Chicago exhibit highlights pop appeal of Jeff Koons

CHICAGO (Reuters) - It all began with an art show featuring basketballs suspended in tanks of water.

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Since that 1985 exhibit in New York, artist Jeff Koons has risen to the top of the art world with postmodern works that draw from such 20th century art movements as Surrealism, Dada, Pop and Minimalism.

The former Wall Street commodities trader set a new auction record for his work in June when his reflective pink sculpture “Balloon Flower (Magenta)” fetched $25.8 million at Christie’s in London, surpassing the $23.6 million paid for “Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)” in New York in November.

His colorful sculptures and paintings are featured in a retrospective exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art that runs until September 21.

“What happens with postmodernism is that there’s an emphasis on reference, on simulation, gaming and puns -- it’s playing with the vocabulary of art,” said David Moos, a curator of contemporary art at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.

Moos describes Koons as an artist “who defines contemporary art for our time” and whose mission is to communicate with the maximum number of viewers.

“So the material that he uses and the works that he creates have a kind of a popular and populist element,” Moos explained.

The Chicago exhibit, Koons’ first retrospective for 15 years, includes a stainless-steel rabbit, a balloon dog, a porcelain sculpture of singer Michael Jackson, and images of Koons and his former porn-star wife Ilona Staller, who was also an Italian member of parliament.

Francesco Bonami, the curator of the Chicago exhibit, cites simplicity as the key to the mass appeal of Koons.

“There is a sense of beauty and love in the work that comes out in a very direct way toward the viewer,” Bonami said.

“He transforms the feeling people could have in a supermarket or in an appliance store. It’s this kind of desire that he transfers into art, so when you enter into the exhibition it’s almost like entering into a toy shop, where you’re overwhelmed not just by the beauty, but by the kind of easiness of the surroundings.”

Koons, who was born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He lives in New York City where he has almost a hundred employees who produce most of his artwork in a studio.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently hosting a “Jeff Koons on the Roof” sculpture exhibit until October 26.

“If his work were not so valuable there would be no controversy. Critics get very excited when works change hands for a lot of money,” Gary Tinterow, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told Reuters.

“It definitely brings attention to works, it brings notoriety. It doesn’t help people see or understand works any better and it sometimes acts as an inhibition to see the quality of work because the dollar signs get in the way.”