Photo Essays

Material Boy: Jeff Koons at the Whitney

by Michael Groth on June 25, 2014

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Gallery view with Jeff Koons, “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series)” (1985) (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Given that he’s a goliath figure in the art world whose output spans three decades, it may come as a surprise that Jeff Koons’s Whitney retrospective is the artist’s first major solo show at a New York museum.

The exhibition offers 150 works dating back to 1978, giving visitors a comprehensive look at the former commodities trader’s ambitious and diverse artistic output. Everything about Koons and his oeuvre seems overwhelming, from the scale of the works to the (apparent) complexity of the execution: Koons famously consulted with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman to determine the proper saline mix to suspend basketballs in solution for his 1985 Equilibrium series. “Walrus (Blue Green)” (1999), a work that appears to be a simple colored mirror, lists six distinct materials including carbon fiber.

This obsession with materialist perfection came to its logical conclusion in the Popeye series in 2003, which features recreations of household objects made from different materials. “Play-Doh” (1994–2014), a massive hyper-realist aluminum sculpture meant to resemble a pile of its namesake children’s toy, allegedly took twenty years to execute to Koons’s specifications.

Opening to the public June 27, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective is the final exhibition at the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer–designed Upper East Side location.

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Jeff Koons addresses television reporters at his Whitney retrospective on Tuesday.

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Jeff Koons, “Cake” (1995–97)

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Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988)

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Jeff Koons, “Wall Relief with Bird” (1991)

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Jeff Koons, “Elephant” (2003) and “Lips” (2000) in background

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Jeff Koons, “Aqualung” (1985)

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Installation view, Jeff Koons, ‘The New’ Series (1979–87)

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Jeff Koons, “Jim Beam—J.B. Turner Train” (1986)

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Jeff Koons, “Seal Walrus (Trashcans)” (2003) and “Olive Oyl” (2003) in background

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Jeff Koons, “Seal Walrus (Trashcans)” (detail)

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Jeff Koons, “Balloon Venus (Orange)” (2008–12)

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Installation view, Jeff Koons, ‘Banality’ series (1988)

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Jeff Koons, “Large Vase of Flowers” (1991)

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Jeff Koons, “Split-Rocker (Orange/Red)” (1999)

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Jeff Koons, “Play-Doh” (1994–2014)

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Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog (Yellow)” (1994–2000)

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Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog (Yellow)” (detail)

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Jeff Koons, “Kiepenkerl” (1987) (detail)

Jeff Koons: A Retrospective opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) June 27 and runs through October 19. A conversation with Rachel Kushner and Scott Rothkopf is planned for Sunday, June 29. (NB: An earlier version of the preceding sentence stated that the artist would participate; he will not.) 

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  • http://www.quizdit.com Quizdit

    He has amassed a fair share of admiration and criticism over his career, but I submit that Jeff Koons’ work speaks to the contemporary age, raising timely and pertinent questions about consumerism, celebrity, mass production, authorship and the infantilization of culture.

    • higgs merino

      “Pickles are just cucumbers soaked in evil.”

    • Den Hickey

      It doesn’t so much raise questions about these things are directly illustrate them.

  • Nancy Kerrigan

    You are a very good photographer. And I am uncomfortable with you making Jeff Koons’ art look this interesting.

  • elisa pritzker

    |> All together make sense [linking it or hating it --or in between]

  • Roz Dimon

    Having just finished the book “Just Kids” by Patti Smith (about her life at the Chelsea Hotel with friend, Robert Mapplethorpe and a cast of characters from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan) I recall a comment where she replied something to the effect that she wasn’t a big Warhol fan (even though Mapplethorpe was) as she preferred art that, that rather than merely reflecting society, inspired it. I’ve never been a big Koons fan probably for the same reasons, the vacuity of which it reflects so clearly . . . however there’s a real pull in seeing these all together and I look forward to experiencing this show . . . the ‘glossy’ emptiness of which appears to create a new form of myth worth examining, however painful.

  • Christine O’Shea

    I kind of like Lego Land better!

    • Den Hickey

      Lego Land certainly has more intellectual and artistic depth.

  • fahrender

    Robert Hughes “The New Shock of the New” (2004). It’s readily available on youtube. Hughes interviews Koons who proceeds to destroy himself. Watch it.
    The museums (particularly the Whitney), critics such as Roberta Smith, the gallerist world, and art “consultants” are all culpable for this sham/charade. It’s all about the money, and nothing. but. the. money. If self-promotion can be considered an art, then Koons is a master. Otherwise not. The Whitney is so wrong-headed it’s mind-boggling.

  • towerofbabel

    Jeff Koons’ work is naughty–perfected and commodified.

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