Jeff Koons: A Retrospective: An Expedition for Everyone

published Nov. 11, 2018

by Ruojia Sun

It doesn't matter if you're a die-hard Koons fan or if you've never heard of him before posters of the Koons exhibition popped up all over the city (admittedly, I am part of the latter group). It doesn't matter if you live and breathe art or if you don’t know the difference between oil and acrylic paint. It doesn't matter if you’re 7 or 70.... Jeff Koons: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum is the exhibition for you.

Rather than exclusively commenting on pieces that caught my attention when I attended the exhibition yesterday, I also wanted to tell the story of this exhibition through the people I saw at the Whitney during my visit. An exhibition is just a bunch of things sharing a space if it doesn’t attract an audience. Jeff Koons: A Retrospective was successful in that it brought different people together, and ignited reactions from these people. No one left that building without new ideas to contemplate.

Displaying inflatable toys in his collection Inflatables and Pre-New, Koons uses the room as his canvas. The scattering of light by the mirrors around this piece frames it in a way that makes the toys seem even more shiny and new. I am particularly drawn to the dynamic juxtaposition between the voluminous, 3-dimensional inflatables and their flat, 2-dimensional reflections.

In his series Equilibrium, Koons shows basketballs seemingly suspended in space, a state maintained since this piece’s creation almost 30 years ago—making it a true representation of equilibrium. Due to the interaction between the light and transparent tank, one piece can become several different pieces depending on the angle that it is viewed. For example, from the angle that the above photo was taken, a disjointed illusion is formed.

When I was scrutinizing this statue from Koons' Banality series, my professor, Amanda Hallay, waved to me excitedly. “I’m drawn to this one too!”

The image of two children sharing an intimate moment tugs at heartstrings because adolescent love is perhaps romance in its most innocent state. I can barely remember what love felt like before it became intertwined with lust, intent, and societal expectations, but Koons attempts to jog memories.

The series Made in Heaven makes a bold statement about human desire. The subjects in these works are Koons himself and his former wife and porn star, Ilona Staller. The top photo shows a much more commercial portrayal of sex. Between the vibrant color scheme, the decorative butterflies and Koons’s a laid-back pose while Staller pursues him—everything looks as if for sale. On the other hand, the bottom piece exemplifies a rawer affection. The depiction of genitalia and the unretouched pimples on Staller’s rear set this painting aside from advertisements.

At the Made in Heaven collection, I overheard two women declare that they didn't like Koons’s work at all. Evidently, his audacity does not resonate with everybody, but hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is. I surmise that Koons’s ultimate motive is not to satisfy, but rather, to leave an impression, which he accomplished by appalling this duo.

Note: this section of the museum is clearly identified as not advised for children in order to maintain the kid-friendly integrity of the exhibition.

The balloon dog, from the Celebration series, is not only one of Koons’s more famous works, but it also seems to be the kids’ favorite. I took this picture from this angle to avoid getting two boys, standing several feet from the front legs, into the frame. When I was 7, my parents took me to the Louvre, but I couldn't care less about seeing the Mona Lisa. On the other hand, these boys, about 6 years old, were totally engrossed in drawing the dog on a children’s activity booklet provided by the Whitney.

As a child, play-doh was one of my favorite artistic mediums and form of entertainment. Even though these colors are vibrant, helping this statue fit right in with the rest of the Celebration series, this play-doh mound’s crackling exterior is distinctly imperfect compared to the stainless steel statues surrounding it. Koons also manages to convey a sense of frustration, since many of us are familiar with the experience of mushing together different colors of clay, and never being able to separate the rainbow blob into its components again.

When I was photographing this statue, I heard a woman say to her kids, "No, you may not climb it, but that would be pretty cool!" Once again, the kids love it.

According to the official website of the Whitney Museum, "Jeff Koons is widely regarded as one of the most important, influential, popular, and controversial artists of the postwar era". While someone who has studied art extensively may be able to write a whole thesis addressing this statement, my interpretation of Koons’s genius after viewing Jeff Koons: A Retrospective is simple—Koons understands people. We (or at least many of us) like shopping; we like sex; we like looking back at simpler times. So that's how he gets our attention—he gives us consumer products; he gives us pornography; he makes us nostalgic.

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