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A Gazing Ball into the Art of Jeff Koons

Wow, Jeff Koons!

Jeff Koons, detail from Sacred Heart (Blue/Magenta), 1994-2007, Gagosian Beverly Hills

Looking at the rolled stainless steel perfection of the Celebration series (Balloon Dog, Rabbit and Flowers), people forget how this material can be incredibly difficult to work with on a monumental scale. These pieces are strikingly bold and visually fun. But are they really?

Jeff Koons, Sacred Heart (Blue/Magenta), 1994-2007, Gagosian Beverly Hills

I am usually left with a big question mark after viewing Koons works, as if the structural hollowness of these works verged on emptiness.

Is there any meaning beneath the aesthetic kick? I so wish it could pop and reveal something! Anything!

You could say I set myself for a tough contrast during a recent trip to Los Angeles, but I recommend viewing two exhibitions which actually deal with similar themes and are the subjects of my posts this week and next:

One shocked me, challenged me and made me think about past, present and future. The other was just, quite literally, full of air…Trust me, I really tried finding some meaning in the use of readymades by Jeff Koons. So here it goes…

The term “readymade” comes from Marcel Duchamp taking a mass-produced object (a urinal), signing it and calling it art because he had the idea to do so.

Evidently the art world was shocked. So avant-garde! But you have to give it to Duchamp: the date was 1917 (yes, 100 years ago!).

In his Antiquity series, Jeff Koons takes copies of Old Masters paintings such as Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Titian’s Pastoral Concert.

Jeff Koons, various Gazing Balls

Then he adds one of his Gazing Ball in a slightly lowered centre position, a beautiful, almost hypnotic, blue orb made of sleek stainless steel.

Detail from Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Mailboxes), 2013, Gagosian Beverly Hills

Jeff Koons talks about how he loved the gazing balls of his late 1950-60’s childhood Pennsylvania, how they shined, reflected and “gave back to the world”.

Except his slightly creepy “new age guru voice” does not help endearing these to me.

Hearing French-speaking (!) gallery goers asking “Is this the original?” when facing Koons’ Gazing Ball (Géricault Radeau de la Méduse) is admittedly something that raised…how shall I put it?…questions?!!! Concern? Outrage? Can’t you see the blue ball? In what world would it be OK to use the original Radeau de la Méduse? Maybe in a world where respect in all shape or form has gone by the window…

Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Géricault Radeau de la Méduse), Gagosian Beverly Hills

I needed to find answers: what’s in these Antiquity pieces?

Look at what the gazing ball does when you look at these works…I am going to leave aside the possible narcissistic element I have discussed in another post (Kusama and mirrors). The intense dark blue of the gazing balls pretty much nullifies the vision of yourself.

The ball draws your gaze like a magnet. You register the Old Masters image because it’s part of our popular culture but Koons does not really make you look intently at it. You look at the exact same place in each of these works: lower centre. That precludes looking at most of the painting…which is a non-work anyway because it’s a copy!!

Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Manet Déjeuner sur l’Herbe), 2014-15, Gagosian Beverly Hills

Is the message about our relationship with works of art?? Don’t look at those cheap reproductions we are bombarded with? Don’t reflect on the meanings of a pale imitation of an Old Masters work?

Fine, I actually think this is a valid commentary but Koons’ blue orb reflects the space and world around and puts the viewer in the middle of these cheap reproductions!

If you’re still following me, it egotistically puts our world going mad in the middle of a cheap image of our revered cultural heritage.

I can’t help but feeling stuck in a conundrum here. It simply does not feel good. Or perhaps Koons is VERY good as truly the art and artist that our time deserves[1].

From paintings, let’s move on to sculptures. The original Farnese Hercules would have been a classical Greek statue from 4th century BCE. The one we can admire in Naples is a Roman copy from 216AD. Standard practice. Rare are the classical Greek statues that made it to us.

Koons’ Farnese Hercules is a plaster copy based on a copy of the Roman version.

Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules) with Seated Ballerina in background, Gagosian Beverly Hills

Same process with Balloon Rabbit, based on a plastic balloon version which was then massively scaled up and cast in stainless steel.

Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Apollo Lykeios), 2013 with Balloon Rabbit (Magenta), 2005-2010 in background, Gagosian Beverly Hills

So many degrees of separation yet it looks vividly the same. Where Rabbit may be clever and fun, the Antiquity series touches on appropriation art, turning classical art into a product, a commodity…signed with a blue gazing ball.

Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Barberini Faun), 2013, Gagosian Beverly Hills

Turning ancient statues and Old Masters paintings into commodities bring consumerism as a recurrent theme for Koons. Charged with both attraction and repulsion, this underlying message in the giant disposable “blown-up souvenirs[2]” fuels this love / hate relationship that people have towards his art.

But see, I am not shy to say I am a shopper, a consumer and I like it. So technically, I should quite like the art of Koons.

It’s his creepy dark side that bothers me. It’s the way Koons can commoditize himself and his then porn-star wife Cicciolina in his Made in Heaven works and sell it as expensive art – I will let you Google these works when the kids are not around.

It’s deciding that art is showing Cicciolina’s anus on a big scale while married and then using that “visual” again in the Balloon series when fighting a custody battle (check the heart of each Flowers and the twists of each Balloon sculptures).

Details from Jeff Koons, Balloon Rabbit (Magenta), Gagosian Beverly Hills

As art historian Hal Foster says in the Koons BBC Imagine documentary: “Koons is good at being weird”. I have to give it to him, even though I don’t have to like it.

Lastly what to make of the Ballerinas??

Jeff Koons, Ballerinas, 2010-14, Gagosian Beverly Hills

Forgive me for speaking bluntly but here I see Lladró porcelain on steroids.

Jeff Koons, Seated Ballerina, Gagosian Beverly Hills

Or here, is it a Venus for our time? A stainless steel Disney Cinderella trying to reenact Rodin’s Thinker with a dose of Degas’ dancers?

You may have seen an even bigger version of Seated Ballerina as a giant inflatable at Rockefeller Centre.

Ballerinas look like mercurial Venuses, reflecting in the same way the Los Angeles glass skyscrapers do in heat of the day. But like mercury, it’s the constant shifts leading nowhere which trouble me in sculptures that little girls are bound to wow…

So much kitsch is bound to disintegrate from the inside but wait, no, Ballerinas are safe. They are hollow.

Their incredibly high facture makes you ponder: so much perfectionism and yet all you get are reflections of questionable taste.

And super-sized at that…Meant to attract insatiable eyes and bottomless purses as “Art for the 1%”.

This is the same 1% Lauren Greenfield studied and strikingly photographed throughout her career and which you can see in Generation Wealth, subject of next week’s post.

Going from air to substance, asking many questions along the way, that’s the beauty of art!

As you’ve probably noticed, I am really looking for answers, so please drop your thoughts in the Comment box. Tell me why you like or dislike the art of Jeff Koons. If you don’t know yet, you can experience it at Gagosian Beverly Hills until August 18, 2017.



[1] Selling Points by Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, 7/7/2014

[2] Hal Foster in BBC Documentary, Summer 2015: Koons: Diary of a Seducer

Jed Perl, “The Cult of Jeff Koons,” The New York Review of Books


© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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