Jeff Koons: Lost in America
On ViewQatar Museums Gallery
November 21, 2021 – March 31, 2022
Jeff Koons’s Lost in America packs a double-punch. Besides being a well-selected retrospective, it’s also the artist’s first show in a Gulf country. Composed of almost 60 sculptures and paintings that span four decades, it is considerably smaller than the exhibition that filled the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Breuer building in 2014. For another two months, in the ample spaces of the QM Gallery ALRIWAQ in Doha, many of the 67-year-old artist’s most popular works will remain on view. You’ll find basketballs submerged in aquariums; the infamous stainless steel Rabbit; an orange Balloon Dog; a massive, colorful pile of Play-Doh; and Moon (Light Pink), a mirror-like work that’s become a selfie magnet
It’s an illuminating show. Instead of confronting lots of sculptures lite, as some would have it, this retrospective illuminates the changing role objects have played in Koons’s career. Digging deeper, you’ll notice, too, that the terms statues and sculpture are not interchangeable. Though paintings and prints are on display here, the large, three-dimensional works primarily draw our attention. Significantly, the early inflatable flower arrangements as well as the erotically themed paintings that feature Koons and his first wife, Ilona Staller, are absent. The focus is on art that’s joyful, festive, ebullient.
Initially, Koons juxtaposed actual objects much the way Dada and Surrealist artists did. A pair of works from the mid-1980s that greets visitors to Lost in America comprises two different kinds of vacuum cleaners that are encased in tall Plexiglass containers and lit internally by fluorescent tubes. Koons’s ready-mades, like those associated with Marcel Duchamp, Meret Oppenheim, and Joan Miro from the first quarter of the 20th century, evoke Count de Lautreamont’s description of “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Because the short, compact vacuum cleaners resemble a beloved Star Wars character, both works make me feel as if R2D2 is accompanying a 1950s housewife.
But, Koons had more up his sleeve. Instead of continuing to juxtapose objects, he started to transform them as if he were an alchemist. He next cast unlikely things in bronze. Heavy-duty inflatables a sportsman might cherish—a lifeboat with oars, an aqualung—metamorphosed into metallic items that could never be punctured. Importantly, the artist began relying on sophisticated fabricators to execute his latest sculptures.
Then, within a year, Koons cast a group of portrait busts that might have been carved in marble, an ordinary metal or plastic pail, a collectible liquor set, and an inflatable rabbit into gleaming stainless steel. While other Neo-Geo artists were also working with objects, Koons stood apart from his colleagues. At the time, critic Roberta Smith referred to his latest casts as “tough [and] glamorous.” Now, it’s clear he was moving sculpture in a new direction.
More and more, Koons enlarged commonplace objects you might find decorating the sitcom family homes of the Cleavers or Petries or Andersons during the 1950s. The artist even named his series of polychromed wood figures Banality; and called the color-coated, mirror-polished stainless steel balloon dogs, tulips, party hats and the like Celebration.
After a post-world war period dominated by abstractionists who made welded metal constructions was superseded by a generation who either had their minimalistic work executed in small manufacturing shops or directly purchased prefabricated components, Koons brashly brought back recognizable imagery. Instead of old-fashioned patinas, he used the latest technology to restore color to a primary role. Nevertheless, his fabricated figures retain their original derivation as decorations. In Doha, whether you regard Bob Hope, Louis XIV, Buster Keaton, Hulk, or Ballet Couple, all of which are executed in different materials, they exist as sculptures, not statues. In the end, they retain their objecthood.
When you watch people taking selfies in front of Jeff Koons’s work, his art may appear to be lighthearted. Don’t be fooled. It’s not. Behind his smile and the quiet tone of his voice, Koons is dead serious.