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Jeff Koons expands his reach, from Greece to the Moon

More is always more for Jeff Koons.

Now 67, he has been a famous artist for almost 40 years and has never been afraid of his desire to make his art more impactful and spectacular and to reach more and more people while maintaining his prestige in the art world, a strategy embodied by the his exuberant sculptures “Rabbit”, “Balloon Dog” and “Puppy”.

Artist Ai Weiwei summed it up in an email: “Jeff Koons is not just an artist. He is a phenomenon. He’s unique “.

This summer, Mr. Koons has set his artistic path in two very different directions.

The first is the return to antiquity, to the roots of Western art. Mr. Koons gave classical Greek and Roman statuary its distinguished spin for a decade and a half, and on June 21 a show to this effect, “Jeff Koons: Apollo”, opened on the Greek island of Hydra, at Project Space. Slaughterhouse, managed by the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art.

On display until October 31, the show is anchored by a large, color-painted sculpture of the god Apollo playing an instrument called kithara, an antecedent of the guitar; an animatronic python crawls around him. It was inspired by a sculpture from the Hellenistic period that Mr Koons saw at the British Museum. (Mr. Koons was a featured guest at last week’s Art for Tomorrow conference in association with the New York Times in Athens, and delegates were given the chance to see his installation of Hydra.)

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 crate of small sculptures of Mr. Koons, making them the first licensed artwork 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 have at home and his first non-fungible token or NFT, the digital medium that has haunted the world of art for the past two years.

In May, in his main studio on the West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Koons talked about both projects.

“Every piece of art I create is truly conceived and, in some way performed, through digital technology, and 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 giving meaning on a large scale and that being choosy about the conception and production of his works is his artistic language of love.

“I always try to do the best I can because I feel a moral obligation,” he said. “This is a chance to do it. And artwork can be treated as metaphors for the kind of care you’re putting into it. It’s really to show people you care about them.

Mr. Ai noted his meticulousness, saying, “The completeness of his works can only be surpassed by very few artists.”

Mr. Koons said that “Apollo” finds him “by trying to play with time metaphysically”. He added that the installation “celebrates the freedom we have in the arts”.

That freedom was granted by the collector Dakis Joannou, an early patron and close friend of Mr. Koons, who founded the Athens-based Deste in 1983. Prior to the opening of the exhibition, the details of the installation were kept top secret by all. , also by Mr. Joannou himself.

Visitors are greeted outside the work by “a huge pinwheel, which is two-sided, with a reflective gold surface,” Koons said. An actor and some live animals are stationed outside the building (which, as the name suggests, is a former slaughterhouse), as well as some sculptures (including a bicycle wheel and urinal) that nod to one of the guiding lights of the artist, the artist Marcel Duchamp.

Inside, in the midst of background music, the figure of Apollo stands. 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 kind or he can be extremely violent” – on his word violentMr. Koons opened his bright blue eyes.

Around Apollo and the creeping python are walls that look like frescoes, although in reality they have a vinyl covering. They aim to reproduce the wall paintings of a Roman villa in Boscoreale, near Pompeii, from the 1st century BC, some of which today reside at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A small area of ​​the porch features an object that has become a recurring motif in Mr. Koon’s art in recent years, the gazing ball. They are part of his passion for mirrors and he also likes balls to be common suburban garden decor. (One of Mr. Koon’s early series was called “Banality.”)

As for his continued interest in antiquity, he said it was related to his search for “connections and resurrecting shared meaning”. He added: “I like looking at antique pieces because we really feel the same things, we have similar kinds of thoughts.”

Scott Rothkopf, Senior Assistant Director and Chief Curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, organized a retrospective in 2014 and chose to open the Whitney exhibition with some of Mr. Koons’ classically themed works, rather than a notoriously pulsating work such as the 1988 Sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”, to make a point.

“While this series may seem like a break, the seeds were there from the start,” Rothkopf said in an interview. “Jeff has always dealt with the most universal themes of the human condition. And he has always been involved in the long narrative arc of the history of art “.

Mr. Rothkopf pointed out that the “special and rare” relationship between Mr. Koons and Mr. Joannou was particularly important in the long run, as Mr. Koons does elaborate and expensive work.

“Making a ‘Balloon Dog’ requires a lot of people – this isn’t an artist with his brush and his canvas,” said Mr. Rothkopf. “You need people to believe in you before the job even exists.”

Although it is very unusual for the founder of a private museum not to be aware of the contents of their exhibition space until the last minute, Mr. Joannou has established a trust with Mr. Koons and 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 since collected dozens of his works, adding them to a total of thousands of contemporary works of art.

Mr. Joannou warned viewers not to stop at the eye-catching visual hook of Mr. Koon’s creations.

“They have layers,” he said. “The surface can be attractive, but you have to go further.”

Mr. Koons lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with his wife, Justine Wheeler Koons, who is also an artist. He has eight children. During the pandemic, the family spent much of their time on a Pennsylvania farm near their hometown of York, where they normally spend weekends and summers, raising livestock as a group activity.

As part of the “moon phases”, Mr. Koons has considered leaving his family for a long journey to the moon itself. “But I realized it was really going to take a year of my time. And with everything going on in the studio and with my work, I really couldn’t do it. “

The three-part project was announced this spring by PaceVerso, the NFT-focused arm of the Pace Gallery, representing Mr. Koons. It is ambitious enough for people to ask themselves: Can he really do it? Most art projects don’t require coordination with NASA.

The project will have several parts, not all yet completed, starting with 125 miniature lunar sculptures. Each is about an inch in diameter and will represent a phase of the moon, half seen from Earth, half from different observation points in space, plus a lunar eclipse. They will be named after a person the artist admires, those who have “achieved results that aspire to our society,” said Mr. Koons.

Although the list is not definitive, 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 miniature lunar sculptures are expected to be launched later this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center on a self-contained mission along with a NASA payload, and will remain on the moon, albeit the exact landing location. it is still the one to be determined.

Two other components of each artwork will remain on Earth: a large spherical stainless steel sculpture encased in glass that a collector can keep at home, plus a corresponding NFT.

Earth-related sculptures will feature a reflective surface that mimics the colors of the lunar surface and a tiny gemstone, ruby, emerald, sapphire or diamond, which will indicate where the miniature sculptures on the moon have been left.

The complex project was initiated by digital arts and technology company NFMoon and space exploration company 4Space, and the Nova-C Lunar Lander was designed and built by Intuitive Machines.

For Mr. Koons, the myriad of intricacies of a true space launch are another reason to tinker with the details. “NASA had to approve all the materials,” he said, sporting a clear plastic case filled with small moon-like 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 focus of Mr. Koon’s interest in the moon is his role as a reflective body for the sun. “The whole lunar surface, that’s reflective light,” he said. “And I’ve always been drawn to reflection through philosophy.”

In Mr. Koons’ mind, “Moon Phases” is a continuation of his themes and aesthetics; in form and presentation in a transparent container, the stainless steel moon sculptures are reminiscent of the basketballs he floated in water tanks in his 1980s “Equilibrium” series.

Mirror, shine and reflectivity in particular will continue to occupy his mind and his art, and for him they have cultural connotations opposite to those of the myth of Narcissus.

“A reflective surface claims,” ​​he said. “That’s why I work with reflective materials today. My work is about aspiration, about transcendence, becoming and self-acceptance. “

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