It’s probably no surprise that Damien Hirst owns a lot of works by Jeff Koons. After all, these two have common ground – they’re both provocateurs, both divisive artists. And now, Damien has put his own collection of Jeff Koons works on display in his Newport Street Gallery, which opened last year.
Over thirty works have been curated together (the show was jointly curated by Damien and Jeff) and they cover most of Jeff’s career, from 1980 to the present day.
The familiar eye-catching pieces are there, including his brightly-coloured sculptures that look like balloons or inflatable toys for swimming pools (though these are, in fact, made from steel and aluminium). There’s also the vacuum cleaners, vivid canvases of Lego pieces and plastic horses, a huge bowl of eggs, and his famous basketballs suspended in water.
But I’m always conflicted when looking at works from Jeff Koons – is this an artist reflecting back at us our own shallow culture and society, or is this just shallow art?
There is something admirable in the craftsmanship of some of his works, particularly the stainless steel pieces that look like balloons blown up to bursting point. Their surfaces seem so taught and shiny – you want to lean in and prick them with pins, as if you were to burst an actual balloon.
And there was a wry observation to Jeff’s series of work on Nike posters from the 1980s. There is powerful social critique in these images of famous black American basketball players dressed in suits and ties and passed off as “The Boardroom” or “Secretary of Defense”. Indeed, little has changed – the boardroom is still a white man’s place.
But now, when you look at these posters which were made in 1985, all you feel is a sense of cultural appropriation – that Jeff Koons has made millions of dollars printing out these posters, the rights to which he bought from Nike. Is the artist now blind to his own privilege? Isn’t this just the rich white man just getting richer off exploiting dangerously misleading advertising to black kids?
But, looking at these works, the desperation to shock feels almost palpable. And that stretches from Jeff’s notorious Made in Heaven series, which basically is just rather narcissistic explicit pictures of him and his then-wife having sex, created in 1991, right up to the current day with Balloon Monkey (Blue), a giant stainless steel balloon animal that towers above you (it’s only when you look down on it from the first floor that you realise this is, in fact, a giant inflatable penis). The artist may try to say his works are challenge notions of taste but, really, it’s just trying way too hard.
And so you sigh, take a deep breath, and think, ‘really? Is this all you’ve got to offer?’ For none of this ever hits below the surface. And then you see the giant mound of Play-Doh that almost swallows up a whole gallery in the exhibition (again, aluminium) and you realise that even if Jeff did have something to say back in the 1980s, that all seems to have evaporated.
So, despite these tired attempts to shock and outrage, I actually left the gallery much as I went in. The days of this art being revolutionary, I think, are gone.
Burt what do you think? Admission to Newport Street Gallery is free and the Gallery has launched its Summer Lates opening hours to coincide with this exhibition (the Gallery will remain open until 10pm every Saturday) so why not go along and see how you feel , how you react to one of the art world’s great provocateurs.
Newport Street Gallery, London to October 16, 2016
1. Titi, 2004-2009 © Jeff Koons
2. Three Ball 50-50 Tank (Spalding Dr. JK Silver Series), 1985 © Jeff Koons
3. Bowl with Eggs (Pink), 1994-2009 © Jeff Koons