A retrospective of the contemporary artist Jeff Koons opens at the Whitney Museum on Friday, with close to 150 works of art spanning four floors. It's an impressive collection of one of the top-grossing artists of all time, and, perhaps more pressingly, the largest body of selfie-ready artworks the Whitney (and perhaps the world?) has ever seen.
If you follow New York-based, culturally inquisitive people on social networks like Instagram, you’re familiar with this trend. You’ve probably seen more than a few shots of the giant, busty Kara Walker sphinx at the Domino Sugar Factory over the past month. You remember when everyone felt the need to take a selfie in the Rain Room at MoMA last year, or tried to capture the vivid colors of the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim.
Just based on the reactions of the journalists -- phones outstretched, faces studiously deadpan -- at the press preview for the Koons exhibit on Wednesday, this exhibition will experience some serious social media buzz. And why not? The artwork is trademark Koons: bright, aggressively cheery, and often, most importantly, reflective.
Take the yellow, 10 foot-high mirror-polished balloon dog on the fourth floor: stand in front of it with your iPhone, point, and pout. Or grimace. Do whatever you want; Koons is smiling all the way to the bank. Last year a similar balloon dog sold for $58.4 million at auction, and the artist’s personal net worth was recently estimated to be more than $100 million.
Glittering colors have been integral to Koons's art from the very beginning -- his 1981 series of brand-new Hoover vacuums in fluorescent-lit latrines has the banal sparkle you’d expect from his art, just not its trademark monumentality. Blame his lack of funds at the time; he almost bankrupted himself a decade later trying to make art that met his exacting specifications. In fact, the Whitney exhibition is like a tutorial on the perks of artistic superstardom: as his budget grows, so, largely speaking, does the art. By the time you reach his most recent work, like a dull orange, high-chromium, 8.5 foot stainless steel “Balloon Venus,” (2008-12) you can get your entire body into the reflection.
So, start on the second floor with phone in hand: a polished stainless steel replica of a Baccarat crystal set (1986) might distort your face a little, but the likeness is all there. Then make your way to the third floor, where six and a half-foot blue, mirrored-crystal silhouette of a cartoon cow (1999) is hung to reflect your torso on up. Then things get massive on the fourth floor -- a purple, nine and a half-foot mirror-polished stainless steel heart, (1994-2006) is suspended from the ceiling -- its curvature helps you fit your whole family into the picture.
All told, visitors can see their reflections in a solid 25 percent of the artworks on view. Some of the other sculptures, paintings, billboards, and drawings are charming, sure -- his iconic porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with his ill-fated monkey Bubbles remains one of Koons’ best-known works. It’s detailed, meticulously constructed, and deeply weird – the only problem is that its surface lacks a certain something. It could use a little more of, well, you.