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Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery is hosting an exciting exhibition of work by American Artist Jeff Koons. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential yet controversial artists of our time, and his work commands more money than any other living artist. ‘ARTIST ROOMS: Jeff Koons’ will be the first time that his work has been shown in East Anglia and the only chance to see it at all in the UK in 2015. It will be extremely interesting to see what the people of Norfolk and Suffolk make of these works done by an artist that so many find extremely challenging.
The exhibition features key pieces from each of the major series of work from his career, 1981–2003. The series are ‘The New’, ‘Equilibrium’, ‘Banality’, ‘Made in Heaven’, ‘Easyfun’ and ‘Popeye’. Harriet Loffler, curator of modern and contemporary art at Norwich Castle, told me:
Koons says he wants to tell a story in his work that is easy for anyone to enter into and on some level enjoy, this will be an incredible exhibition and a first for Norwich museum, the city of Norwich and East Anglia.
Harriet Loffler gave an introductory lecture to the East Anglian press, so much of what I write here is drawn from her very interesting comments, combined with my own reflections.
In the first room we see Winter Bears 1988from the ‘Banality’series. Here Koons questions the distinction between high art, valuable sculpture and cheap kitsch. The finest wood carvers from Southern Germany and Northern Italy were employed to carry out the work on this sculpture, which is based on a child’s miniature ornament, and intended to represent an Alpine European couple. The use of other artists and craftspeople to create finished pieces is one aspect that causes controversy about Koons’ work.
The second piece is New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker(1981–7). This comes from his series ‘The New’ (1980–7), which draws on our desire for new consumer products. The untouched vacuum cleaners are presented as if in a shop display encased within acrylic vitrines and lit by fluorescent light. Koons wants us to see these as successors of the radical ‘readymades’ of the 20th century by French artist Marcel Duchamp. Koons takes these manufactured mass-produced objects and recasts them as symbols of desire, questioning the value of such objects and our longing for permanence, status and the eternally new.
We then see Art Magazine Ads ( Art in America) (1988–9). The four magazine adverts were created as a campaign for the ‘Banality’ series when it was exhibited in 1988 and were placed in the magazines Art in America, Flash Art, Artforum and Art News. In this work Koons returns to the device of using advertising except instead of using existing ads he created his own advertising campaign featuring himself in a classroom filled with children, or surrounded by bikini-clad women and animals. These were published within the same art magazines whose editorial pages were frequently hostile towards Koons so his ads were an attempt to pre-empt any negative response to the ‘Banality’ series by tackling the criticism head on. ‘Banality’ is perhaps the series for which Koons is best known. Executed in porcelain, ceramic or polychromed wood, these works draw from images and icons of popular culture, often combining people and animals such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988).
In 1990 Koons began his provocative and controversial ‘Made in Heaven’ series, which features photographic images and sculptural depictions of the artist and his then wife as well as elaborate sculptures of flowers. It is in this series that Koons presented, for the first time, his private life as subject matter in his work in a way that is at once staged but also unashamedly frank. Bourgeois Bust – Jeff and Ilona (1991) is a bust of the artist and his then wife Ilona Staller, known for making pornographic films. The sculpture, carved in marble, shows the newly married couple ‘immortalized’ in a tight embrace with their eyes transfixed upon one another. Staller appears like Venus, the Roman goddess of love with her string of pearls, whilst Koons is presented with a flawless toned torso. Koons says that he draws inspiration from the Baroque, the highly emotional and extravagant style in art and architecture popular during the 17th century.
Mound of Flowers (1991) is another work from the ‘Made in Heaven’series that looks more explicitly towards Koons’ interests in art historical traditions. Koons uses the mound of flowers motif that was traditionally used within ornamental designs in Baroque and Rococo churches to symbolize spiritual and physical love, a theme that runs through the ‘Made in Heaven’ series. To create this work, Koons employed the finest glass workers from the island of Murano, Venice in Italy. Koons always employs the very best craftsmen to execute his ideas.
Caterpillar (with chains) (2003) is taken from the‘Popeye’ series that contains aluminium cast sculptures based on inflatable bathing and bath toys. Like the works from ‘Easy fun’ there is an interplay between ideas of childhood innocence and adult sexuality. In contrast to other series in which the material is plainly evident, these sculptures appear to be made of plastic but are actually cast in aluminum. For this work disparate elements are combined so that the seemingly weightless inflatable is suspended by deep red chains that hint at something altogether more dark. The sculpture plays on visual perceptions of materiality and surreal combinations of everyday objects, cartoon imagery and children’s toys.
The works in this exhibition are extremely different to the works in the castle museum by the artists of the Norwich School, and I would love to hear some of the comments of the locals when they see it. Is Koons the successor to Duchamp that he would like us to think or do his works' depths go no further than their shiny surfaces?