American artist Jeff Koons (b. 1955) is widely regarded for his bold paintings and monumental sculptures that hold a mirror up to contemporary culture. Using the photorealistic and commercial aesthetic familiar from an earlier generation of Pop artists, Koons has generated his own universally recognizable style that frequently comprises smooth, highly reflective surfaces and bright, saturated colors. Koons typically works in series, tapping into subject matter from popular culture and art history that is frequently reminiscent of childhood in order to empower the viewer towards achieving a state of personal transcendence.
The present work belongs to a Koons's "Hulk Elvis" series—a body of paintings and sculptures begun in 2004, some of which depict The Incredible Hulk, a character first introduced in a 1962 comic book. Koons describes the Hulk Elvis figures as being also inspired by the guardian gods of Eastern philosophy, and as such they are meant to convey tremendous power and testosterone. Made from polychrome bronze, Hulk (Yoke) depicts the superhero in a stereotypical macho pose with his legs apart, hands tightened in fists, and muscles flexed, as though ready for a confrontation or battle. Despite the solidity of the material, the figure appears inflated, with minute creases and folds creating a trompe l'oeil effect that heightens its hyper-realistic appearance. Based on a blow-up toy, anatomical features have been outlined with paint rather than carved, juxtaposing flatness and volume. The figure carries a yoke across his shoulders with buckets of live flowers hanging by a chain from each side. This series marks the first time that Koons has included live flowers as part of indoor sculptures. Their ephemeral delicacy provide a stark contrast to the aggressive demonstration of power by the Hulk figure.
Koons notes on the tension implicit in his Hulk figures: "I do think that there are many polarities coexisting in a work of art—the more it emulates life, the more real it is. The Hulk is like a guardian god. For these Hulks to have the ability to be a guardian, they have to be able to protect, and to protect means to maintain and shelter and preserve. But at the same time it means they have to have to ability for violence, to be able to withstand any pressure....[T]hat type of tension is part of our day-to-day animal existence, part of what it means to be a human and alive and to be able to survive and to depend on instinct and stay in contact with feelings."¹
¹ Hans Ulrich Obrist, "Interview with Jeff Koons," in Jeff Koons: Hulk Elvis. Exh. cat. (New York: Rizzoli, 2009), p. 126.
Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, which presented almost 150 works from 1978-2014 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the artist's groundbreaking practice, and his first major museum survey in New York. The exhibition was also the largest ever devoted to a single artist at the Whitney, and the final show to be held at the museum's historic Madison Avenue location prior to its move to the Meatpacking District in 2015. Organized by Scott Rothkopf, Curator and Associate Director of Programs at the Whitney Museum, the exhibition travelled to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 2014-2015.
By reconstituting all of Koons's most iconic works and significant series in a chronological narrative, the retrospective allowed visitors to understand his remarkably diverse output as a multifaceted whole. "He's a marvelous artist," said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, "a master with formidable aesthetic intelligence and a very great deal of nerve." Writing in The New York Times, Roberta Smith described the exhibition as "lucid, challenging, [and] brilliantly installed."
A fully illustrated publication accompanying the exhibition includes texts by Scott Rothkopf, Antonio Damasio, Jeffrey Deitch, Isabelle Graw, Achim Hochdörfer, Michelle Kuo, Rachel Kushner, Pamela M. Lee, Alexander Nagel, and James Surowiecki. Also included are preparatory sketches and plans for selected works, as well as installation photographs that shed light on the artist's process and development. Published by the Whitney Museum of American Art
In this body of work, large plaster sculptures modeled after iconic works from the Greco-Roman era and quotidian objects such as garden ornaments are each anchored by a blue "gazing ball" of hand-blown glass. These are conceptually derived from the mirrored ornaments of the kind seen on suburban lawns, including those of Koons's childhood hometown in rural Pennsylvania.
Created in close collaboration with the artist, this fully illustrated publication echoes the classic design of a Picasso catalogue from 1970 admired by Koons, and features an essay by Francesco Bonami. "While all of the sculptures are grounded in their own distinct narratives, derived from art history and suburban towns," Bonami writes, "the seemingly fragile and delicate gazing ball establishes that sense of uncertain equilibrium that exists between history and fantasy, magic and materiality, mass culture and exclusive beauty."
Published by David Zwirner Books