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by Kevin Nance
Jeff Koons is the Energizer Bunny of contemporary art. He just keeps going and going, banging the drum of mass iconography, self-acceptance and, above all, a uniquely American optimism about the affirming and transcendent properties of art. His sunny central message -- that the banality of modern life is, after all, the life we have, and that we should make the most of it -- is amplified into a cumulative, all-embracing whoop of joy in a new retrospective at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

The exhibition at the MCA, which gave the artist his first museum show in 1988 and is now mounting his first major survey in 15 years, features several of Koons’ most iconic pieces, including Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988),  Rabbit (1986) and the monumental Hanging Heart (Blue / Silver) (1994-2006). It showcases work from every phase of Koons’ prodigious output, beginning with his Duchampian readymades (display cases of Hoover carpet shampoo machines, aquariums full of floating basketballs and that a stainless-steel cast of an inflatable toy rabbit) and continuing through his elaborate sculptural creations in ceramic and wood. It includes plenty of self-portraits of the artist himself, some X-rated, as in the famous photographs of Koons and his ex-wife, the Italian porn star Ilona Staller, as well as a range of his digital-collage-based paintings, up to the "Hulk Elvis" series of 2007.   

Although the exhibition was organized by former MCA curator-at-large Francesco Bonami, Koons personally supervised its installation.

"I think artists know very intimately the interactions of their artworks, and how one work can bounce very nicely off another one," he told Artnet Magazine during a break. "We’re going to be laying things out somewhat chronologically but also intermixing with all different other periods of work. So you’ll be able to look at Michael Jackson and he could be beside a work that’s from 15 years later, and then that work could be beside a work that’s 20 years earlier. But at the same time there’s still a sense of chronology and what type of threads go through the work."

Koons’ insistence on a hands-on approach seems to relate in part to his increasing sense of urgency about framing his career in a context of his own design. "I’m a time in my life -- I’m 53 -- in which I have to be dealing with that aspect of looking back," he said. "People think that artists make their best work in their youth. But art continues to change, and your relationship with it changes every day. And I actually believe that the work that I’ve made most recently is as strong as the work I made in my youth."

At the same time, he acknowledges, the meanings that viewers draw from his work may evolve in response to recent events; Michael Jackson and Bubbles is a case in point. Still, he said, that time-warping effect only goes so far.

"Michael Jackson became, really, a train wreck, and when he first started to get in trouble and you started to hear negative reports about him, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh -- how’s that going to affect my artwork?’" Koons went on: "Here’s this piece I’ve always enjoyed very much, but you know, things become very independent, and they really develop a life of their own. And I think that Michael Jackson always was a tragic figure, and the sculpture always had aspects of that. It’s based on Renaissance sculpture, and if I look at it, I always get a sense of the pieta, and the triangular Renaissance type construction, in the way it’s laid out. It’s also very like King Tut and Nefertiti, the way it’s painted and the way the eyes are lined. Even the structure of it is like the three pyramids of Giza."

And if viewers get hung up on the real-life Jackson’s story, Koons said, they shouldn’t. "I really don’t think the meaning has changed so much, because it really wasn’t so much about Michael Jackson. It was about celebrity status, and about hopes, ideals, hierarchies that are placed on structures which take human form."

But what of "Made in Heaven," the series of sexually explicit photographs starring Koons and Cicciolina, which are being shown at MCA behind a partition with signs and attendants posted to warn parents with children? The passage of time has clearly altered the way viewers perceive these images, given that Koons -- who produced the series in the early 1990s to celebrate his union with Staller -- later engaged in a lengthy and acrimonious legal battle over custody of their son, Ludwig. (Koons was awarded custody by an American court, but Staller fled with the child to Italy.)

"My work has really turned out to be about self-acceptance, and when you accept the self, you can have transcendence about accepting others," he said. "And in working with readymades -- and my ex-wife was a readymade -- they’re all metaphors for people. If you look at the ‘Ushering in Banality’ show [from 1988, including Michael Jackson and Bubbles and Pink Panther), it was all about acceptance, the idea that everything is absolutely fine. Every viewer is fine, their own history is absolutely perfect up to that moment. So when I met my ex-wife, she told me that she wanted to change, that she wanted something different from her past. So I accepted her past. I felt that her background, for her to be who she was, it was perfect. That was Ilona. But her future was going to be different. She wasn’t able to make that change, but within my philosophy of acceptance, I accepted her history. I believe it’s important everybody accept their own history. So the photographs were another metaphor for self-acceptance."

In art-historical terms, "Made in Heaven" was Koons’ response to having seen Masaccio’s early Renaissance fresco The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in Florence. "In The Expulsion, there’s all this guilt and shame that were on Adam and Eve’s faces," he said, "and I wanted to make a body of work that was about guilt and shame and the importance of removing that, so that people could have transcendence over guilt and shame in their own history."

In an interview, Bonami, an Italian, called "Made in Heaven" a perfect illustration of the ultra-sincere, almost childlike quality of Koons’ work. "We were very familiar in Italy with his wife, and from an Italian point of view, it looked almost impossible that he really thought it would have been possible to have a real relationship and love story with her," he said. "But he believed it. He saw it from a very naïve point of view. He thought that this woman was not a porno star but someone using her own body as a work of art. And I think he was totally sincere."

The MCA show is a homecoming of sorts for Koons, who for a brief period in the mid-1970s was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a studio assistant for the Chicago Imagist painter Ed Paschke. It was Paschke, who died in 2004, who introduced Koons to the concept of the readymade by showing him his own artistic sources in the streets, bars and strip clubs of the Windy City. "Ed taught me that everything is already here," Koons said. "You know, you just have to look for it."

But while Paschke’s interest in popular culture had a neutral, even sociological slant, Koons took an approach that was more embracing. "Koons has a more positive attitude toward pop culture and low-life culture," Bonami said. "His is a very optimistic message, and it’s a totally wrong approach to see him as a trickster. His sincerity is really there, almost to a point of being a religious sincerity or faith. There’s absolutely nothing cynical in his approach to his artistic process."

In answer to critics who suspect him of cynicism, Koons recalls a Village Voice review of his "Equilibrium" series [sculptures and photographs from 1985 using basketballs and images of sports figures] "saying that my work wasn’t very moral. And I thought, ‘That’s just the opposite of everything I’m trying to do.’ It’s very, very moral work, and very involved in hopefully trying to help sustain life and something which is functioning to help people. I’ve never understood this [insincerity] idea. I believe the work is sincere. It tries to be disarming, and it doesn’t try to be confrontational. But I think people have a hard time with honesty."

"Jeff Koons," May 31-Sept. 21, 2008, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

KEVIN NANCE is a Chicago-based reporter, editor and critic.