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Jeff Koons and the Seated Ballerina at Rockefeller Center

New York’s latest public art spectacle, a 45-foot inflatable nylon Seated Ballerina by artist Jeff Koons, is on display at Rockefeller Center through July 5. Co-presented by Art Production Fund and Kiehl’s Since 1851, the sculpture is meant to raise awareness for National Missing Children’s Month and the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. This is the artist’s fourth partnership with the nonprofit organization. (Art Production Fund website)

Jeff Koons, Seated Ballerina, Rockefeller Center. 2017.

Seated on a plush pink and silver cushion, the pony-tailed blond blue-eyed dancer in light blue tutu is depicted leaning over to adjust her left shoe. She has huge arms and hands and puffy lower legs. While she is inflated to a degree that a stern ballet master might chide her for her weight, she possesses a nonchalance that suggests she wouldn’t care. She is so casually posed that few people, at least during my visit, seemed to give her much attention. A snapshot here, a selfie there, and it was time to be off to see other things.

The oversized nylon work is based on two previous iterations by Koons, a small 18-inch figure in wood and a 7-foot stainless steel sculpture (Seated Ballerina, 2010-2015). A small porcelain figurine from a Russian factory in the early 20th century initially served as the basis for the ballerina. Indeed, a quick query on ebay pulled up a nearly identical item (save the cotton candy colors) from a Russian factory in the 1970s. Part of his Antiquity series, including a Pluto and Proserpina, Koons intended his ballerina to evoke a modern-day Venus.

Seated Ballerina at Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center has long served as a gathering place for spectacular and fanciful presentations, especially during the holidays. Seated Ballerina has simply traded places, for a few weeks in springtime, with the famous tree and its accompanying army of soldier nutcrackers. Her scale, curves, and wavy tutu nicely complement the Art Deco exterior, especially Lee Lawrie’s sculptural figure, Wisdom (1933), that hovers above the main entrance to the building directly behind her.    

Koons has enjoyed great visibility in the city. In the summer of 2008, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted several shiny Koons works on their rooftop. At Rockefeller Center, his Split-Rocker (2000, 2014) topiary echoed his popular Puppy from more than a decade earlier. The Split-Rocker opened in conjunction with the 2014 Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum, the final exhibition hosted by the Whitney in its old building (now the Met Breuer.) 
 
In 2012 Koons had the idea to suspend a locomotive, specifically a full-size replica of a 1943 Baldwin 2900 steam locomotive, by a crane over the High Line. The train would blow whistles and emit steam puffs. The thing would have cost $25 million, so the project never materialized. (Related post.) A more typical public art work, Balloon Flower (Red), is installed outside 7 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. (Related post.)  

Seated Ballerina adjusting her shoe.

Following the artist’s notorious and exhibitionist body of work from the late 1980s, created with a former wife and ex-porn star, Koons turned toward making works with a child-like or even kitsch quality. The artist has said he prefers the word “banal” to kitsch. In addition to balloons and puppies and ballerinas and many other objects of infantile wonder, he also created an infamous homage to another fan of the child with his Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1998. Some critics found the porcelain portrayal of Jackson and the singer’s pet chimpanzee to be tone-deaf on race.

His toughest critics have dismissed Koons as a manipulator of the art world. In a review of the Whitney Museum’s retrospective, Jed Perl wrote, “The Koons retrospective is a multimillion-dollar vacuum, but it is also a multimillion-dollar mausoleum in which everything that was ever lively and challenging about avant-gardism and Dada and Duchamp has gone to die.” (Jed Perl, The New York Review of Books, “The Cult of Jeff Koons,” September 25, 2014. article)

If Seated Ballerina can do anything for us in this late turbulent spring, a time of crisis that demands our full attention, she can at least encourage us to pause and rest for a moment, to sit down and adjust our shoes.      

As a precaution to visitors, Seated Ballerina will be deflated during bad weather.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 16, 2017.

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