Jeff Koons is the art world mega-icon who everyone loves to hate. Critics have continually characterized his pieces with words like "kitsch" and "juvenile," but in his new retrospective at the Whitney Museum (the last exhibition at the Madison Ave location), it's much easier than ever to love his work, and him, than it is to hate him. Seeing his 35-year career in such fluid totality, from his consumerist ready-mades and inflatables to his newer gazing ball sculptures, is a journey through Koons' highs, lows, and ultimate triumphs.
Jeff Koons returned to mainstream consciousness recently with an interview in Vanity Fair, where he farted in front of the interviewer and was photographed butt naked at the gym. Although he continually prioritizes perfection in his work and breaks auction records, he's supposedly a "normal" guy. He also did a video interview with NOWNESS, announced a collaboration with H&M (the company is a sponsor of his retrospective), and wrote an article for Art in America about being inspired by "feeling." All of these media efforts reminded people, in advance of the exhibition's opening, that his work has always been highly personal. He creates from his childhood memories, whether remembering the design of his grandparents' ashtray (Woman in Tub is the result) or the gazing balls he saw in Philadelphia backyards.
Visitors (those without kids, perhaps) will be pleased to see the appearance of his controversial "Made in Heaven" works on the third floor, starring Koons in a variety of sexual scenarios with his ex-wife, the Italian pornstar Cicciolina. For those who know the backstory, it's more painful than alluring to witness Koons' desire to eliminate shame and express ultimate freedom. As many know, he rebounded from the critical failure and embarrassment of the series with a topiary Puppy that was shown in Germany in 1992 (it's fitting that he recently erected the Split Rocker dog topiary sculpture in New York's Rockefeller Center, at least to set a positive tone for the arrival of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective").
One leaves the exhibition realizing that Koons' work has successfully endured and formed a cohesive narrative. Combining his awareness of what makes history with his perfectionist desire to make iconic work, Koons has reflected as much as he's made us reflect (literally, by looking into his shiny, mirrored objects). It's OK to empathize with his desire for perfection and greater understanding, even while being mystified by his overwhelming commercial success. It's OK to laugh a little bit at his sensational "Made in Heaven" series, and it's OK to spot and discuss the low points in his overall career. In the end, there are many more high points, and he's made much more work to awaken our childlike sense of wonder and elicit positivity than anything else.
It's OK to love Jeff Koons (even if that may not always be the popular thing to do), and it's OK to love this retrospective at The Whitney.
During the press preview, we asked a few of the security guards at The Whitney what they think of Jeff Koons' works. Their responses are awesome.
Jeff Koons, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series) (1985)
What do you like about this work?
There's just no protection...nothing. It's just hanging in the air.
Jeff Koons, Loopy (1999)
Jeff Koons, Lips (2000)
Jeff Koons, Sandwiches (2000)
What do you like about these?
It's nice that there's food. I don't really like the sandwiches. I mostly like the fruits.
Jeff Koons, Kangaroo (Blue) (1999) and Jeff Koons, Kangaroo (Red) (1999)
Do you like these?
Yes, I love big mirrors.
It's crazy how they reflect all of this space that will no longer be the Whitney Museum after this exhibition.
Well, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is going to move here. There will probably be better art.
Are a lot of people taking pictures of themselves?
Yes, too many.
Jeff Koons, Wall Relief with Bird (1991) and blacked-out image of Jeff Koons, Ilona's Asshole (1991)
Is it weird to be in this room for such a long time?
I just watch the flowers....
Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988)
Do you like these?
Yeah, the one of Michael Jackson is nice. They are nice, colorful sculpture designs.
It's nice to have them all next to each other.
It's like having a whole museum in one room. And it's nice after the last room ["Made in Heaven"].