There’s been a lot of conversation in the studio recently about art exhibitions that beg to be photographed, and they don’t come much more Instagrammable than the Jeff Koons retrospective. Having started out at New York’s Whitney Museum and then progressing to Paris’ Centre Pompidou, the show has just begun the final leg of its journey at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, where we attended the opening last week; to take a selfie with the balloon dog, among other things.
The irony is, of course, that in photographing many of Jeff’s larger-than-life mirrored constructions, it’s difficult to avoid catching a glimpse of yourself, too. His enormous reflective sculptures demand a kind of self-assessment that the contemporary viewer isn’t necessarily at ease with. But self belief, which goes hand in hand with the removal of guilt and shame, lies at the heart of his practice.
“First you have to have self acceptance,” the American artist explains in the press conference preceding our tour of the exhibition. “Once you have self acceptance you can go outward, and you can have interests.” Heads bow, pens scratch as we hurry to keep up with his musings. “And then you have to follow those interests. That will always take you to a metaphysical place.” If self acceptance forms the foundation of his work, however, it also demands the same of the viewer. “At the very beginning I called for the removal of criticality,” he tells a room full of art critics. “The work is perfect in its own being. There’s no room for judgement.”
Criticality aside, the show is an extraordinary display of Jeff’s work, for its sheer size alone. Spanning four decades worth of his output, the collection is designed to be experienced chronologically and forms what the curator Scott Rothkopf describes as a “coherent but surprising trajectory.” Few artists have covered so much ground. The media Jeff has used ranges from plaster, steel, glass and wood to plexiglass, vinyl and even aquariums, while his subjects include flowers, consumerism, Hercules and the Venus of Willendorf. His towering sculptures seem to have found their spot in the mammoth, cavernous, Frank Gehry-designed space. “Some of the works have never looked more elegant,” he says.
“At the very beginning I called for the removal of criticality. The work is perfect in its own being. There’s no room for judgement.”
Born in Pennsylvania in 1955, Jeff’s childhood was suburban, middle class and deeply rooted in the capitalism which reigned over the era. He explains that his early experience of his father’s home decoration store, in which perspex boxes and shop displays had pride of place, were key to forming his early aesthetic ideas about newness and kitsch.
Moving to New York as an adolescent, these interests led him to the junk shops of the Lower East Side, where he first began to explore the idea of inflatables. His early experiments with advertising – taking authentic Nike posters to which he had purchased the rights and displaying them as works of art – seem to embody his concept of the readymade.
But there’s a lot more to his practice than plonking existing objects on plinths. In 1986 Jeff began an exploration into luxury and degradation, recreating objects which represented capitalism in stainless steel, which he considered a kind of false, proletariat luxury. From there he fully embraced the kitsch, hiring authentic craftsmen including Bavarian wood-carvers and Italian ceramicists to recreate gift shop souvenirs on a huge scale. Interestingly he encouraged these craftsmen to sign these works with their own initials.
The question of money, which is often raised around Jeff’s famously expensive work, is an abstract concept to him. “My pleasure has always been to participate in the dialogue of art. The economic aspect is so far removed to me. Of course I always wanted to create an economic platform which would allow me to create work, and quickly, but when people make statements about cost and price I think ‘who are they talking about?’ And then I think ‘oh, that’s associated to me!’”
“The economic aspect is so far removed to me. Of course I always wanted to create an economic platform which would allow me to create work, and quickly, but when people make statements about cost and price I think ‘who are they talking about?’ And then I think ‘oh, that’s associated to me!’”
As it is, his laborious pursuit of integrity in his works results in very long production times. His balloon Venus of Willendorf sculpture, for example, was first made from one single balloon, before being scanned and rendered in 3D and then cast in steel in order to perfectly recreate each twist in the thin rubber. After casting, each surface is meticulously polished for years to remove any trace of distortion from the metal. This is perfectionism at its purest. “Once I’ve decided that I want to create something, I want to bring it into the world as quickly as possible,” he continues. “Right now I average three years production.”
Jeff’s turbulent relationship with the art industry reverberates through the show. The Made in Heaven series, a collection of billboard-sized heavily retouched photographs of pornographic encounters with Cicciolina, the Italian porn star who would later become Jeff’s wife, preceded his utter alienation from the art world. Eventually Cicciolina left him, taking his young son with her to Europe, and beginning a period of intense despair for the artist. Some years later he created Puppy, a 12 metre tall statue covered entirely in flowers which now stands in pride of place in the courtyard outside the Guggenheim, as a kind of make-up token. “ Puppy is about whether you want to love or be loved,” he explains. “Whether you want to serve or be served. It’s a polarity of the organic and the ephemeral, or the spiritual.”
Self acceptance might form the foundation to Jeff’s colossal oeuvre, but his desire to please suggests that criticality still lives here. “The viewer always finishes the work of art,” he explains, as though to confirm. “They always have the last word. But it’s the responsibility of the artist to get them as far as you can to the vista.”
Jeff Koons: A Retrospective runs until 27 September at the Guggenheim Bilbao.
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