I saw “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” at the Whitney sort of by accident. I wanted to go to the beach, but it was supposed to rain, and my friends were being wimpy, so we went to the museum instead. I wasn’t some great Jeff Koons fan before I went, although I definitely remember when Balloon Dog (Yellow) was installed on the roof of the Met, because it’s hard to forget a giant shiny balloon animal dog being presented as fine art. I figured that even if I didn’t see his works as incredible masterpieces, I’d at least be amused by them.
The first floor had pieces from the Gazing Ball series, which were interesting to me as someone who grew up in redneck Ohio with neighbors who had these mirrored glass orbs decorating their lawns, but my friends from NYC and Cape Cod and the Philippines had no idea what they were, which was even more interesting to me.
The next floor was full of works from The New exhibition,
like this poster that amused me forever,
and these vacuum cleaners, which had been brand new when Jeff put them on display as symbols of the modern age but were now cool to us in a different way because they’re so vintage.
The next room was full of the cheap inflatables Koons used to turn his NYC apartment into an art installation in the 70s, when he was working at MoMA and was inspired by Marcel Duchamp.
My favorite part was the sponges scattered on the ground. ART!
No matter what you think of scattered sponges, though, you have to love the corn lips and sandwich faces from the Easyfun series. With a random mustache to boot. These were made in 1999, so clearly Jeff Koons was way ahead of the mustache bandwagon.
Another room was filled with colored mirrors cut in the shape of animal heads. This is Kim and me posing in a, like, donkey head or something. They were supposed to “evoke a darker sense of foreboding” by reflecting and distorting the viewer, but look how happy we were.
All of the sculptures in Banality, on the other hand, were terrifying.
The next series of rooms was dedicated to pieces from Made in Heaven, which were shocking and hilarious and need to be in my home immediately. Jeff took photos of himself posing with this porn star, La Cicciolina, and then ended up falling in love with her and marrying her. There was full penetration, people. And it was his future wife.
Finally we got to Antiquity and some of the big stainless steel stuff that I had come to see, like this Balloon Venus (Orange). The Whitney website says, “His model for a work like Metallic Venus is not a Greek or Roman original, but a porcelain knickknack, itself likely based on a later copy. Koons marks his place in this chain of history by using CT scans and other forms of digital imaging to aid in translating his sources into stone or stainless steel, walking a fine line between high and low references, the original and the copy, the traditional and the startlingly new.” Come on! That’s great!
In the Popeye rooms, we saw these everyday objects formed around each other. The Whitney website says, “The hyperreal cast-aluminum and spray-painted pool toys are stunning feats of artifice, exhibiting minutely rendered puckers along their seams.” And that’s where I kind of switched from being amused by Jeff Koons to being like, “Actually, whoa, yeah, this stuff is technically amazing.” Because they aren’t actually pool toys. They just look exactly like them while really being sculpted from aluminum.
The next room was what I’d been waiting for. Celebration totally did feel like that to me, even if the works were created to remind Jeff’s son that he was thinking of the boy after his mom, the porn star, had abducted(!) him to Italy when she and Koons divorced. To me, they were just crazy fun, novel, so incredibly well-made, and beautiful.
Big pile of Play-Doh!
Big purple heart with a ribbon knot that looks so incredibly real!
The very cheesiest kitten sculpture in the entire world!
A painting of cake on crinkly pink paper that you can almost hear crinkling.
Another shot of the big pile of Play-Doh with the kitten-in-a-sock and the shiny dog in the background to give you an idea of how great this room was as a whole.
A close-up of the Play-Doh to show how it had those schisms and crevices that Play-Doh always had.
Ugh, it almost makes you mad how good the side seams in the helium balloon are.
I kind of became a little bit obsessed with this balloon, actually, and may have hogged it for a good five minutes while I made Jack, Chris, and Kim pose with me. But look at the delight on my corn-fed little face. That basically sums up the glee I felt looking at the Jeff Koons retrospective as a whole. Whether or not it’s your kind of art, it’s really cool.
We checked out the rest of the museum after that, and here are a couple of my favorite pieces:
You can’t go wrong with a sandwich made of vinyl. Although Kim and Chris didn’t see that Claes Oldenburg’s BLT was a sandwich until I started fangirling over it–hello, vinyl bacon–so I guess you can kind of go wrong.
This Oldenburg drawing is kind of just okay until you see its title:
Baked Potato, Thrown in Corner, under Light Bulb. ART!!
Kim loved Yellow Moon by Kiki Smith,
and I loved whatever this was just because I found Ohio in it,
but Jack was not impressed by Agnes Martin’s The Islands, which was lines of pencil on linen. This is supposedly “among the most beloved works in the Whitney’s collection and is regarded as one of Martin’s greatest achievements”. I’ll leave you to enjoy that for a second.
But I will say that I was a total sucker for the description on the plaque next to the paintings:
While her commitment to non-objective painting and her disavowal of ego in art have sometimes qualified her as a Minimalist, Martin’s work is hardly devoid of expression and emotion. “Everything,” she said, “is about feeling.”
You can say what you want about these pieces, but I imagine what it must have been like to be Agnes Martin when the museum wanted to buy them. I assume a lot of people look at them and think they’re unimportant or oversimplified or uninspired–and I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that, sorry–but it must be amazing to be an artist and to put something into what you make and to have someone say, “We get you. We understand what you were going for. We think this is art.”