Loving Art to the Moon and Back
More is always more for Jeff Koons.
Now 67, he has been a famous artist for nearly 40 years, and he has never been shy about his desire to make his art more impactful and more spectacular — and to reach more and more people while still retaining his art world cachet, a strategy epitomized by his ebullient sculptures “Rabbit,” “Balloon Dog” and “Puppy.”
The artist Ai Weiwei summed it up in an email: “Jeff Koons is not only an artist. He is a phenomenon. He is unique.”
This summer, Mr. Koons has set his artistic course in two very different directions.
The first is back to antiquity, to the roots of Western art. Mr. Koons has been giving classic Greek and Roman statuary his own distinct spin for a decade and a half, and on June 21 a show in this vein, “Jeff Koons: Apollo,” opened on the Greek island of Hydra, at the Project Space Slaughterhouse , run by the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art.
On view until Oct. 31, the show is anchored by a large, colorfully painted sculpture of the god Apollo playing an instrument called a kithara, an antecedent of the guitar; around him slithers an animatronic python. It was inspired by a Hellenistic period sculpture Mr. Koons saw in 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 a chance to see his Hydra installation.)
The second artistic trajectory points out of this world — quite literally — to the moon itself, where a lunar lander, transported by a rocket made by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, will place a case of Mr. Koons’ small sculptures, making them the first authorized artworks on the moon. The launch is tentatively scheduled for late fall, a said.
The launch is part of a three-part project, “Jeff Koons: Moon Phases,” that will also include sculptures for collectors to have at home and his first non-fungible token or NFT, the digital medium that has been obsessed with the art world for the last couple of years.
In May, at his primary studio on the West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Koons talked about both projects.
“Every artwork that I create is really conceived and, in some manner executed, through digital technology, and it’s been that way for decades,” he said, explaining his comfort with NFTs. “But I wanted to bring meaning to it.”
Mr. Koons made clear that he sees his mission as making meaning on a grand scale, and that being exacting about the conception and production of his artworks is his artistic love language.
“I always try to do the absolute best that I can because I feel a moral obligation,” he said. “This is one chance to do it. And artworks can be treated as metaphor for the type of care that you’re putting into it. It’s really to show people that you care about them.”
Mr. Ai noted his meticulousness, saying, “The thoroughness of his artworks can only be surpassed by very few artists.”
Mr. Koons said that “Apollo” finds him “trying to play metaphysically with time.” He added that the installation “celebrates the freedom that we have in the arts.”
That freedom is granted by the collector Dakis Joannou, an early patron and close friend of Mr. Koons, who founded the Athens-based Deste in 1983. Before the show opened, the details of the installation were kept top secret from everyone — including from Mr. Joannou himself.
Visitors are greeted outside the work by “a huge wind spinner, which is two-sided, with a reflective golden surface,” Mr. Koons said. An actor and some live animals are stationed outside of the building (which, as the name suggests, is a former slaughterhouse), as are some sculptures (including a bicycle wheel and a urinal) that are nods to one of the artist’s guiding lights, the artist Marcel Duchamp.
Inside, amid piped-in music, stands the Apollo figure. Though Apollo had several godlike functions, for Mr. Koons it is his gift of prophecy that seems to resonate most. “He can be very, very gentle or he can be extremely violent” — on the word violent, Mr. Koons widened his bright blue eyes.
Surrounding Apollo and the slithering python are walls that look frescoed, though they actually have a vinyl covering. They’re meant to reproduce the wall paintings from a Roman villa at Boscoreale, near Pompeii, from the first century BC, some of which now reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A small porch area features an object that has become a recurring motif in Mr. Koon’s art for the last few years, the gazing ball. They are part of his fascination with mirrors — and he also likes that the balls are common suburban garden décor. (One of Mr. Koon’s earlier series was called “Banality.”)
As for his ongoing interest in antiquity, he said it related to his search for “connections and resurrecting shared meaning.” He added, “I love to look at ancient pieces because we really feel the same things, we have similar types of thoughts.”
Scott Rothkopf, the senior deputy director and chief curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, organized a 2014 retrospective and chose to open the Whitney show with some of Mr. Koons’ classically themed works, rather than a famously button-pushing work like the 1988 sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” to make a point.
“Although this series may seem like a rupture, the seeds were there from the start,” Mr. Rothkopf said in an interview. “Jeff has always been engaging with the most universal themes of the human condition. And he’s always been engaging with art history’s long arc.”
Mr. Rothkopf pointed out that the “special and rare” relationship between Mr. Koons and Mr. Joannou was a particularly important one over the long haul, given that Mr. Koons makes elaborate, expensive works.
“Making a ‘Balloon Dog’ requires a lot of people — this is not an artist with his brush and canvas,” Mr. Rothkopf said. “You need people to believe in you even before the work exists.”
Although it is highly unusual for the founder of a private museum to be unaware of the contents in his own exhibition space until the last minute, Mr. Joannou has established trust with Mr. Koons, and he likes surprises.
Mr. Joannou said he wanted “that magic moment of experiencing something for the first time. “He first met Mr. Koons in 1985 and has collected dozens of his works since then, adding them to a total trove of thousands of pieces of contemporary art.
Mr. Joannou cautioned viewers not to stop at the arresting visual hook of Mr. Koon’s creations.
“They have layers,” he said. “The surface may attract, but you need to go beyond that.”
Mr. Koons lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife, Justine Wheeler Koons, also an artist. He has eight children. During the pandemic, the family spent much of the time on a Pennsylvania farm near his hometown of York, where they normally spend weekends and summers, raising cattle as a group activity.
As part of “Moon Phases,” Mr. Koons considered leaving his family on a long trip — to the moon itself. “But I realized that it was really going to take a year commitment of my time. And with everything going on in the studio and with my work, I really couldn’t do that.”
The three-part project was announced this spring by PaceVerso, the NFT-focused arm of Pace Gallery, which represents Mr. Koons. It is ambitious enough that people may wonder: Can he really pull this off? Most artist projects do not require coordination with NASA.
The project will have several parts, not all of which are completed yet, starting with 125 miniature moon sculptures. Each are about an inch in diameter and will depict a phase of the moon, half as seen from the Earth, half from different vantage points in space, plus one lunar eclipse. They will be named after a person the artist admires, those who have “made accomplishments that are aspirational for our society,” Mr. Koons said.
Although the list isn’t finalized, 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 dealer who once represented Mr. Koons.
All of the miniature moon sculptures are scheduled to be launched later this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center on an autonomous mission alongside a NASA payload, and they will remain on the moon, although the exact landing location is still 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.
The Earth-bound sculptures will feature a reflective surface mimicking the colors on the moon’s surface and a tiny precious stone, either a ruby, emerald, sapphire or Diamond , which will indicate where the miniature sculptures were left on the moon.
The complex project was initiated by the digital arts and technology company NFMoon and the space exploration company 4Space, and the Nova-C Lunar Lander was designed and made by Intuitive Machines.
For Mr. Koons, the myriad complexities of an actual space launch are another reason to geek out on the details. “NASA had to approve all the materials,” he said, showing off a clear plastic case that is filled with small moon-like spheres, similar to the one that will live on the moon. He acknowledged that his projects, never simple, are getting more complex all the time.
In addition to a desire to spread his art everywhere, the core of Mr. Koon’s interest in the moon is its role as a reflective body for the sun. “The whole lunar surface, that’s reflective light,” he said. “And I’ve always gotten pulled to reflection through philosophy.”
In Mr. Koons’s mind, “Moon Phases” is a continuation of his themes and aesthetic; in their shape and presentation in a clear container, the stainless steel moon sculptures recall the basketballs he floated in water tanks in his “Equilibrium” series of the 1980s.
Mirroring, shininess and reflectivity in particular will continue to occupy his mind and his art, and to him they have cultural connotations that are the opposite of the ones from the myth of Narcissus.
“A reflective surface affirms,” he said. “This is why I work with reflective materials today. My work is about aspiration, it’s about transcendence, becoming, and self-acceptance.”