Jeff Koons at Newport St Gallery

First published in truncated form in City AM.

Whatever your opinion of Damien Hirst’s own artwork, it is hard to fault his activity as a collector and proprietor of Newport Street gallery. Opened in October 2015 and gorgeously designed by architects Caruso St John, it is the perfect space – medium sized, light and airy with some double height rooms – to mount long running exhibitions of his collection. Mr Hirst has over 3,000 works, and is seemingly unconstrained financially, thus capable of selecting the cream of what can be bought, and – crucially – in sufficient number. This was evidenced in the excellent John Hoyland show which opened the project, and continues in this survey of Jeff Koons: ‘Now’. 

Indeed, it is almost impossible to go wrong when Hirst has such an impressive selection spanning Koons’s entire career since 1980. We get the greatest hits: the iconic basketballs floating in water, ‘Three Ball 50/50 Tank’ from 1985; the inflatable pool toys and hyper-realistic paintings from the ‘Popeye Series’ begun in 2002; an oversized ‘Balloon Monkey (Blue)’ of 2006-13; kitch, eroticized (and highly explicit) prints from the notorious ‘Made in Heaven’ series of 1991. We also get lesser known pieces such as ‘Bowl With Eggs (Pink)’ of 1994-2009, incredibly constructed from impossibly perfect polyethylene and in staggering size, and a series of framed Nike posters from 1985. 

Perhaps most interestingly, the show opens with his earliest sculptures of Hoovers displayed in fluorescent-lit boxes from 1980-83, reminding us of his roots in the traditions of pop art, lampooning consumerism and commercialism, and the culture of ‘readymades’; that is, objects made into art simply by their selection and display in a gallery. The later balloon dogs, Play-Doh sculptures and inflatables, all of which are rendered in impossibly perfect stainless steel and aluminium, created using the absolute cutting edge in technology, and all of which selling for hyper-bucks at market, symbolize Koons’s morphing into the ultimate Pop Artist of today, or Now. 

I maintain that the justifying ‘meaning’ behind the works, such as his declaring that “the basketball is the womb”, or that ‘Made in Heaven’ represents “the biological eternal”, is as empty and cynical a sentiment as the advertiser’s pitch. Listen to any Koons interview and it’s the perfect salesman patter. It consolidates his position as today’s uber artist; someone who peddles empty luxury with cod-philosophical ideals, and is enormously financially successful at it. 

Which is why this show is in some ways a blissful marriage of two of today’s most successful artist-businessmen. Both Hirst and Koons employ large workshops to create what are essentially products, bright and shiny and infinitely marketable, representing the ultimate in art as commodity. This is where the interest lies, and it truly is fascinating: just don’t strain yourself trying to decipher the works’ ‘meaning’ in the traditional sense.