Jeff Koons, the name conjures it all. You envision colorful kitsch in a grandiosity of scale that takes fanciful thoughts executed with a precise perfection. It’s such a boring idea to dislike Koons, or to try to have a conversation of what he means or reflects in the state of art because he is already built into the art books, (minor as that signification truly is), but nonetheless he is ordained. Koons has been doing his brand of art for over thirty years and his impact, although not enough to garner an “ism”, has had seismic effect in the visual arts. Currently, there are two fantastic shows on Koons and his legacy at two locations in Frankfurt Germany. One focuses on his paintings and is at the Schrin Kunsthalle and the other focuses on his sculptures at the Liegieghaus Skulturensammlung. They are respectively entitled JEFF KOONS. THE PAINTER and JEFF KOONS. THE SCULPTOR. If there was ever a title(s) to encapsulate the ego, these are it. Regardless of the title, these shows are very good, one more then the other, but nonetheless, they evidence an artistic practice, evolution and thought that is beyond just impressive production. They show an accessible intelligence and also the impossible yet persisting relevance of visuality.
The Shrin Kunsthalle is a more typical exhibition space that presents the painting portion of this two-show affair. It is modern and white and has the lighting and static air that makes anything within radiate seriousness and importance by merely being fastened to the wall. The space has a feeling of a long corridor. You enter at the middle of the space and at the beginning of Koons’ investigations into consumable goods and pop-culture images. The painting component, as well as the sculptural, picks from his various series executed over the years such as, “Celebration,” “EasyFun-Ethereal,” “Made in Heaven,” “Luxury and Degradation” etc. (all are graciously viewable on the artist’s website). There is a concise sampling of all of his series that must be credited to the exhibition’s curators, Vinzenz Brinkmann, Matthias Ulrich, and Joachim Pissarro. Kudos!
Paintings always reveal the human touch and although this also holds true for Koons, he gets damn close to erasing this. This quest to devoid painting of expressive gesture is fascinating in its execution. The subject matter used to achieve this are things like, consumer products, cartoons, porn, fashion, advertisements, and a slew of other materialized vices that makes the paintings visual confection. There is an activated familiarity with using these types of images that makes what’s happening with them, to them even more befuddling. There are two particular works from his “EasyFun/Easy Ethereal” series that were gems to see, Bagel from 2002 and Lips from 2000. Here collage and the cut-up are oddly familiar in both past use ways like that of Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art and also in now/future ways like digital paintings and 3D interiors and imagined virtual spaces. These two works in particular also touch on a general vulgarity that permeates all of Koons’ works, most especially his paintings. There is the more direct evidence of this as in of his “Made in Heaven” series which predominantly features him and his ex-wife, Cicciolina, having sex and exploring orifices. These works gets to the point quickly but there is also this other use of parts of the body, usually female, that has a bizarre charge of sexual obsession, dislocation or to be frank a juvenile focus. It is sexual but not sexy. There is a distanced gaze and perversion of sensation that can be blinked away as awkward pubescent unknowing.
The sex issues can go one for chapters but back to the show. The works are like measuring tapes of various techniques, images and themes that seem to have peeked a curiosity with Koons and with each successive year the compositions and the way in which they are executed become more and more complex. It’s like watching a video of a child go from toddler to highschooler, fascinating, awkward, and easy to believe. Newer paintings from his “Popeye” series are just mind-boggling in their flatness and his use of cartoons and child toys abound through this series as well as others. These cartoons should conjure an easy-breezy-mass-appeal feeling, but seeing them all together there is something very off, even possibly sad.
Some of the more seductive works are newer works are from his “Antiquity” series, such as Antiquity Dots 2, 2009-2012 which has a Betty Page-esque women straddling an inflatable dolphin and she is about to kiss an inflatable money. The backsplash of bindi dots, the child marker doodle overlay and the stone figures from antiquity, one with a massive erection, makes this painting so “now” it is oddly grimacing. The digital-ness of the collage is also so obvious and seemingly so meaningless but it is this digital touch that makes all the difference. The mechanical annihilation of the painter is in full effect here. Truly, the only way these newer works reveal themselves as oil on canvas is getting nose close to the surface and seeing the canvas’ tooth.
Next, down the way towards the river and to the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung which hosts the sculptural portion of the show. It is here that things get very interesting. The Liebierghaus is the type of building you think about when you think “Europe” in an old fashioned way. It was built in 1909 and is houses works spanning 5,000 years from Ancient Egypt to Neoclassism. It is stone and marble and wood and dim. For this show, sculptural works by Koons, forty-four precisely, spanning 30 or so years are interspersed through the permanent collection of rare and ancient artifacts and works of art. Such an ego-maniacal thing to do right?! Well yes, but no. There is a startling bravado to this act, placing his Ushering in Banality, 1988, which is made of ghastly colored polychrome wood and has cherubs and a boy pushing along a pig with a green bow next to relics and crosses and crying Virgin Marys from thousands of years ago, is just audacious but also a moment of ah-ha. The act of considering oneself as equal, as rare, as historical as these more ancient artifacts is appalling, downright tacky really, but the more one goes through the exhibition, it weirdly makes sense. Koons' work does not gain in signification due to the context but it being installed there together makes all of it, the old and the new equal in their significance and nothingness.
There are some pieces that work better then others, the polychrome wood sculptures that have a folk twist are just not interesting and the plastic porcelain pieces have always felt off like Pink Panther, 1988 but there are others that are so fantastic and possess this feeling of belonging such as Rabbit, 1986, Wishing Well, 1988 and even the more cartoon works like Titi Tire, 2003 which has inflatable Tweety birds made of aluminum and a rubber car tire in one of the top floor’s octagonal rooms that house rare books and artifacts. It’s funny, absurd, but seems just fine.
Some of the most successful selections were the new metal works from his “Antiquity” series and the Hulk sculptures from his “Hulk Elvis” series. One of the new “Antiquity” works utilizes Koons’ signature use of balloon animal/forms, this one entitled Balloon Venus, 2008-2012, that is a massive, eight and a half feet in height, and is a metallic fuchsia, Zen posing balloon women reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf and other archeologically excavated female carvings. There is a bulbous fertility in the form that was clearly modeled from a latex balloon. The placement of this work and all of its symbolic references conjures timelessness. The other work from this series, Metallic Venus, 2010-2012, is super wow. It was in one of the building’s alcoves with walls painted bright red and had bright overhead lighting. It is a metallic aqua blue of a self-revealing woman whose head is tilted back till the point of dissolving its form and a draped plinth next to her with a vase with live flowers. The material of this sculpture and of Balloon Venus is “high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating” and it is this material and the way it is used that make these works in particular seem like the future. The liquidity of the material, the smoothness and the way the surface reflects and bounced light and mirrors is like nothing seen before. There is a lightness in these that are quoted in the earlier metal works like in Rabbit but here it is taken to a very different place of actualization and feeling.
In the “Hulk Elvis” series’, Hulk Friends, 2004-2012 and Hulks (Bell), 2004-2012, also show this next phase of material realization. Both Hulk sculptures use inflatable(s) of that character in the scale that it could originally be purchased at a toy store. The Hulk Friends is located at the bottom of the stairs and it is like this odd sentient waiting for you to enter. On his shoulder, he has a crew of smaller cute critters that look like an aural entourage. Both the Hulk and his pals look like inflatable plastic toys. They look like they are filled with air and their little plugs look like you can pop them open and let all that air out. There are crinkles on the Hulk’s purple pants that are from being pressed into a box before inflation. It all looks so like what you think it is. But of course it isn’t plastic and air, instead it is polychromed bronze and probably weighs a gagillion pounds. This is also true for Hulks (Bells), which are also unbelievable in their illusions. In this case the context of being in a room with art from Asia that show demons, Buddhas, Vishnu’s and yogi’s makes it all seem very interchangeable. It is here that the sense of connection and belonging really hits home. There is a reason why the Hulk is the Hulk, he wasn’t created from nothing, he is another character, another embodied symbol that is as significant and insignificant as any other interpretation of character or tool to tell a tale.
The show being in Frankfurt Germany and at these institutions assists in the subtly of what it means to paint, what it means to sculpt, and the relevancies and historical arc of making pictures and objects to reflect a time. In these shows and throughout his career, Koons seems to make an unapologetic claim to significance that is too brilliant and ballsy to disqualify. His work in singulars are many times flawed, dull and regurgitative but there are moments, very clear moments, when they get to the place it was meant to go. There seems to be something distinct happening in Koons’ atelier in 2012 that is changing the game in how material can be pushed, not in the conversation of “materiality” but getting to an alchemically transformative zone. It’s going to blow our minds for sure. Some think Koons is a one trick pony. Sure there is a besmirched mischievous twinkling gleam in his eyes when it comes to his art but there is much more then one trick up his sleeve. He’s more like Santa Claus and he makes magic toys for the art world and we are all greedy-greedy children.