‘Secret’ Summer Exhibitions: Alex Katz and Jeff Koons

Alex Katz and Jeff Koons

With the summer holidays officially here it can be difficult to find places to go that aren’t already full of people with hour-long queues to get in. But for anyone looking for a quieter spot or even just a quick lunchtime stroll away from work, there are a couple of fantastic and entirely free exhibitions on offer tucked away in two of London’s busiest areas.

South Kensington is prime museum territory with the Natural History Museum, Science Museum and V&A on neighbouring corners of Exhibition Road, but venture a further 5-10 minutes up the road and you reach The Serpentine Gallery which has two sites in Hyde Park, both free, close to each other and open every day. Each year between the Albert Memorial and the Lake, the Gallery creates a temporary structure that dominates the park skyline for visitors to explore and enjoy, but look behind it and you’ll see one of the permanent Serpentine Gallery buildings, currently hosting an exhibition by American artist Alex Katz, entitled Quick Light.

Predominantly known for portraits, Katz is now 88 and, like the slightly younger Hockney, continues to produce and exhibit his work around the world. After positive reviews for this small show I was intrigued by this combination of recently created large portraits and slightly lesser known landscapes, and was delighted with what I saw. This show is predominantly scenes of the changing seasons and different impacts of light in various rural and urban settings which dazzle far more than the Pop Art-brightness of the people. Time Out noted that Katz’s landscapes have long been undervalued and it’s impossible to see why in this wonderful show.

Immediately your eye is drawn to a black piece with bright, almost impressionistic, cerise flowers that have a sharp angular quality with dashes of green to imply stalks and leaves, called White Impatiens 2 (2012). In fact this defined shape of leaves and branches is a real feature of the work that follows and even in recurring scenes of a red house, it is often ensconced if not obscured by elements of the landscape. The dynamic Red House 1 (2015) is an aerial view with a vertical grey road carving through the scene, while the titular house sits amidst a mass of green dots, lines and swirls that imply a bustling abundant landscape. It appears again in Red House 3 (2013) nestled against a bulging view of nature that presses into and almost consumes the building.

But the very best pieces are those which depict night time city views, often seen from the perspective of parks or avenues. The painting entitled January 7pm (1997) shows a latticed window lightly obscured by a branch, through which you can see reflections of moonlight and streetlights in the glass. Katz’s particular use of light in these images really sets them apart, and you see it again in the incredible City Landscape (1995) which is arguably the best piece on display. Katz makes you the viewer, standing in the middle of park at night observing several perfect circles of light dotted between the bare tree branches. Clearly a winter scene, his use of deep blues and greys to convey the woody darkness of the park is beautifully contrasted by the thin silver lines on the central branch and trunk to indicate where light falls. It’s absolutely stunning, and, as with so many paintings, a reproduction image on the internet cannot match the impact of seeing the original.

I was far less enamoured of the portraits, all on bright orange canvases showing singular poses or the same women in a variety of stances. They’re simple and, like the Hockney exhibition, the quality of the perspective and shaping isn’t perfect but they do have a stark and simple charm, particularly in some of the facial expressions. Anna (2015) feels especially insightful as the subject stares directly at you with an almost penetrating glare. But hanging next to the landscapes these portraits pale in comparison and although they play with colour and approaches to symmetry, it is the landscapes that make this worth the additional 10 minute walk from the main museums to Hyde Park.

In another part of London, the Imperial War Museum is a huge summer attraction for families and is a short walk from Waterloo and Parliament Square. And if you’re heading there then the war movies exhibition is well worth a visit. But if you’re looking for something a little calmer than Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery has a show dedicated to the influential American sculptor and artist Jeff Koons which runs until early October. Famous for his Pop Art influences, this brings together some of Koons’s large scale works that make for a fascinating wander through consumerism and technique.

Over two floors this fascinating show focuses on what constitutes art, looking at the value of everyday and novelty objects. Koons’s work attempts to break down pre-conceived notions of function to see the design and style that are also part of the object. The first gallery contains a number of his vacuum cleaner pieces that celebrates new technology and strips the items of their utility by putting them on display without ever having been used. Once the epitome of modernity, these vacuum cleaners are now, and were quickly, replaced by newer versions, so here they manage to look both old and untouched, telling us much about rapid consumption patterns and our constant hunger for novelty.

One of the most astounding and enormous pieces dominates the second gallery, and is a masterpiece in confounding your expectations. The whole room is dominated by an almost six meter high sculpture called Balloon Monkey (Blue) created from 2006-2013 which looks as though it’s made of burstable balloon plastic, but is actually cleverly fashioned stainless steel and colour coating. Even very close-to it’s almost impossible to tell with the various bulbous and twisted areas perfectly replicating the stretched and creased look of a real balloon creature. It’s a technically impressive and fascinating piece of work allowing Koons to comment on our obsession with appearances, how things are not what they seem on the surface. Walking around this giant creature, your own image is repeatedly reflected back at you which is a common theme in his work.

Similar technique is applied to his ‘inflatables’ in the upper galleries which adopt this same approach to disorientate the viewer. At astonishingly close range they look exactly like pool toys, with that very precise rubbery reflective surface, as though they are full of air. But each one is made of, presumably reasonably weighty, aluminium and skilfully painted to belie their own material and like Balloon Monkey (Blue) Koons is playing with how the eye perceives density and structure in a succession of works created between 2003 and 2009. Sling Hook suspends two toys from the ceiling, while Seal Walrus (Chairs) incorporates the bodies of two toys into a stack of apparently plastic chairs, retaining their inflated look even when they should be crushed by their surroundings. Finally Acrobat places an upside-down lobster with its claws balancing on an up-turned bin and a chair – in a way that a genuine inflatable toy would find impossible.

There are a couple more of these effects in Gallery 6 which look to childhood influences and are reminiscent of the character balloons you see at fairgrounds. Elephant  (2003) and Titi (2004-2009) reflect the same ideas as Balloon Monkey (Blue) with a high polish finish distracting the viewer from their heavy stainless-steel construct. The rest of the pieces in the exhibition are interesting but somehow seem less technically impressive, although the creation process is probably just as involved. There are some rather dubious pornographic shots in Gallery 3, so not something to take the family though, and Gallery 4 has a variety of alcohol-related exhibits also made from stainless-steel which unlike the inflatables is made to look like a luxury item.

Jeff Koons Now is a short but highly entertaining show that is well worth a detour to the backstreets of Lambeth, which even on a Sunday was reasonably quiet. With two fascinating exhibitions by well- known artists in busy areas you might want to give the big museums, and their queues a miss, and head for something a little quieter this summer. Just don’t tell anyone!

Alex Katz: Quick Light is at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park until 11th September, while Jeff Koons Now is at the Newport Street Gallery until 16 October. Both exhibitions are free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 350 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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