A major solo exhibition dedicated to Jeff Koons has just opened at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Called “Shine,” it focuses on reflective surfaces and was curated in close collaboration with the artist, who was in town for the opening. A number of people have already asked me what I think of it, hence this brief review.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Red) 1994-2000, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating, private collection.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Red) 1994-2000, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating, private collection. Ph. Alexandra Korey (exhibition view)

My opinion may be unpopular with purists who would prefer the Renaissance city to host only Renaissance art, but to be honest, I like it. It’s a perfectly timed, fun show with a simple message. It’s a show for the Instagram age, with a sense of self that could only be initiated in America. Any trace of controversy in the artist’s work has been removed; the body of sculptures and paintings shown at Palazzo Strozzi have a simple positive message: it’s about YOU.

Jeff Koons, Hulk (Tubas), collection of the artist. Ph. Alexandra Korey (exhibition view)

A gracious and humble Koons spoke on stage with the curators at the opening, saying that being honoured in Florence is a “dream come true.” His brief Q&A followed endless institutional introductions featuring the city’s mayor, the region’s president and the consul-general of the United States, who had just presented Koons with a recognition of his diplomatic role in reinforcing bonds between the USA and Tuscany. Looking handsome and smiling for the press in a skinny blue suit, any trace of the controversial sex-obsessed Koons of 30 years ago is gone. And rightly so: at 65 years old he’s been tempered by age (and perhaps the pandemic) and is hugely successful – in 2019 he set the record for most expensive artwork at auction (a stainless steel sculpture Rabbit sold for $91.1 million at Christie’s in New York).

“Shine is about self-acceptance, and once you can accept yourself you are able to go out and accept the world.”

“Shine” focuses on the reflective surfaces found through Koons’s work, from the shiny metal “balloons” to inflatable plastic toys, from mirrors to stainless steel busts. As such, it’s an openness to the public and an invitation to find yourself in art. Going beyond the pure photo-opportunity, it’s also an invitation to an interior and spiritual journey.

Bluebird planter

Take the red balloon dog for example. By observing it, perhaps photographing it, you see yourself in it. You position yourself as a spectator in a fraction of a work, multiplied infinitely in its curves. You see yourself in relation to the space and the people in that space. You think about this piece and how it fits into your understanding of its shape – in this case a reference to twisty balloons given to children by clowns, but in other works, the reference may be to high culture. You might think about how the sculpture plays with appearances – you have a desire to touch it, because you expect it to be soft and rubbery.

“The gazing ball reflects the here and now, it reflects you the viewer. So it affirms your presence while it also mirrors the artworks’, and in some way this allows you to time-travel.”

Gazing Ball / Titian

Koons speaks about being connected to the past through art. He has a particular love for Italy, citing a (perhaps apocryphal?) complete lack of knowledge of art history when he entered college and an instant connection, a kind of biological memory, that awoke when he first experienced ancient and Renaissance art. He invites the viewer to connect with art history and tries to make it easy by literally putting the viewer in the picture. Sometimes, that may be too easy – the blue mirrored globes placed in or on fifty famous paintings and sculptures seems to me to be a ridiculous ruse, but I’m not his target public for this because I can relate to art and “time travel” without the blue ball. But who am I to judge: other generations, and other cultures not so informed about Western art history, may benefit from this engagement.

Within the walls and courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, Koons’s works create numerous dialogues. It’s the artist, being affirmed by art and being part of a timeline of art history. It’s the viewer in dialogue with the art and hence with the past. But only here, in Florence, at Palazzo Strozzi, the works can reflect the building’s Renaissance features and remind us of where we are right now. Unlike other shows of modern and contemporary art that could be anywhere, or that might travel to various venues, Jeff Koons “Shine” is happening here and now and has a relationship with space and time that changes every day, with every visitor.


Visitor information

Jeff Koons. Shine
Florence, Palazzo Strozzi
October 2, 2021, to January 30, 2022

Sign up to receive future blog posts by email