More is always more for Jeff Koons.
Now 67, he’s been a celebrated artist for almost 40 years, and he’s never shied away from making his art more impactful and spectacular – and reaching more and more people while maintaining his cachet. of the art world, a strategy embodied by his exuberant sculptures “Rabbit”, “Balloon Dog” and “Puppy”.
Artist Ai Weiwei summed it up in an email: “Jeff Koons is not just an artist. It’s a phenomenon. It is unique.
This summer, Mr. Koons steered his artistic journey in two very different directions.
The first is a return to Antiquity, to the roots of Western art. Mr. Koons has been giving classic Greek and Roman statuary its own distinct spin for the past decade and a half, and on June 21 a show in that vein, “Jeff Koons: Apollo,” opened on the Greek island of Hydra, at Project Space Slaughterhouse, managed by the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art.
On view until October 31, the show is anchored by a large, brightly painted sculpture of the god Apollo playing an instrument called a kithara, an antecedent of the guitar; around him slips an animatronic python. It was inspired by a sculpture from the Hellenistic period that Mr Koons saw in the British Museum. (Mr. Koons was the featured guest at last week’s Art for Tomorrow conference in association with The New York Times in Athens, and delegates got a chance to view his Hydra installation.)
The second artistic trajectory points from this world – literally – to the moon itself, where a lunar lander, carried by a rocket made by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, will place a casket of small sculptures by Mr. Koons, this making them the first works of art allowed on the moon. The launch is tentatively scheduled for late fall, a spokesperson said.
The launch is part of a three-part project, “Jeff Koons: Moon Phases”, which will also include sculptures for collectors to take home and its first non-fungible token or NFT, the digital medium that has obsessed the world. art for the past two years.
In May, at his main studio on Manhattan’s West Side, Mr. Koons spoke about the two projects.
“Every piece of art I create is truly designed and in some way executed through digital technology, and it has been that way for decades,” he said, explaining his comfort with NFTs. . “But I wanted to give it meaning.”
Mr. Koons has made it clear that he sees his mission as the creation of meaning on a large scale and that being demanding in the design and production of his artwork is his loving artistic language.
“I always try to do the best I can because I feel a moral obligation,” he said. “It’s a chance to do that. And artwork can be treated as a metaphor for the kind of care you put into it. It’s really to show people that you care about them.
Mr. Ai noted his meticulousness, saying, “The thoroughness of his works can only be surpassed by very few artists.”
Mr Koons said ‘Apollo’ finds him ‘trying to play metaphysically with time’. He added that the installation “celebrates the freedom we have in the arts”.
This freedom is granted by collector Dakis Joannou, an early patron and close friend of Mr Koons, who founded the Athens-based Deste in 1983. Before the show opened, details of the installation were kept secret for everyone – including Mr. Joannou himself.
Visitors are greeted outside the work by “an enormous two-sided weather vane, with a reflective golden surface”, Mr Koons said. An actor and live animals are posted outside the building (which, as its name suggests, is a former slaughterhouse), along with sculptures (including a bicycle wheel and a urinal) that are nods to take a look at one of the artist’s beacons, the artist Marcel Duchamp.
Inside, amid background music, stands the figure of Apollo. Although Apollo had several divine functions, for Mr. Koons, it is his gift of prophecy that seems to resonate the most. “He can be very, very gentle or he can be extremely violent” – on the word violentMr. Koons widened his bright blue eyes.
Surrounding Apollo and the crawling python are walls that appear to be frescoed, although they are actually vinyl clad. They are believed to replicate wall paintings from a Roman villa at Boscoreale, near Pompeii, from the first century BC, some of which now reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A small porch features an object that has become a recurring motif in Mr. Koon’s art in recent years, the gaze ball. They are part of his fascination with mirrors – and he also likes balls to be a common suburban garden setting. (One of Mr. Koon’s early series was called “Baality.”)
As for his continued interest in antiquity, he said it was tied to his search for “connections and resurrecting shared meaning”. He added: “I love looking at old plays because we really feel the same things, we have similar types of thoughts.”
Scott Rothkopf, senior assistant director and chief curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, held a retrospective in 2014 and chose to open the Whitney exhibit with some of Mr. Koons’ classically themed works, rather than a work famous as the 1988 Sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”, to make a point.
“Although this series may seem like a break, the seeds were there from the start,” Mr. Rothkopf said in an interview. “Jeff has always been interested in the most universal themes of the human condition. And he was always interested in the long arc of art history.
Mr. Rothkopf stressed that the “special and rare” relationship between Mr. Koons and Mr. Joannou was particularly important in the long term, given that Mr. Koons does elaborate and expensive work.
“Making a ‘Balloon Dog’ requires a lot of people – it’s not an artist with his brush and his canvas,” Mr Rothkopf said. “You need people to believe in you before the work even exists.”
While it is very rare for the founder of a private museum to be unaware of the content of his own exhibition space until the last minute, Mr. Joannou has established a relationship of trust with Mr. Koons, and he likes surprises.
Mr. Joannou said he wanted “that magical moment of experiencing something for the first time. He first met Mr. Koons in 1985 and has collected dozens of his works since then, adding them to a total treasure trove of thousands of contemporary works of art.
Mr. Joannou warned viewers not to stop at the striking visual hook of Mr. Koon’s creations.
“They have layers,” he said. “The surface can attract, but you have to go beyond it.”
Mr. Koons lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife, Justine Wheeler Koons, also an artist. He has eight children. During the pandemic, the family has spent much of the time on a Pennsylvania farm near their hometown of York, where they normally spend weekends and summers raising cattle as a group activity.
As part of ‘Moon Phases’, Mr Koons considered leaving his family for a long journey – to the moon itself. “But I realized it was really going to take a year of commitment of my time. And with everything going on in the studio and with my job, I really couldn’t do that.
The three-part project was announced this spring by PaceVerso, the NFT arm of Pace Gallery, which represents Mr. Koons. It’s ambitious enough to make people wonder: can he really achieve this? Most artist projects do not require coordination with NASA.
The project will have several parts, not all of which are complete yet, starting with 125 miniature moon sculptures. Each is about an inch in diameter and will depict a phase of the moon, half seen from Earth, half from different vantage points in space, plus a lunar eclipse. They will be named after someone the artist admires, those who have “achieved ambitious achievements for our society”, Mr Koons said.
Although the list is not finalized, some of the proposed names are: Duchamp, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Leonardo da Vinci, Sacagawea, Sojourner Truth, the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles and Ileana Sonnabend, a merchant who once represented Mr Koons .
All of the miniature moon sculptures are set to launch later this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center on a standalone mission alongside a NASA payload, and they will remain on the moon, though. the exact landing location is yet to be determined.
Two other components of each work will remain on Earth: a large spherical stainless steel sculpture encased in glass that a collector can keep in their home, plus a matching NFT.
The terrestrial sculptures will feature a reflective surface mimicking the colors of the moon’s surface and a tiny gemstone, either a ruby, emerald, sapphire or diamond, which will indicate where the miniature sculptures were left on the moon.
The complex project was launched by digital arts and technology company NFMoon and space exploration company 4Space, and the Nova-C Lunar Lander was designed and manufactured by Intuitive Machines.
For Koons, the myriad complexities of an actual space launch is another reason to dig into the details. “NASA had to approve all the materials,” he said, showing a clear plastic case filled with small moon-shaped spheres, similar to the one that will live on the moon. He recognized that his projects, never simple, become more and more complex.
In addition to a desire to spread his art everywhere, the core of Mr. Koon’s interest in the moon is its role as a reflective body for the sun. “The whole lunar surface is reflective light,” he said. “And I’ve always been drawn to thinking through philosophy.”
In Mr. Koons’ mind, “Moon Phases” is a continuation of his themes and aesthetic; in their shape and presentation in a transparent container, the stainless steel lunar sculptures are reminiscent of the basketballs he floated in water tanks in his 1980s “Equilibrium” series.
The mirror, brilliance and reflectivity in particular will continue to occupy his mind and his art, and for him they have cultural connotations that are the opposite of those of the Narcissus myth.
“A reflective surface affirms,” he said. “That’s why I work today with reflective materials. My work is about aspiration, transcendence, becoming and self-acceptance.