On ViewPalazzo Strozzi
October 2, 2021 – January 30, 2022
Jeff Koons. Shine is Koons’s most recent exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. This extensive exhibition features over 30 of the artist’s most lionized and varied works spanning from the 1970s until the present. The ambitious and grandiose show, curated by Joachim Pissarro and Arturo Galansino, and executed in close collaboration with Koons, matches the artist’s equally ambitious and grandiose vision.
The title of the exhibition belies a deeper reflection on the etymological kinship between “shine” and its Germanic cousin “schein” (appearance) as both derive from the same source. This (Freudian) pun intends to question the notions between surface-level appearance and deeper truth. The concept is lent to the public as a tool to help explore the leading themes in Koons’s work: the notion of appearance and the difference which informs the physical “being” and the metaphysical “seeming.” The word “shine,” and the connotation that it carries, is the common quality of all the exhibited pieces and stands in stark contrast to the rusticated, matte stone of the renaissance building of the Florentine Palazzo Strozzi. To Koons, however, the concept of shine transcends the decorative or ornamental to instead become an integral facet of his work that leads to a more metaphysical dimension.
The Palace’s inner courtyard serves the purpose of a curtain-raiser to the show as it welcomes the titanic six-meter-long and five-ton heavy Balloon Monkey (Blue) (2006–13). It is as if Koons’s celebrated sculpture has chosen the cortile as its zoo cage, contained by surrounding arcades. Monumental and ostentatious, the sculpture, other than setting the tone for the exhibition, also sets monumental expectations. Walking up the stairs of the Palace, the (literal) promise of Shine is promptly delivered. One can already discern the glitter and sparkle that intensifies as the Koons exhibition nears.
The showcase opens with the Seated Ballerina (2010-2015), an evident salute to Aristide Maillol and perhaps Edgar Degas. Still and grand, the sculpture is an antithesis of an archetypical ballerina: vivacious and petite. The grand scale highlights its quietude, and, although glittery, it is in harmony with the 16th-century architecture of Palazzo Strozzi. The unexpected symbiosis between the first sculpture and the architectural style eases us into the rest of the show.
The viewer enters an analogous emotional state when approaching the Bluebird Planter (2010–2016), a two-meter-tall bird, whose back is covered with real plants. It is an irrational feeling—why would a colossal and intimidating bird promote a soothing air of tranquillity? The explanation appears to be the sense of familiarity this common bird evokes. The infantile, Disney-esque bird awakens our careless memories of childhood and appreciation of nature. Although bluebird numbers have declined severely due to unsuccessful competition with house sparrows and starlings, we can rest assured that Koons has forever immortalized one of them.
Childhood appears to be a leitmotif in Koons’s work. The aura of youth is particularly tangible in the case of the Duchamp-inspired Daedalian inflatables, Hulk (Tubas) (2004–2018), Lobster (2007–2012), Dolphin (2002), Inflatable Flowers (Four Tall Purple with Plastic Figures) (1978), and One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding
Dr. JK 241 Series) (1985), which were displayed next to one another. Koons’s ready-mades represent his desire to recollect childhood moments through common objects. Nearby, the notorious Rabbit (1986) crosscuts through Koons’s most recurring themes: childhood and sexuality. The robotic coney is what one would imagine future children’s toys found in urban settlements on the moon or Mars to look like. However, the innocence of this stainless-steel bunny, made to look like a helium balloon, is just a façade masterfully exploited by the artist to camouflage the virility and masculine energy associated with rabbits. Although commentators are often quick to turn exclusively to sexuality as a fixed unit of analysis to unpack the oblique meaning of Koons’s work, this is a rather myopic interpretation. Rather, the artist seems to be more intrigued by a related subcategory of sexuality—fertility. Rabbit (1986) alludes to this quality, as the animal’s famed reproductive ability has made it synonymous with fertility.
Shine also succeeds in revealing Koons’s efforts to establish a nexus between antiquity and the contemporary. The artist’s appreciation of cultural ancestry can be recognised when approaching the two Venus statues from Koons’s “Antiquity” series, which face one another, as if in dialogue. Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red) (2013-2019), a dramatic bulbous sculpture inspired by a nude figure from the Gravettian period, as well as the Balloon Venus Dolni Vestonice (Violet) (2013-2017), a much more anaemic and abstract interpretation of a palaeolithic female figure, is an evident attempt to re-introduce and re-invent ancient figurines in a modern context. Significantly bigger than the original statues yet staying true to the morphology of the ancient Venus figures of fertility, the viewers reflect on the curves and twists of their polished stainless-steel silhouette. The reflections make us feel included, ourselves an integral part of the art and thus absorb us as a part of the history of our civilization.
Koons employs the same tactic in the “Gazing Ball” series, calling us to re-evaluate our relationship with reality and the work of art by engineering a feeling of inclusiveness. Koons introduces parity between the past and present by inserting hand blown blue glass spheres into reproductions of classic European masterpieces. Paintings such as Gazing Ball (Rubens Tiger Hunt) (2015), Gazing Ball (Titian Diana and Actaeon) (2014–2015) and sculptures such as Gazing Ball (Diana) (2013) or Gazing Ball (Apollo Lykeios) (2013), share their reflective quality with many of his older pieces. However, the significance of the reflective properties of the Gazing Ball series is different, inserting us rather than absorbing. To Koons, our reflections that might be discerned when viewing pieces such as Balloon Dog (Red) (1994-2000), Sacred Heart (1994-2007) or Rabbit (1986) serve the purpose of inviting the viewer to have conversation with the work itself. In contrast, the reflective balls placed in front of iconic artworks from the western canon allow the spectators to see themselves in the canon of art history.
Watching the spectators approach Koons’s pieces and hypnotically stare at their own reflection echoes the Greek myth of Narcissus. Walking close to Koons’s sculptures turns us all into hopeless narcissists. The artist’s success is partially rooted in acknowledging and utilizing this fact. Indeed, it appears that Koons has outsmarted us all. Whether one recognizes the value of his work and engineering dexterity or dismisses it as kitsch and banal, one thing is certain: when seeing his shiny works in real life, it is difficult to resist them. Why, one could ask? By making his works shiny and curvy, Koons bypasses our subjective taste and instead deviously appeals to our evolutionary psychology. Studies concluded that humans have a preference for shiny objects due to a primitive, biological desire of water as a valuable resource (Meert et al. 2014). Furthermore, we have an innate proclivity for curvy and circular shapes, as objects with sharp angles suggest threat or injury (Child et al. 1968). The above are the ingredients for Koons’s appeal, while his “banal” work reveals an ugly truth about us: we are vain and primitive after all.
- Kastl, Albert J. and Irvin L. Child (1968) “Emotional meaning of four typographical variables,” Journal of Applied Psychology 52(6): 440–46.
- Meert, K., Pandelaere, M., Patrick, V. (2014), “Taking a Shine to It: How the Preference for Glossy stems from an innate need for water,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24(2): 195-206.