Jeff Koons is widely considered to be one of the most significant artists to have emerged in the postwar era. Since the late 1970s, his diverse work has explored themes pertaining to taste, consumerism, mass culture, beauty, acceptance, and the role of the artist.
‘Now’ was the first major UK exhibition to be devoted to the artist since ‘Jeff Koons: Popeye Series’, at the Serpentine Gallery in 2009. Spanning thirty-five years of the artist’s extraordinary career, ‘Now’ featured over thirty paintings, works on paper and sculptures dating from 1979 to 2014. Drawn from Hirst’s collection, a number of the works had never before been shown in the UK.
Tracing the development of the artist’s radical reconfiguration of the readymade, the exhibition featured one of Koons’s earliest works, Inflatable Flowers (Short White, Tall Purple) (1979), a vinyl blow-up flower displayed on a mirrored floor tile.
Signalling the conception of one of Koons’s most enduring themes – the inflatable – it was here presented alongside a number of his iconic Hoover sculptures. Part of The New series (1980–1983), the wall-mounted Hoovers – in which immaculate, unused household appliances are displayed in fluorescent-lit, acrylic boxes – date from Koons’s time working as a Wall Street commodities broker. Two of the Hoovers, which remain eternally pristine despite being outdated, were included in Koons’s first solo exhibition, at New York’s New Museum in 1980. Part of that installation – originally displayed in the museum’s storefront windows – was reassembled for this exhibition. For the artist, the readymade, whether in the form of a child’s toy, Baroque sculpture or advertising billboard, provides “the most objective statement possible”.
Having begun his career focusing on the status of the object, ‘Now’ demonstrated how Koons quickly embarked on his lifelong investigation into the means by which objects are represented and communicated. With his sculptures cast in stainless steel, he returned to the inflatable; seductively replicating pre-existing objects in the gleaming, simulated opulence of the proletarian material. Employing cutting-edge technology, seemingly fragile, air-filled vinyl blow-ups and balloon animals are reproduced in stainless steel, sometimes rendered on the monumental scale of Balloon Monkey (Blue) (2006–2013), which was exhibited in Newport Street’s double-height gallery. The reflective surfaces of these sculptures serve to “constantly remind viewers of their existence”, as Koons maintains, “it’s all about you”.
Koons’s enduring ability to delight, fascinate and provoke is evident throughout this broad survey. Employing easily-identified images, he explores social mobility in the Equilibrium Nike posters, the ways alcohol is advertised to different demographics in Luxury and Degradation, and the evocative imagery of childhood toys represented in Celebration. Whilst with his Made in Heaven series – erotic scenes involving the artist and his then-wife Ilona Staller (aka ‘La Cicciolina’) – he investigates the stigma and shame that inheres in contemporary conceptions of sexuality, succeeding in transforming the erotic into a study of: “the biological eternal… the preservation of life, the continuation of life”.
Summarised by curator and critic Norman Rosenthal as “manifestations of a joyful acceptance of American culture”, Koons’s work – which filled Newport Street’s six, expansive galleries – challenges and teases in equal measure, reflecting as much on the profundities of our existence as the banalities of daily life.