying to get his son Ludwig back whom Illona had taking back with her to Italy.  

The paintings are called "Jeff in the position of Adam" &"Silver Shoes"                                           
(both 1990 and Oil ink on canvas).   Koons produced these paintings with the help of a Californian      company capable of generating  the largest high-quality, photo-based images possible at the time.       


This small scultpure, made of glass, is called "Violet - Ice (Kama Sutra)"

The paintings below - "Junkyard" (2002, Oil on canvas) and "Bagel" (2002, Oil on canvas) - are more examples for Koon`s elaborate techniques. They belong to his "Easyfun-Ethereal " series. According to the curators, "he began each composition with readymade images, which he grafted onto paper, scanned, and manipulated digitally. To execute each painting, Koons worked with teams of assistants for up to six months, painstakingly transferring his collage to canvas entirely by hand".

The painting "Junkyard displays "images of fishnet stockings, a lacey negligee, and a junkyard intersect and interlock in a kaleidoscopic fashion.
"Bagel" is made in a similar manner. I shot the pictures below from different distances.

Below is a part of the exhibition which irritated me. It belongs to the series "The New", which Koons produced at the begin of his career. There are "pairs of vacuum cleaners stacked in Lucite cases and illuminated with fluorescent lights—commercially manufactured household appliances displayed as if they were holy relics", critizes "The New Criterion" (newcriterion). "In keeping with the avant-garde ethos of the time, Koons here is critiquing society’s habit of turning anything and everything into a salable commodity".

Vanity Fair reports that Koon´s "produced" the pieces as he was working on Wall Street as a commodities broker to make a living and tried to sell them to other brokers. According to this source at least one buyer gave the vaccum cleaner back. Maybe today he will regret that.

The paintings below (each oil on canvas) belong to the series "Luxury and Degration" and address the marketing and consumption of alcohol, say the curators. I admire how accurate Koons - and his assistants - painted the originally photographic produced advertisements.

In the series "Gazing Ball" Koons combined classical elements with everyday objects like a mailbox and gazing balls (hand-blown glass), which you can find on American subburn lawns. The sculpture "Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules)"(Plaster and glass) refers to one of the most reowned and imposing of all classical sculptures.


                                                       A Boat between Islands?

Here another example for Koon´s technical skills. The sketch below could show a boat between islands and a sunny sky. Or does it.....?

This "Popeye" (Granite and live flowering plants)  "lives" on museums´s tiny pateo.


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