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The whimsy of Jeff Koons takes over NYC museum

NEW YORK: Jeff Koons is taking over the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The contemporary artist’s oversized toy-like sculptures of a dog, gorilla, Popeye and other works spanning a three-decade career will fill nearly the entire museum through the summer and autumn months.

“Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” is the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work – and the Whitney’s final show at its Madison Avenue location before moving downtown to a Renzo Piano-designed building in 2015.

Koons is arguably one of the most popular living artists today. Last year, he became the most expensive living artist too when his “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold for $58.4 million at auction.

“From tchotchkes [aka knickknacks] and kitsch objects to working with pop stars like Lady Gaga on her recent album cover,” said Scott Rothkopf, a Koons expert and curator of the exhibition, “he’s a rare artist who’s managed to find a broad audience.”

Four years in the making, the show’s planning and installation has been a herculean task for the museum. For the first time, it had to remove the front doors and find creative ways for getting the monumental pieces to upper floor galleries.

His objects “are quite complicated to install in terms of their rigging and how they can be handled,” Rothkopf said. “They’re heavy. They’re big. They have very fragile surfaces that can crack or chip.

“In terms of weight, size and delicacy, all together they create a trifecta, a perfect storm.”

The museum created full-scale models of some objects to test how they would fit in the elevators. It made videos, 3-D renderings and small models to test clearances. It worked with engineering firms, riggers, Koons’ own team and the objects’ fabricators.

The sculpture court pavers were re-enforced to take the weight of two never-before-seen black granite pieces: A woman reclining in a tub and Popeye planted with live flowers.

“It seems like an appropriate age to have a retrospective on this scale,” said the 59-year-old Koons in an interview. “I was able to develop more work and execute ideas that I wanted to realize.”

His eight children have been an inspiration, he said, adding that his work is about “embracing the things that we love and enjoy” and bringing “a time and memory” from youth “when we were open to everything.”

The exhibition is a survey of his work from 1978 to the present, with the aluminum-cast three-meter-high “Play-Doh” and a re-creation of the Liberty Bell among several new works completed just days before the show’s opening.

Among the exhibition’s 120 works are a Mylar-like balloon dog of polished steel and a gold ceramic Michael Jackson with his pet chimpanzee Bubbles. Early works include vitrine-encased vacuum cleaners and basketballs suspended in water tanks.

Koons’ work is not without controversy, however. In 1990, he created a stir with his “Made in Heaven” series of paintings and sculptures depicting explicit sexual poses with his then-wife – the Italian porn star and politician Ilona Staller, aka La Cicciolina.

These pieces are being shown in a gallery with a parental warning.

“Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” is up at the Whitney Museum June 27-Oct. 19, travels to Paris’ Pompidou Center in November, then on to the Guggenheim Bilbao, in 2015.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 25, 2014, on page 16.

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