For more than four decades, artist Jeff Koons has cultivated his talents to become a leading figure in contemporary art. His latest exhibition, Jeff Koons. Shine offers a career-spanning view of the development of his work from the 1970s to the present. Curated by Arturo Galansino and Joachim Pissarro, the expansive showcase just opened at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, highlighting the artist’s works from major museums and private collections around the world.
Marking Koons’ first major Italian exhibition, Shine examines the place of reflection and the relationships between surface, sensation, and truth within his artwork. “I recall early on when I started making inflatable pieces, I would place them on store-bought mirrors, so they became objects that reflected themselves,” Koons tells CR. “The reflection is an affirmation of an object, an affirmation of the viewer, and a point of intensity. The main idea is that through affirmation, we can achieve transcendence.”
And then there are the artworks themselves. In an array of pieces where pop culture meets philosophy meets commerce, Shine surveys Koons’ Duchamp-inspired readymades, Hulk (Tubas), and One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, alongside his signature inflatables, Rabbit and Balloon Dog (Red), as well as his luxe Baccarat Crystal Set. Tackling subjects from banal to provocative—often grounded by conceptual underpinnings—the works are united by their reflective natures, which allow viewers to find a personal connection. “Like biology, there is biological memory. You focus on interest and follow it to the universal space where time and space end, a metaphysical place,” explains the artist. “There are aspects of my work that are archetypal with footing in both the future and the here and now, basically through love and giving it up to something greater than oneself. To feel the desire within a Titian painting or da Vinci’s respect for Verrocchio, these are the type of connectivity that gives meaning to life.”
Well-noted for his diverse and unexpected oeuvre, Koons’ record-setting valuations have secured his place as a forerunner in the art market—his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for .4m, only to be bested a few years later by his stainless-steel Rabbit, which sold for .1m to become the most expensive artwork by a living artist sold at auction. Certainly, the creator’s larger-than-life—and sometimes controversial persona—has played a role in his rise as one of the most famous artists of our time.
Koons however, largely takes this acclaim in stride with an omnipresent focus on his creativity and vision. “There are different moments of exploration and investigation of interests. As human beings, we only have our interests, our curiosity, and our paths. My interests have changed over time, but those moments that I would follow are not the whole of the work. “The whole of work is the individual,” says the artist. “I have developed myself to be as generous of spirit as possible because that is the dialogue, we have with each other. We have to think of how to make life experiences better for each other and the community.”
Despite his extraordinary success, Koons’ grounded sensibilities likely owe to a relatable upbringing in York, Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1955. The artist formally studied painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “When I went to art school, I realized on the first day that I knew nothing about art history. In the first art history lesson, the professor started to speak about Olympia in the context of Monet and the 19th century and its connection to Goya,” shares Koons. “I felt like the luckiest person in the room—I saw the psychological, sociological, and aesthetic connections and what it was to be involved in all these dialogues. The past is a reservoir of connectivity and our cultural lives are connected in the same way.”
When Koons moved to New York in 1977, he quickly made a name for himself while working in MoMA’s membership department. He crafted a memorable appearance with brightly dyed hair and quirky, eye-catching outfits that even included inflatable flowers. Then, only a few years later, he burst onto New York’s art scene with his exhibition, The New and vacuum cleaner readymades that touched on the cultural value of novelty and consumerism. Koons’ fascination with objects—often connected to childhood and youth—has played out in ensuing series such as Statuary, Banality, and Celebration, and his iconic sculptures of oversized inflatable figures and similar topiary forms have been displayed across the globe from Rockefeller Center to the Château de Versailles.
With a penchant for marketing and pop-cultural appeal, Koons often evokes comparisons to Andy Warhol and his Factory—as Koons’ own studio is staffed by sometimes more than 100 assistants, whose hands complete works under his well-orchestrated vision. Over his career, he has developed his art in a multitude of styles and forms, including creative collaborations with the likes of Jay-Z and Lady Gaga, luxe brands Dom Pérignon Champagne and automaker BMW, as well as his classically-inspired, fashion forward Masters Collection for Louis Vuitton and a jewelry project with Stella McCartney.
Never one to shy from any part of his process, successful or otherwise, Koons keeps his artistic vantage on the broader picture. “It’s all the same for me. If I look at what I do, the history and the growth of myself as an individual, and where I have found meaning in life, there are many different aspects, many different interests, and excitements that can come into play,” shares Koons. “What I find motivating in life really comes from affirmation and acceptance. Through accepting one’s self, you can accept others. When you open yourself up to the world and something greater than the self, you experience transcendence and love. Through this, you learn how to make life experience as rewarding as possible.”
Known for his openly polite yet pensive manner, Koons melds his creativity and persona into a singular worldview. Beneath his artistry and unrelenting drive is a creator consumed by the depth of consciousness. His emphasis on materiality touches on the spiritual and philosophical, and he underscores the viewers’ place in completing the work through their own experience. “Shine as a totality represents the essence of our own potential. Life is about becoming and we can continue that journey every moment of our lives,” says Koons. “Shine is a celebration of the essence of our own potential shining. An object can be an amazing transponder—art is the essence of the viewer’s potential and that is what the dialogue of Shine is all about.”
Both Koons and his artworks seem to exist between dualities—art historic and pop-focused; material and immaterial; consumerist and philosophical; democratic and elite; playful surfaces and conscious underpinnings; in the artist’s words, “seeming and being.” The creative magic is Koons’ devotion to perfect alchemy between these worlds. That space in between is where his ideas and forms realize the greater power of art. “I believe in polarities. I love the power of life, the realm of optimism, and how things can survive and flourish,” shares Koons. “When you think of light as a symbol of life energy, you need darkness to appreciate the light and you need reflection. Whatever you perceive at this moment, the experience is about you. That is my interest in Shine—for all my work to encourage affirmation and transcendence.”
Jeff Koons. Shine will be on view from October 2, 2021, to January 30, 2022, at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.END
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