Jeff Koons’ Technicolor takeover of the Whitney Museum

 Jeff Koons Whitney
'Play-Doh', 2014, comprises a massive mound of multicoloured modelling clay that Jeff Koons has been working on for more than two decades and forms the centrepiece of the artist's new retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York
(Image credit: Jeff Koons )

Giddiness is rarely associated with Brutalist architecture, but it might well be the sensation by which the Whitney Museum's Marcel Breuer-designed home is remembered - thanks to Jeff Koons. The former Wallpaper* guest editor and artist's vast retrospective, which opens to the public on Friday, occupies nearly every available floor, wall, and nook of the museum (approximately 2,500 sq m) and is an exuberant farewell to the 1966 Breuer Building as the Whitney prepares to move into its new space in downtown New York, designed by Renzo Piano. 'We wanted to say goodbye with a flourish,' says Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney.

Born in Pennsylvania, Koons, 59, has lived and worked in Manhattan since 1976, but this marks his first large-scale museum presentation in New York. The challenge for the Whitney was to mount a show that would encourage visitors to look anew at the work of a celebrity artist who has simultaneously exploded and been reduced to a global cultural shorthand of stunning auction prices and gleaming, chromium steel balloon animals. ('Jeff, what are you wearing?' implored one attendee at Tuesday's press preview. Answer: Dior Homme.)

'We're at a distance now that we can assess some of these kind of mythic objects with a different perspective,' says Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, who has spent the last five years organising the retrospective. 'I think it will be very surprising for people to see some of Jeff's most famous icons, like the Balloon Dog or Michael Jackson and Bubbles and the Rabbit, in the context of the works from which they emerged and within these series that are extremely complex in their subject matter and in their ways of making.'

Organised chronologically, the show traces Koons' multifaceted output from 1978 to works that were completed last week. New connections within and among the delineated series - such as 'Inflatables', 'Luxury & Degradation', and 'Easyfun' - click into place as one moves from room to room. A very early assemblage of coloured sponges scattered among mirrors reveals itself as a precursor to the bright and obsessively engineered forms that came decades later. The 'Banality' sculptures take a turn for the sinister when viewed together and in the round, a recurring moustache motif evokes Dali and Duchamp.

The restrospective's masterstroke is its ascension from past to present through the three main floors, so that the scale of the work grows with the building's floor plate. The drama gradually builds to a full swing celebration on the fourth floor. There are balloons, including a giant pink one affixed to the wall in an Anish Kapoor-goes-to-the-party-store moment; cake (a painted slice that stands about three metres tall); and 'Play-Doh' (2014), a massive mound of multicoloured modelling clay that Koons has been working for more than two decades to realise, eventually turning to 27 pieces of interlocking aluminium to replicate what he describes as 'a very joyous, very pop material'.

And Koons is not done yet. 'I believe completely in the work that we have here, and I hope that other people can find meaning in it, but for myself I really feel that it's about the future,' says the artist, speaking with characteristic ebullience. 'I believe that I have another at least three decades - I hope even more - to create art, and truly to be able to exercise the freedom that we all have as individuals to do exactly what we want.'

Jeff Koons Whitney

'Tulips', 1995-98. The former Wallpaper* guest editor's vast show, which opens to the public on Friday, occupies nearly every available floor, wall, and nook of the museum.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art. Private collection. © Jeff Koons)

Jeff Koons Whitney

'Gazing Ball (Mailbox)', 2013. Organised chronologically, the show traces Koons' multifaceted output from 1978 to works that were completed last week. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art. Private collection. © Jeff Koons)

Jeff Koons Whitney

'Loopy', 1999. Inspired in part by Pablo Picasso’s remark, 'When I was a child I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to draw like a child', Loopy and other paintings from the Easyfun series aim to recapture the innocent spirit of childhood. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art. Private collections © Jeff Koons)

Jeff Koons Whitney

'Hanging Heart (Violet/Gold)', 1994-2006. The restrospective's masterstroke is its ascension from past to present through the main floors, with the drama gradually building to a full swing celebration

(Image credit: Jeff Koons)

Jeff Koons Whitney

Balloon works include 'Moon (Light Pink)', 1995-2000, a giant pink one affixed to a wall, and...

(Image credit: Jeff Koons)

Jeff Koons Whitney

...and 'Cake', 1995-1997, a painted slice that stands about three metres tall. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art. Private collection © Jeff Koons)

Jeff Koons Whitney

Koons has hinted that one of his most recognisable works, 'Balloon Dog (Yellow)', 1994- 2000, has darker themes, comparing its form to a Trojan horse, the giant wooden gift that the Greeks bestowed on their Trojan enemies, while Greek soldiers lurked inside

(Image credit: Jeff Koons)

Jeff Koons Whitney

'Metallic Venus', 2010-12.

(Image credit: courtesy Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte. © Jeff Koons)

Jeff Koons Whitney

'Large Vase of Flowers', 1991. The challenge for the Whitney was to mount a show that would encourage visitors to look anew at the work of a celebrity artist. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art.© Jeff Koons)

Inflatable Flowers, 1979

'Inflatable Flowers', 1979.  Collection of Norman and Norah Stone.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art. © Jeff Koons)

Kangaroo (red), 1999

'Kangaroo (red)', 1999. Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art. Private collection; courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art. © Jeff Koons)

Split-Rocker (Orange/Red), 1999

'Split-Rocker (Orange/Red)', 1999.  Collection of BZ and Michael Schwartz. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art.© Jeff Koons)

Outside of the museum, an iteration of Koon’s 'Split-Rocker' from 2000

Outside of the museum, an iteration of Koon’s 'Split-Rocker' from 2000 has been installed at New York’s Rockefeller Center, where it will be on view until 12 September. The monumental sculpture-cum-topiary, presented by Gagosian Gallery in collaboration with the Public Art Fund and real estate company Tishman Speyer, is studded with thousands of flowering plants that are watered through an internal irrigation system. © Jeff Koons. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. 

(Image credit: Tom Powel Imaging)

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