Mirrors, vitrines and steel: Reflections on Jeff Koons retrospective at Guggenheim Bilbao

By Mark Sheerin | 18 June 2015

Exhibition: Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, until September 27 2015

Jeff Koons, Puppy (1992), Guggenheim Bilbao© Jeff Koons
US artist Jeff Koons has staying power, innuendo intended. His career spans four decades, in which time he has run the repeated risk of derailing it, thanks to with work potentially too kitsch, too vain, too explicit and too banal for critical consumption.

Now his artistic staying power is celebrated with a major touring retrospective, the Spanish leg of which opened last week. 

The amorous prowess was, but of course, implied by the creation of a series of ‘pornographic’ photos which Koons made for his Made in Heaven series. Enlisting the help of Italian pornstar Cicciolina, the artist bared all and achieved audience penetration far beyond the art world.

Asked at the press launch for just who he made art, Koons’ predictable answer was “Everyone”.

The Guggenheim has kept its selection relatively clean. But for those whom Koons has been a cultural reference point since the 1980s, this extensive show will not disappoint. The artist’s ability to reinvent his practice, series after series, is positively Bowie-esque. But the man himself has but one persona, a cheerful, tanned, spiritual guru.

In person, nowhere to be seen is the irony which you might expect. How else to interpret a life size porcelain model of singer Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee Bubbles? Or an even bigger anthropomorphic beast, his wood-carved bear which accosts a British policeman? Or the shiny steel rabbit which still exudes a Generation X blankness?

These works are just as photogenic as the artist himself proved to be. Like the literary brat pack in New York at the time, Koons hit his stride in the age of style-mag celebrity.

Jeff Koons, Rabbit (1986)© Jeff koons
Perhaps in his earlier work, Koons was a commercial minded cynic who, like Warhol and Dalí played with his fame as just one more art material. But, you might say, the cultural wind changed direction and the posture stuck.

The 60-year-old artist is now inseparable from his taste-free work, preachy about what his product can do for you: in terms of self-acceptance, removal of shame, affirmation, and so on. It’s a conundrum.

Given that, and the sculptural pig led by angels, the monumental kittens in socks, even the 40 foot high floral puppy which waits patiently outside the museum entrance, it is remarkable how much lasting bite, this exhibition offers.

The 1981 vintage vacuum cleaners, in their capsules of Perspex and neon, are as appealing today as the moment they came out of the box. His basketball-filled vitrines look fresher than the shark packaged in this way by Damien Hirst. And his precision engineered steel-lobster-inflatable, suspended from the ceiling, remains bright and crisp.

Works like this have taken several years to make. Few contemporary artists attain such standards of perfection. Koons has used steel, wood, plaster, and porcelain. His paintings take photorealism to a new more exacting degree. And there is a balloon rendering of a prehistoric Venus here, said to be tested and calibrated to levels which exceed those of even the aeronautical industry.

No wonder his work is expensive.

But here is another irony. The longer it takes to make these works, the less they repay your time in terms of contemplation. One of the many icons here is a magenta balloon dog the size of a horse. With its puckered sheen, it is so flawless as to be sterile. Sure you can see your reflection in the various limbs and joints, but that’s about as interesting as the sight which so entranced Narcissus.

Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Ariadne), 2013© Jeff Koons
Mirrors have been a constant in the work of this artist. His earliest works here are inflatable flowers (found objects this time) from the tail end of the 1970s. They are displayed with mirror tiles, inspired we are told, by Robert Smithson.

In 1980 Koons moves on to another de facto mirror, a window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan. And he soon picks up the theme again with stainless steel, which could just be the material which sealed his fame. The most recent work here, the Gazing Ball series, offers up classical statuary together with blown glass balls offering 360 degrees of reflection.

The strategy, if there is one, puts the viewer at the heart of the work. And more to the point, it puts the collector, the critic, the curator and the art historian all at the heart of the sale. He makes art all about his universal audience, and that has surely remained the same, ever since his day job was selling memberships and sponsorship deals at MoMA in 1977.

A final word should be said about Koons’ paintings, which are as just absorbing as his sculptures are glib. They look like digi-prints because they are painted that way, with hyper-realistic detailing and hundreds of spongy fields of colour which build to represent toys, confectionary, pornography, and psychedelic landscapes.

These reveal Koons’ formidable abilities as a technician, his clinical levels of concern for finish and form. It is awesome, but perhaps there is more craft than art in this 40 year show.
  • Admission 10 euros. Open 10am - 8pm Tuesday to Sunday.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's Art section:

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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He doesn't make any of the work ...to refer to Mr. Koons as some sort of master of the art making process is a joke and does a major disservice to anyone who actually tries to make something with their own hands and heart....this clarification must be made. His input is more on the lines of creative director...I know this first hand...I have worked with him.
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