Jeff Koons seeks to wring emotion from ‘empty’ art

US artist Jeff Koons poses beside his 1998 sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” at his exhibition which runs through September at Fondation Beyeler in Basel.(PHOTO Reuters, ARND WIEGMANN)

May 14, 2012, Monday/ 17:14:00

US pop artist Jeff Koons is seeking to fire up your emotions at a retrospective show of his work in Switzerland.

Although some critics regard his work as empty kitsch, Koons has put 30 years of sculpture -- including his famous Balloon Dog -- into his first museum show in Switzerland along with the admission that his art is in eye of the beholder.

Visitors to the Fondation Beyeler in Basel are met by a giant globe-like sculpture made of thousands of flowers. The work, called “Split-Rocker,” consists of the reassembled parts of a dinosaur and a pony, and was previously on display at the Papal Palace in Avignon (2000) and at Versailles (2008).

Also on show is the sculpture of a blonde pin-up in a revealing green dress clasping a pink panther and golden Michael Jackson with a pet chimpanzee, both part of Koons’ “Banality” (1988) series.

Koons, born in 1955, has been dubbed “king of kitsch” for colorful pop culture imagery, including Popeye. Like Damien Hirst, Koons embraces the role of the celebrity artist, with some dismissing his work as superficial. Yet his creations have been shown in some of the world’s best-known museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and London’s Tate Gallery.

Speaking in the museum’s subterranean auditorium on Friday, Koons, who cites both Picasso and Nietzsche as well as magazine advertisements as inspirations, implied his critics may have misunderstood him. “The objects upstairs, my work, are empty. There’s no art in them,” he said, looking dapper in a navy blazer and white shirt. “They’re transponders. The art is in the viewer.”

“Celebration” is a series started in 1994 of larger-than-life shiny steel sculptures and paintings reminiscent of a child’s birthday party: It includes not only the red dog, but also a painting of play-doh, another of a pink cake, an enormous metallic blue egg and a giant golden heart dangling from a magenta bow.

Koons said reflection was an important quality of his art; it was intended as a mirror, with the viewer seeing him or herself on the sculpture’s shiny surface. “I always have loved the idea of the avant garde,” he said. “It was the belief that you create your reality.”

Without a doubt, Koons is one of the most commercially successful living artists. His works have been sold at auction for millions of dollars apiece. Yet he insisted it was not money or fame that drove him. “The emotional charges, the chemical releases ... Wow! That’s what it’s all about,” he said.

The exhibition, which also includes the series “The New” (1980-87), featuring a series of vacuum cleaners, runs from May 13 to Sept. 2.

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