Jeff Koons is reaching back into art history with his new series “Antiquity,” exploring the goddess of love in huge glossy metallic sculptures such as the magenta “Balloon Venus” and turquoise “Metallic Venus.”
They tower over ancient figures in Frankfurt’s Liebieghaus museum, where Koons’s work is interspersed among sculptures from antiquity to the 19th century. “Jeff Koons: The Painter and Sculptor” is showing at two venues in Germany’s banking capital. The paintings are at the Schirn Kunsthalle, where a screen protects minors from X-rated, hyper-real depictions of Koons and his porn-star ex-wife having sex.
We meet at the Liebieghaus, where Koons is giving minute instructions to curators installing his weighty pieces. “Metallic Venus,” made of stainless steel, is what he terms a “ready-made” -- a copy of a 19th-century Hungarian porcelain.
She stands 8 feet tall: A curvaceous woman in gleaming turquoise who lifts her robe over her head to expose her naked body. Koons explains that the model refers to the ancient Roman marble statue Callipygian Venus, literally “Venus of the beautiful buttocks.” She is displayed in a red rotunda.
“So it creates this very strange purple color, very sensual,” Koons says. “You see your own reflection, because the piece is affirming your own existence, but you kind of get lost in this richness of color, almost like velvet.”
Koons, a fit-looking 57-year-old in smart-casual clothing, once did a stint selling mutual funds and stocks at First Investors Corp. on Wall Street to fund his art production.
He is prized by some of the world’s wealthiest collectors. His “Hanging Heart” sold for $23.6 million in 2007, at the time a record price for a living artist at auction. In 2008, a “Balloon Flower” of his sold for $25.8 million.
Though prices since have dropped, his sculptures regularly fetch millions. As well as the Frankfurt shows, a solo exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel currently features Koons’s works from three series.
Lenders to the Frankfurt exhibition include billionaires Eli Broad and Nicolas Berggruen. An art collector himself, Koons says he doesn’t pay much attention to the market.
“I don’t want to be naive about things,” he says. “In the long run, what I get from art is the vastness that it gives my life, the consciousness, the possibilities for understanding life.
“The aspects of economic value and the things that follow art, they are about the type of support that your community sees in your endeavors, or the protection that people want to give these things,” he says. “If you are doing something that is interesting, they follow.”
Koons speaks about the quest for “acceptance,” saying that his interest in “ready-mades,” or objects such as vacuum cleaners that he exhibits as sculptures, was “to find something and say, ‘it’s perfect, I don’t want to change anything.’”
This “acceptance” seems at odds with the fierce perfectionism he displays in his metal sculptures. During a tour, curator Vinzenz Brinkmann describes Koons as a “control freak” in both the execution of his works, which can take years and cost millions, and in setting up the exhibition.
A new work features apparently inflatable Incredible Hulks that actually weigh almost a ton each and are made of bronze. Every crease in the blown-up plastic surface is immaculately detailed, yet even the hulks’ matted green hair is made of plated bronze.
Like many of the works on show, they were produced at a factory near Frankfurt. Koons is a regular visitor to the city.
“There are many things in German culture that I have a great respect for, along with the engineering and the commitment to workmanship,” Koons says. “In different cultures you look for different things. I tried to make porcelain pieces in Germany but the companies were too inflexible.
“They said ‘Oh we only make porcelain plates, I can’t make something figurative,” he says. “I went to Italy and they said ‘We only make porcelain plates, but maybe I can do that.’”
“Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” a larger-than-life gilded porcelain portrayal of the pop star and his chimp, is shown here in a room full of Egyptian mummies. Though Koons produced it while Jackson was still alive, it is strangely appropriate as a memorial with the singer’s uncertain smile and ghostly pallor. The luminous dark eyes of both Jacko and Bubbles are mirrored in the lashless orbs of the mummies.
It is the only apparent allusion to death and darkness in the exhibition. Koons’s art focuses on themes like love, beauty, desire and childhood, and is unapologetically cheerful with its party colors and cartoon characters.
I ask whether it’s difficult to remain so upbeat in times of crisis and upheaval. Koons says that the most uncertain era he has experienced was after the terror attacks on New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
“The type of work I created during that time may have had a mild shift, but always looking forward,” he says. “I believe in survival, I love life, I never fall back on the dark side.”
“Jeff Koons. The Painter and Sculptor” is on at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung and the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt through Sept. 23. Sponsors include Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Information: http://koons-in-frankfurt.de/
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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