Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum, New York

Jeff Koons’ prolific body of work speaks easily to those visiting the Whitney Museum for their summer exhibition. Consumer and popular culture being at the center of his ideologies puts his art in a position for all to look, recognise and understand. The exhibition draws large crowds – tourists, locals, families and those educated in the arts – making it a commercial success for the Whitney Museum.

The exhibition spans five of the museum’s floor and showcases the different phases of the artist. By grouping Koons’ phases and curating them chronologically creates an easy path of the life of the artist for all from the large crowds to follow. As apposed to a thematic choice of display that may have told a different story to the life of the artist and been more engaging, it wouldn’t have spoken so easily to all those visiting.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994 – 2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 x 143 x 45 in. (307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm). Private collection. © Jeff Koons.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994 – 2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 x 143 x 45 in. (307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm). Private collection. © Jeff Koons.

Walking around the vast gallery spaces filled with oversized or inflatable versions everyday objects – some of which are Koons’ best known works – the exhibition feels more like a collection of ‘greatest hits’. Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994-2000, gathers a group of excited on lookers taking photos of and with the artwork. I couldn’t help but feel this behaviour in such an exhibition says more about the artist and his cult of celebrity than the artwork. Thoughts of a modern day Warhol spring to mind. The artist has successfully became a self-proclaimed celebrity lived through his artwork of popular culture. He has viewers desperately instagramming and tweeting their shots of the artworks as if they had bumped into the man (and celebrity) himself.

Jeff Koons, Lobster, 2003. Polychromed aluminum and coated steel chain; 57 7⁄8 x 37 x 17 1⁄8 in. (147 x 94 x 43.5 cm). Collection of the artist. © Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Lobster, 2003. Polychromed aluminum and coated steel chain; 57 7⁄8 x 37 x 17 1⁄8 in. (147 x 94 x 43.5 cm). Collection of the artist. © Jeff Koons

The inflatable lobster, Lobster, 2003, speaks of an obvious and direct reference to Salvador Dalí. The banality of the work becomes surreal in its oversized context and playful appearance as an inflatable toy. Yet being made of aluminum and steel, the work deceives the perception of the viewer and carries a very real weight. Laden with associations to mechanical and large-scale productions it can be seen to reference consumerism on a mass scale, literally by means of the massive size of the lobster. It draws further associations to man’s intervention into nature: the creature has been mechanised and no longer possess the fragile ability of life but is now indestructible in its new found material form. Gathering no crowd like other more famous artworks, it goes to show the type of audience visiting the exhibition. Those only acquainted with Koons as a celebrity pass by the opportunities to see what else he has offered in his life works and the deeper contexts and meanings they hold.

This playful exhibition is a successful choice for the Whitney and draws the large crowds needed to fund such a space. It’s a shame an artist whose work has so much to say about how we live in our consumerist societies is restrained by the exhibition and the work doesn’t speak of its full potential but is curated to be recognised and related to by all who visit.

Installation view of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 27-October 19, 2014). ). ©Jeff Koons. Photography by Ronald Amstutz.

Installation view of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 27-October 19, 2014). ). ©Jeff Koons. Photography by Ronald Amstutz.

Jeff Koons: A Retrospective will travel to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, from November 26 – April 27 2015. Koons’ work will also come to England (though not the retrospective) and will be on display at Norwich Castle Museums and Art Gallery, from May 9 2015 – September 13 2015.

Beth Sillince (BA Art History, third year student)

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