“I am sometimes frightened by his work, frightened because of some absolute perfection in what he does. This man seems to know not only the magic of all technical means, but also the most secret strands of human thought, images, idea and feeling. He creates somewhere in the realm of the very pure and most primal depths. He creates on the conceptual level of man not yet shackled by logic, reason, or experience. There, where we are all children of nature.” – Sergei Eisenstein on Walt Disney
It is easy to get lost in the utterly seductive stronghold of Jeff Koons’ voluminous Moon (Yellow), and emerge from its glimmering grip with a renewed belief in magic. Electric and enchanting, Moon (Yellow) spins a world tangled in reason, logic, and rationality through its reflective mirrored surface. Gazing into the brilliantly arced curvature of Moon (Yellow) provides us the unique opportunity to re-experience the ecstasy of the world through the eyes of a child. Monumentally scaled and vividly unique among Koons’ most revered and desirable Celebration sculptures as the only sculpture from the series to be mounted on a wall, Moon (Yellow) absorbs the entirety of its surroundings within its depthless reflectivity, projecting back an environment tinted with the gleaming golden hue of Koonsian fantasy. The work transports us back to our previous selves—a world replete with town fairs, birthday parties, and carnivals galore. Moon (Yellow) eradicates any guilt we may momentarily feel in escaping adulthood for a short reverie to revisit the totems of our youth. We inhabit for an instant the kaleidoscopic minds of Walt Disney, Lewis Carroll, and Willy Wonka, figures whose unabated joie de vivre position them in a league alongside Koons. Fusing the pioneering modernism of Constantin Brancusi with the avant-garde conceptual latitude of Marcel Duchamp and the irresistible Pop of Andy Warhol, the present work seems to hover in space, swelling out and pushing the absolute limits of its balloon-like form. Absorbed in the epic sensory proportions of Moon (Yellow)’s pristine curvilinear contours, Koons captivates and reinstates our childhood imagination. Devoid of nostalgia, however, and only slightly tinged with sentimentality, the immense Moon (Yellow) rather makes the past vitally present—the sculpture exhumes the child that still exists within us all.
With an impressive diameter of over 10 feet, Moon (Yellow) is an extraordinary feat of precision engineering and technical virtuosity. A part of Koons's most complex and publicly cherished Celebration series, Moon (Yellow) is one of five unique versions, each rendered in its own brilliant flush of color. Transformed by each setting in which it is exhibited, the various colored Moon sculptures have mesmerized audiences in the array of spectacular locales they have been displayed: from King Louis XIV’s opulent Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, to Mies van der Rohe’s hyper-modern halls at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, to Marcel Breuer’s iconic brutalist architecture of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—where Moon (Light Pink) has drawn immense crowds and a barrage of shutterbugs while on exhibition at Koons’ retrospective. Koons began work on his Celebration series in 1994, and today the series comprises sixteen paintings and is planned to encompass twenty monumental sculptures. Initially Koons conceived the concept as a calendar intended for London's Anthony d'Offay Gallery; one of the most essential aspects of the entire Celebration series is the cyclical progression of time and the various milestones over the course of a calendar year, along with their hyper-commercialized rituals. While the specificity of works like Cracked Egg refers to Easter and Hanging Heart alludes to Valentine’s Day, Moon (Yellow) is a totemic universal icon that represents celebration as a whole, as the potentiality of its ambiguous surface invites association with any occasion appropriate for the mylar balloon that it replicates. Meanwhile, the celestial moon invites inherent associations with time and cyclicality, as the full moon arrives only once a month in its temporal lunar orbit with the earth around the sun. The full moon—like a holiday—is a symbolic marker of the calendar month. Moon (Yellow) silently floats on the wall the floor, capturing viewers like moths to a flame; its undeniable and overwhelming physicality taps the more base inclinations and attractions of our adult humanity. The sculpture harnesses the interplay between the general and the particular that is so characteristic to Koons—the symbol of the moon is universal, as it can be seen from every place on earth. However, with Koons’ Moon (Yellow), the surface is constantly in deliberate flux, rendering it always specific to the person and place reflected in its gaze. We are gripped by consuming wonder, as if staring up at the heavens, and yet the sculpture’s enormous proximity renders this both an awe-inspiring and psychologically thrilling experience.
According to Leon Battista Alberti, painting was invented by Ovid’s Narcissus at the instant that, beholding his reflected image in a pool of water, he fell in love with his own effigy. Writing in his eminent fifteenth-century treatise Della Pittura, Alberti pondered, “For what is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?” When Narcissus fails to embrace himself as he reaches into the water to grasp his reflection, we experience the epiphany of illusionism—the water reveals itself as mere image, a glimmering likeness that fools its beholder into believing its reality. The chameleonic surface of painting and sculpture proffers a certain mischievous promise of veracity, a reflection of the world that returns us to our childlike suspension of disbelief. Moon (Yellow) capitalizes on the instinctive allure of one’s own reflection, and yet arrests a glimpse into a different version of ourselves—one in which joy and affection reign supreme, and all earthly logic is deferred for a moment of pure primal exhilaration. As noted by Dorothea von Hantelmann, “The idea of empowering the viewer—any viewer, independent of his or her origin, culture or education—is central to Koons’ work… Therefore he uses a visual language to which anybody can relate: hearts, flowers, rings, toys etc. He calls these motifs ‘secular archetypes’, i.e. primordial images that are stored in the collective unconsciousness and that stabilize or unite cultures. He turns an anthropologist’s or cultural scientist’s gaze on these archetypes of Western contemporary societies, on the way in which they materialize ritualized forms of everyday culture, and on their power to produce individual or collective identities.” (Dorothea von Hantelmann in Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Jeff Koons: Popeye Series, 2009, pp. 50-51)
This utilization of an everyday object as source for the art object is rooted distinctly in the Duchampian tradition of the readymade: “Koons looked to old-fashioned values like labor, skill, and illusionism in order to turn the readymade on its head, making it strange and forcefully new again.” (Scott Rothkopf in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, 2014, p. 21) Moon (Yellow), however, is a representation of a representation: a sculpture of a mylar balloon whose formal properties echo that of the eponymous moon. In this semiotic interplay of matter representing other matter, Scott Rothkopf further explains, “If Koons had begun his love affair with the readymade by presenting real things, then shifted to depicting them, he was now representing real things representing other things—a double remove that catches within its crosshairs the infra-thin distinction between an object and a work of art.” (Scott Rothkopf in Ibid., p. 20) Drawn to the convex yellow of Koons’s Moon, the artist holds up a mirror to the public, who are in fact the true readymade that he employs as his Duchampian tool.
Of primary significance to any discussion of Koons’s work is his unwavering standard of technical perfection. The technologies that Koons employs to fabricate his sculptures often exceed the standards of the industries whose tools he borrows, including those of aerospace and military engineering. To achieve the faultless material illusionism of the inflatable’s weightlessness, and replicate every pucker, seam, and crevice of the balloon in mirror-polished stainless steel, Koons advances the very tenets of science and engineering beyond present possibilities. Just as Leonardo da Vinci relentlessly investigated the human anatomy and Alberti discovered three-dimensional perspective on the picture plane, Koons operates in the tradition of an artist whose practice is founded firmly in pushing the rational principles of math and science to inconceivable ends in order to attain mimesis. The inflated curves, hyper-realistic seams, and puckered ripples along the perimeter of the work are modeled after the classical Baroque mastery of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble sculptures, while the flawless polish mirrors Brancusi’s iconic early twentieth-century modernist bronzes. Moon (Yellow) conveys a magnificently wondrous realism, perfectly replicating in colossal scale Koons’s mylarballoon source. Koons revels in the conflation of opposites that the material illusionism of his stainless steel sculpture proffers—just as Bernini brought to life the suppleness of flesh in hard marble, Koons induces the weightlessness of an inflated balloon with impenetrable stainless steel.
What most strikes the viewer, however, is the ambiguity of the very thing that transfixes our gaze. When Duchamp upended a urinal and presented it as Fountain in 1917, the very basic object took on an uncanny and unrecognizable form. Koons’s magnification and re-materialization of Moon (Yellow) is his take on rotating the urinal through enlarging the balloon to immense proportions, so that the thing becomes a surreal metamorphosis of itself. It is an exact facsimile of an object that in fact, bears little resemblance to the referent that it purportedly embodies, endowing it with a concomitant familiarity and strangeness that perpetually seizes our attention. Like all of Koons’s Celebration stainless steel sculptures, we see ourselves in the reflected surface, but here are met by an image that thrillingly plays with what we know so well yet perplexingly surprises us. The artist himself notes, “The exterior is totally reflective. It constantly reminds viewers of their existence, of your existence, it’s all about you. When you leave the room, it’s gone. When you move, the abstraction takes place; nothing happens without you, it needs you. It’s visually so abstract that it always made me think of generosity.” (Jeff Koons, ‘Dialogues on Self-Acceptance’ in Exh. Cat., Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Jeff Koons, 2012, pp. 35-36) Stirring curiosity, sentimentalism, and unease in the immortalization of these relics from our collective memory, Koons draws on formal and symbolic models to render permanent such evanescent moments of joy.
The enduring conceptual and aesthetic talisman of the inflatable can be traced to the very genesis of Koons’s work, and has remained a recurring theme throughout most of his oeuvre. In 1979, Koons exhibited a readymade tall white inflatable flower and a pink bunny presented on pre-cut glass mirrored tiles, combining the obvious influence of Duchamp with the wildly divergent work of the minimalist Robert Smithson and the Pop artist Andy Warhol. Koons’ formative interest in the inflatable took on new life with the artist’s canonical 1985 Equilibrium series, where basketballs were uncannily suspended in water-filled tanks and exhibited alongside convincingly lifelike castings of flotation devices—snorkels, a lifeboat, an Aqualung—in bronze. However, it was Rabbit of 1986, Koons’s flawless stainless steel sculpture of an inflatable bunny toy, that marked the beginning of the artist’s hyper-polished sculptures for which today he is internationally renowned. The Celebration series—which includes such iconic works as Moon, Balloon Dog, Tulips, and Hanging Heart—mark among the most mature, confident, and monumental zenith of Koons’s signature motif. For Koons, the concept of the inflatable is a metaphor for the human body and a symbol of life, while the permanent tumescence of his steel sculptures conveys an eternal optimism. Unlike real balloons, Koons’s balloons do not deflate; as the artist elaborated, “They’re symbols of optimism and of life – the preservation of life. When these inflatables are placed on a stage, they continue to radiate that optimism of the inflated self. When you take a deep breath, it’s a symbol of life and of optimism, and when you take your last breath, that last exhale is a symbol of death. If you see an inflatable deflated, it’s a symbol of death. These are the opposite.” (Jeff Koons in Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 71) Moon (Yellow) possesses the unique capacity to both absorb and emit through its convex shell, an intoxicating and glimmering surface that seems permanently inflated with helium. If in fact we see ourselves in Moon (Yellow), both literally in the reflective surface and metaphorically as a mirror to our childhood, then what Koons offers us is the buoyancy of eternal life—possibly the most generous and enduring positive gift.
Childhood is of lasting influence to Koons in its profound universality, while the particularities of his own youth are embedded within the DNA of his oeuvre. As a boy growing up in the town of York, Pennsylvania, Koons’s interest in the sociology of aesthetics germinated amongst the aspirational wares sold by his father at his namesake Henry J. Koons Decorators. His father's elaborate furniture displays and window tableaux showcased precise arrangements of decorative goods that promised social mobility to the residents of York. There were a lot of mirrors in the store, which Koons enjoyed due to the reflection that allowed the viewer's stare to come into play. Shoppers were made aware of their presence in the room, a strategy that Koons has intensified with Moon (Yellow). Further building upon the personal mythology that so permeates Koons’ work, the Celebration series was also a tribute to Koons's son, born in 1992, whose celebrations and milestones he was, for a time, unable to share. “To children the world is always so free of judgments. Children accept everything, they are not critical about things…I wanted [my work] to have that openness to the world, to the potential we have in the world, and at the same time, to express an aspect of the profound.” (Jeff Koons, ‘Dialogues on Self-Acceptance’ in Exh. Cat., Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Op. Cit., p. 24) Moon (Yellow) captures and magnifies a joyous, childlike sense of amazement.
Since the early 1980s Koons has worked within the remit of Pop art and its embracement of consumer driven visual culture to eradicate intellectual guilt and critical shame from an appreciation of mass taste. Moon (Yellow) does not just engage with us by literally reflecting our mirror images, but in reflecting the public’s collective interests through our most recognizable and most beloved cultural symbols. Through an iconographic lexicon of immediately identifiable ‘secular archetypes’ sourced from consumer goods, childhood icons and celebrity culture, Koons suspends judgment and delivers exalted meaning and big concepts by referencing a symbol of celebration, the balloon. This focus was first fully broached in 1986 with Banality, a body of work which includes Buster Keaton straddling a miniature pony as well as the Pink Panther and Michael Jackson and Bubbles porcelain statues. Proposing an altered concept of the Duchampian readymade, Koons creates objects based on emblems or ideas drawn from the mass consciousness as the cipher for a new conceptual dialogue. As Koons explains, “In the Banality series I started to focus on my dialogue about people accepting their own histories… I was just trying to say that whatever you respond to is perfect, that your history and your own cultural background are perfect… that it’s ok to give in to what you respond to.” (Jeff Koons, "Dialogues on Self-Acceptance" in Ibid., p. 24) As fully articulated in Banality, Koons sees art as a form of affirmation, heavily invested in a very traditional notion of enlightenment: art as a vehicle for a purer sense of being and empowerment.
For a sculpture that exudes such spectacular visual opulence, Moon (Yellow) is at its very core an exercise in the economy of form—it is not excessive, instead it is deliberate and powerful in its striking simplicity. Masterfully conflating low and high, visual and conceptual, Koons ingratiates the viewer by flaunting decorative materials, exquisite craftsmanship, and a lexicon of symbols to deliver his highly conceptual body of work. The masterful and unwittingly existential experience of time spent with Moon (Yellow) reminds us of the ultimate pleasures in succumbing to our most primal desire for beauty, oscillating between the poles of attraction that exemplify Koons’ praxis. We are undoubtedly drawn into the appeal of our own mirror image and the inconceivable existence of the zeppelin before us, but unlike the cautionary tale of Narcissus, we don’t fall into the shimmering water of our own reflection—rather, Koons teaches us to swim.
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