The Jeff Koons Show at Strozzi: a Visit & Video

Jeff Koon’s mirror polished stainless steel ‘Balloon Dog’ work, whose reflection is reflected in a mirror. Photo by Dickson Janda.

Over 140,000 guests have visited the Jeff Koons art exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, which is in its final two weeks.  The retrospective spans a carefully selected choice of pieces from 40 years of this American artist’s career.  Here is a video preview of the show, and below is a live report.

Until January 30, 2022:  JEFF KOONS: SHINE.  Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza Strozzi.  Open daily 10 am – 8 pm, Thursday until 11 pm.  Admission: €15.  Audio guided tours in English and Italian available for €4. For more information, visit Palazzo Strozzi website at https://www.palazzostrozzi.org/en/tickets-opening-hours/

Jeff Koons is one of the most well-known contemporary artists around the world and some of his most celebrated works of the last 50 years are currently on display at Palazzo Strozzi in an exhibition titled, Jeff Koons. Shine. Koons is known for his large stainless steel balloon-animal sculptures and holds the record for the highest price paid at an auction for art created by a living artist. At Palazzo Strozzi, one of Koons’ monumental stainless steel sculptures welcomes visitors into the complex on the ground floor, while there are over 30 of his other sculptures and paintings on the first floor. This collection can be appreciated not just for its aesthetic qualities, but more deeply, for the philosophical messages conveyed by Koons in his written explanations throughout the show.

In the Shine exhibition are many of Koons’ most impressive balloon-looking sculptures made of steel. These sculptures all allude to recognizable subjects, yet they are simplified and enlarged, allowing the reflection of the viewers to become just as much a subject of the art as the sculptures themselves. One example is the large red balloon dog on the first floor of the exhibition. Like many of Koons’ pieces, the curving surface of this sculpture creates unique distorted reflections that make the piece able to be experienced differently from different angles. It is unique with its positioning in the room right next to a wall mirror, which allows the reflective sculpture to be viewed through yet another reflection. This layering of reflections alludes to Koons’ intention of inspiring self-reflection and is a sort of physical representation of metacognition – the act of thinking about one’s own thinking.

Koon’s philosophy behind his work is, as he stated in the video, “what has always been important to me is to have a dialogue on what it means to be alive.”

More naturalistic sculptures in steel and plaster are also included in the exhibition, showing Koons’ ability to be attentive to detail when needed. One of the most striking rooms in the exhibition contains a series of naturalistic paintings and life-size sculptures of human figures. The unexpected twist that makes these pieces memorable is the addition of a reflective blue ball to each composition. Because of their color contrast and reflectiveness, the blue balls are more the subject than the sculptures and paintings on which they rest. When viewers look at a blue ball, it is their own reflection that appears, which again shows Koons’ goal of incorporating the viewer into every artwork.

Arrangements of everyday items, like inflatable toys and items from the kitchen, are also on display as conceptual art. The materials used in these works vary, but they are always accompanied by some reflective element, making the use of reflection a sort of unique artist signature.

The reflective materials in nearly all of Koons’ work invites viewers to see art and art’s purpose differently, for they make the viewer an inseparable part of each piece. This gives rise to the question of who and what is most important in artistic expression: the viewer, the artist, or the art itself? Koons stated his unique perspective on this question during the artist talk that preceded the opening of the Shine exhibit, saying “what is really relevant to my art is YOU… if you don’t move around the art, nothing happens.” This sentiment relates to a message central to Koons’ art that he shared later in the talk about the importance of self-acceptance. He explained that the reason for making all of his pieces reflective is to make viewers face themselves, see themselves in their surroundings, and become willing to accept what they see while viewing his work. Thus, it can be said that the reflectiveness is more than a physical quality of Koons’ pieces, but a key part of what Koons considers his purpose in creating art to be.

Another notable observation to be made about Koons work is its tendency to create the illusion of materials that were not used in the creation of the art. For example, in the Shine exhibit there are numerous pieces that look unquestionably like large inflatable toys made of plastic, yet they are made of steel. Koons’ balloon-animal sculptures made of steel are examples of his work creating believable illusions. These contradictions between “what SEEMS true” and “what IS true” relate to the second central message Koons discussed in his artist talk about truth not always being what it seems.

Looking at the works in Koons’ Shine exhibition truly inspires new ways of seeing and thinking, largely because of the thoughtfulness and intention that he poured into the creative process. The most beautiful thing about his iconic reflective pieces is that they cannot be viewed without seeing one’s own reflection. As one of the world’s most influential contemporary artists, Koons is trying to use this aspect of his sculptures and paintings to spread a message of practicing more self-acceptance. The Shine exhibit at Palazzo Strozzi is a great stride in his efforts to help the world, for as he puts it: “Once you accept yourself, you can then go out into the world and help others.” There is no better way to encourage this kind of self-growth than through a universal language of the heart like visual art.  (maddie aub, csuipflorence)