Jeff Koon opens first US exhibit in 15 years

May 30, 2008 6:11:17 PM PDT
A gigantic balloon-animal dog painted metallic orange watches over paintings of Popeye, a sculpture of Michael Jackson and portraits of an ex-porn star. Celebratory, kitschy and sometimes explicit, they're the works of Jeff Koons, considered one of the most influential living contemporary artists. And they're on display in his first major U.S. exhibit in nearly 15 years, opening Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Many works in the retrospective show - featuring about 60 paintings and sculptures spanning Koons' career from 1979 through 2007 - incorporate everyday articles, such as Hoover vacuums in glass cases, basketballs suspended in water tanks and children's blowup swimming toys hanging from fences and chains.

"Objects are metaphors of people," Koons, 53, explained in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "All the works are like children, you really put a lot of thought and care into them."

Koons, who has been compared to Andy Warhol, said he has drawn on his own life and interests. Enlarging everyday objects has become one of his signatures, garnering immense popularity and some criticism in highbrow art circles.

"The core of my work is to have transcendence in life. You have to first be able to accept yourself," Koons said. "Then you can take a journey which leads you to the acceptance of others."

One of his iconic images is "Balloon Dog," a more than 10-foot-high stainless steel structure. The balloon animal is for children, but Koons also called it "equestrian and mythic," leaving the viewer to grapple with how "to deal with archetypes."

Koons was a pioneer in his field in the 1980s, setting the stage for numerous other young artists, said Darby English, who teaches art history at the University of Chicago.

At the same time, Koons has developed an intense commercial appeal. He recently designed limited edition T-shirts for Gap.

"Koons has been an important artist for some time," English said. "It's hard to be ambivalent about Koons, either you love him or hate him."

Until May, Koons held the record for the highest price paid at auction for a work by a living artist. His "Hanging Heart" sculpture fetched $23.6 million last November. (British artist Lucian Freud's "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping," got $33.6 million at auction in May.) A similar sculpture to "Hanging Heart," a stainless steel blue heart with bows, hangs near the Chicago exhibit's entrance.

The exhibit has been a homecoming for the artist, who spent one year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and opened his first major show at the Museum of Contemporary Art nearly 20 years ago. Koons also got his start in Chicago, working under Ed Paschke, who used to take him to bars and tattoo parlors to look for ideas.

"The invitation to look at the world around you and use it as source material, he learned that from his experience in Chicago," said Madeleine Grynsztejn, the museum's director.

The show is a major coup for the Chicago museum.

Many of Koons' works on display are so valuable that they were uninsurable, museum officials said. And Koons is a reputed perfectionist, even canceling a 1996 show at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum because of last-minute disagreements about how the works should be presented and budget issues.

He oversaw and planned every inch of the Chicago exhibit's layout. Two days before the opening, he walked around the sculptures as installers lifted statues onto pedestals and hung blowup lobsters from the ceiling with red link chains.

Koons himself is depicted in a series entitled "Made in Heaven," which features several graphic sexual images with his ex-wife Ilona Staller, a former porn star known as La Cicciolina who became a member of Italy's Parliament.

"Sexuality and being open about sexuality and how we procreate is very important, and that they (viewers) don't feel guilt or shame about their own bodies," Koons said.

Other highlights of the show include paintings featuring Popeye, the Incredible Hulk and a 1988 porcelain sculpture of the King of Pop and his pet chimpanzee, called "Michael Jackson and Bubbles."

The show runs through Sept. 21.


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