Beyeler Foundation presents one of the most ambitious Jeff Koons exhibitions to date and the first ever in a Swiss museum. Three periods of his work are covered in depth, with fifty pieces, many of them of iconic stature, filling the spaces and park at Beyeler.

Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–98,  Oil on canvas, 282.7 x 331.9 cm, European private collection © Jeff Koons Photo: Jeff Koons Studio / Tom Powel

Jeff Koons (b.1955) is one of the best known artists today, but he is often derided for the gaudiness of his art. To repair what it considers an injustice, the prestigious Beyeler Foundation in Riehen stages a show that is powerful, playful and surprisingly pleasing.

“Jeff Koons brings great art to the general public. He is highly inventive in terms of ideas and extremely relevant as an artist,” declared the usually reserved Sam Keller, director of the Beyeler Foundation.

“This is a dream come true, an amazing adventure, one of the most memorable in my life,” he said of the collaboration with the artist. Coming from the man who directed Art Basel for 15 years until 2007 and founded Art Basel Miami, his enthusiasm is not taken lightly.

The Beyeler Foundation, Switzerland’s most-visited art museum, has succeeded in bringing together 50 works by Koons, which is no small feat considering that most have been loaned from private collections and many weigh several tons. The result is an exhibition where the exuberant art of Koons unfolds surprisingly well into the cool elegance of the Renzo Piano building.

Three distinct periods of the artist’s work are on display, all variations on the theme of the “ready-made” inspired by Marcel Duchamp, the French artist of urinal fame. Duchamp’s idea that art is in the eye of the beholder is central to Koons’ strategy. He said that his objects require our presence “to exist as art”, and that they are there “to expand our possibilities”.

The New

The first period, entitled “The New” (1980-87) presents never-used vacuum cleaners and carpet cleaners stacked in shiny Plexiglas boxes. Their florescent splendor casts a cool light on an angelic sepia portrait of Koons as a child, as well as a fake advertisement that runs the entire length of a wall. The artist is challenging us to look at these objects in a “new” way.

“Jeff calls these breathing machines,” explained Theodora Vischer, who co-curated the show with Keller. Capitalizing on the image of sexuality that trails behind Koons since the publication of “Made in Heaven”, the graphic pictures of variation penetrations of his former wife, Vischer spoke of the androgynous quality of the appliances, “with their orifices and sucking power”.

Banality

The second period is entitled “Banality” (1988) and includes the traditionally crafted sculptures in porcelain and wood that were to earn Koons the title of King of Kitsch.

Italian and German craftsmanship worthy of a 17th century baroque church give us Michael Jackson and his monkey Bubbles, Buster Keaton on a diminutive wooden horse, Teddy bears and cherubs, panthers and mermaids. Welcome to Walt Disney meets 3D!

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, Porcelain, The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica © Jeff Koons, Photo: Jeff Koons Studio / Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles

“The first thing I want to communicate to the viewer is that these objects are perfect,” Koons stressed. But they are also empty and can therefore serve as conduits (“transponders” said Koons). “Everything here is a metaphor for our cultural guilt and shame,” he stated obscurely, adding, “It’s about removing judgment and creating your own perfect moment.” Now you know.

The Banality series launched Koons’ international career with simultaneous exhibitions in top galleries in Cologne, Chicago and New York. Critics were mystified. Many, such as the renowned Robert Hughes, remain vitriolic to this day.

Sam Keller refutes the negative appraisals: “Jeff Koons is not kitsch. His great quality is that he overcomes the divide between popular and high culture, low and high art.” He then, somewhat naively produced a litany of arguments in an attempt to demolish the criticisms that are repeatedly leveled at the artist.

“I ask that you really look at the work,” he pleaded. “Try to report facts and opinions, not gossip.”

No, Koons does not run a factory, even if he doesn’t make the works himself. His innovative approaches to craftsmanship and studio practices speak great lengths of his creativity. “He is a conductor of great symphonic orchestras,” who oversees every detail.

No, he is not just a sculptor; he is also great painter who is taking techniques to new heights. Just look at the thousands of paint strokes, Keller insisted…

No, he is not market-driven and yes, his works are expensive, because the production is small and costly and there are more collectors than there are available pieces. The sellers are the ones getting rich, Keller maintained, not the artist.

Celebration

The third series, “Celebration” is more consensual. It was started almost 20 years ago, after his “Made in Heaven” to co-star Ilona Staller, known as Cicciolina, came to an end and she disappeared to Italy with their son. The works that belong to this on-going corpus are to remind Ludwig that his father was thinking of him.

Objects relating to childhood, balloon dogs, party hats, hearts, Easter eggs and birthday cakes, are celebrated by oversized sculptures and paintings.

Although the sculptures create an illusion of weightlessness, they are in fact made of high chromium stainless steel and can weigh several tons.  Each one belongs to a series of five unique versions in different colors.  The oil canvasses, most of which wouldn’t even fit through a garage door, are hyperrealistic to an uncanny degree.

There is a giddy innocence in Koons’ toy land, although the perfection of the pieces can be overwhelming. “The first thing these objects want to do is affirm your existence,” declared Koons, no less mysteriously. “That’s why I use reflective surfaces. Inside becomes outside: We are the ready-mades!”

SPLIT-ROCKER AND THE ARTIST AS ART

A fine-boned man of medium height, Koons has an engaging smile and a look of wonderment and innocence. As he paraded through the show at the press opening, he was joined by his wife, Jasmine, and their five lively children, all under the age of ten.

Koons and family, Beyeler Foundation, 11 May 2012, photo Michèle Laird

They have had a busy and tiring week, said Keller, as they all helped with the construction of Split-Rocker, the half-pony, half-dinosaur floral sculpture that stands a towering 12 meters tall in the park of the Beyeler Foundation, covered by tens of thousands of flowering plants coming into bloom

Jeff Koons ambled through the rooms in his elegant suit, graciously stopping for the throng of photographers and striking well-rehearsed, elaborate poses. His works paled in his magnetic presence, giving the impression that the greatest thing about his art, may be Koons himself.

Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, Beyeler, photo Michèle Laird

ADDITIONAL INFO

  • Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1955 and educated in Baltimore and Chicago. He lives and works in New York City.
  • Koons has so far created 14 bodies of work that he has entitled: Inflatables, Pre-New, The New, Equilibrium, Luxury and Degradation, Statuary, Banality, Made in Heaven, Celebration, Easyfun, Easyfun-Ethereal, Popeye, Hulk Elvis and Antiquity.
  • Split-Rocker, the floral sculpture at Beyeler was first installed in 2000 in the historical environments of Palais des Papes in Avignon and in 2008 at Versailles Palace.
  • His first monumental floral sculpture Puppy (1992) is now permanently on display at the Guggenheim Bilbao. A stainless steel armature holds over 70’000 plants in 25 tons of soil watered by an internal irrigation system.
  • Koons has an outdoor project for a full-size replica of a steam locomotive dangling vertically for Los Angeles County Museum of Art and/or High Line, the elevated park on a formerly derelict rail line in New York.
  • Koons has been sued for copyright violation four times (by three photographers and the Garfield comic strip owners), losing three of the cases. In a role reversal, Koons attacked a San Francisco gallery in 2011 for selling bookends that resemble his famous “Balloon Dog” sculpture. He has now dropped the case.
  • The Koons Family International Law and Policy Institute for the purpose of combating global issues of child abduction and exploitation was founded in 2007. In 2008, Koons lost his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against Italy’s decision to give custody of his son, Ludwig, to his ex-wife, Ilona Staller.
  • Jeff Koons has received numerous awards and honors in recognition of his cultural achievements. He was made Honorary Member of the Royal Academy, London in 2010 and in 2007 he was promoted from Chevalier to Officer of the French Legion of Honor. He was elected to the American Academy for Arts and Sciences in 2005.
  • Damien Hirst plans to open a public gallery in south London in 2014 to house his private art collection, including works by Jeff Koons, a favorite artist and friend of his.
  • A major Jeff Koons retrospective will open in January 2014 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in June 2014 (just before the museum moves to meatpacking district of Manhattan) and Pompidou Center in Paris in December 2014.

KOONS STATEMENTS

  • “I’ve made what the Beatles would have made if they had made sculpture. Nobody ever said that the Beatles’ music was not on a high level, but it appealed to a mass audience. That’s what I want to do.” (1992)
  • “I use the Baroque to show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal. The church uses the Baroque to manipulate and seduce, but in return it does give the public a spiritual experience.” (1992)
  • “My works are very “Pop”. Each time I look at Pop Art it’s like a little explosion, very upbeat. I hope that my works, too, have that kind of rejuvenation, that each time you look at it you feel a sense of pop.” (1996)
  • “The reason why I like archetypes so much, is that for some reason they communicate completely across cultures.” (1996)
  • “When I make an artwork, I try to use craft as a way, hopefully, to give the viewer a sense of trust. I never want anybody to look at a painting, or to look at a sculpture, and to lose trust in it somewhere. … (2000)
  • “People don’t part so easily with their money. They think about things, especially when there are millions involved. When they acquire my work, I hope they have felt something emotionally, felt moved and invigorated and understand hopefully that there is some social value.” (May 2012)

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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