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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