Ubiquitous inflatables: Jeff Koons reveals a new retrospective at the Guggenheim Bilbao

Sculpture with blue sphere
After much mediatised and applauded retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of Art and the Centre Pompidou, American artist Jeff Koons makes a powerful new appearance at the Guggenheim Bilbao
(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao)

Scott Rothkopf, curator of the Whitney museum and co-curator of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (opens in new tab) at the Guggenheim Bilbao, says he remembers an 'embarrassing' photo of himself in shorts and sandals taken years ago in front of Puppy, Koons' giant floral canine on the Bilbao waterfront. And who hasn't, on a summer city break, been snapped doing jazz hands beside Puppy or Balloon Dog or Popeye?

Yet few of us, Rothkopf included, might have predicted these larger-than-life statuettes would gain widespread critical in our time. Or that Koons would transcend to international treasure from the artist who cost too much, partied too much and shared way too much.

At least that is what this monumental show - third in a travelling suite that included the Whitney Museum of Art (opens in new tab) and the Centre George Pompidou (opens in new tab) - seems to suggest.

The sheer scope of the exhibition - from the artist's heady early days down, quite literally via spiral staircase, to his more recent work on the main floor - illustrates an artist constantly working, thinking, pushing, tempting. His is the classic short man's desire to bring people together in a so-called 'Dionysian festival' of viewership.

Frank Gehry's multifaceted Guggenheim building is the venue for it. As Koons said ahead of the opening on Monday, 'I've never seen my work look more elegant than here. Within this architecture the works take on a comfortable aspect.' You could hardly disagree.

Over more than a year on tour, Koons, has had time to reflect on his four decades exploring new and expressive forms in art. He speaks like a man who is at peace with his message and medium, spouting affirmations like a proper 12-stepper drinking the Jeff Koons Kool-Aid. 'Once you have self-acceptance,' he says, 'you reach a higher stage of acceptance of others. Trust in yourself in order to achieve your potential.' If he's had any weakness, 'it's been not accessing my highest state of consciousness.'

The overarching theme of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective is reflection - of the self and the environment. From an early age accompanying his father to the family's interior decoration store, Koons has thought about the power of reflection to affect how we feel. His most effective works use the power of reflection to entice, then invite further reflection on our feelings of love and disdain, internal and external, luxury and kitsch, modernism and the Baroque.

The latest works pair gargantuan plaster casts with mirrored blue 'gazing balls', ornaments that enjoyed popularity in the 1500s before popping up again in the residential gardens of America. 'They have a generosity that reflects you, affirms you,' says Koons.

Rothkopf announces a 'surprise' through every doorway in Gehry's unpredictable building. No surprises here, just the inexorable quest for perfection, the desire to please, what Rothkopf rightly calls 'the finger-in-socket, sugar-jolt of pop art'.

At 60, Koons is back at work, investigating new and expressive forms in marble and granite. He's not close to being done, retrospective or no. I'm with Rothkopf when he says, 'I look forward to the sequel.'

Koons artwork

Koons says he has never seen his work displayed in an environment as elegant as Frank Gehry's sleek architecture for the Guggenheim Bilbao. Gehry's work makes his art pieces seem 'comfortable,' he contends. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao)

spacious rooms of the Guggenheim

The artist's inflatables and manipulated photographs are once again at the core of his retrospective and coexist harmoniously in the spacious rooms of the Guggenheim.

(Image credit: Erika Ede)

'Dirty Jeffs' series

The pornographic sculptures and photographs of his 'Dirty Jeffs' series moreover convey the voyeurist mindset of contemporary societies and the influences of capitalism. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

(Image credit: Erika Ede)

Pink Balloon Dog, Blue Moon and Cat on a Clothesline

His infamous Pink Balloon Dog takes centre stage, surrounded by Blue Moon and Cat on a Clothesline. Photography: Erika Ede. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

(Image credit: Erika Ede)

Hoover Convertibles

The New Hoover Convertibles are placed side by side, occupying the centre of the room. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

(Image credit: Erika Ede)

Koons' classical sculptures

Koons' classical sculptures cast in shiny stainless-steel and decorated with fake flowers merge present and past through the odd pairing of incompatible subject matter and materials. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

(Image credit: Erika Ede)

'Michael Jackson and Bubbles.'

Michael Jackson wears gold wih Koons' 'Michael Jackson and Bubbles.' Photography: Erika Ede. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

(Image credit: Erika Ede)

Two inflatable bunnies

Two inflatable bunnies share the fame at Koons' retrospective; one claiming colour and the other boasting silver stainless-steel. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao)

Liberty Bell imagined, Hulk, imagined

On the right: Koons' Liberty Bell imagined in 2006; on the left: Hulk, imagined in 2004. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao)

Giant dog

Koons declares that his artistic achievements are brimming with self-consciousness. If he's had any weakness, he declares, 'it's been not accessing my highest state of consciousness.' 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao)

multicoloured tulips

A bouquet of patinated-steel and multicoloured tulips lies on the ground, outside of the museum. Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

(Image credit: Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao)

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