DEBORAH AMOS, host:
Naked ladies, rabbits and some basketballs are on display at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, courtesy of American painter, sculptor and artist-provocateur, Jeff Koons. At age 53, Koons is one of the most popular artists of his generation. His shiny blue heart sold for over $23 million not long ago. NPR's special correspondent, Susan Stamberg, says visitors to the Koons show in Chicago were either smiling, laughing or just puzzled.
SUSAN STAMBERG: A smiler was Andrew Vasalinovich of Chicago.
Mr. ANDREW VASALINOVICH (Chicago, Illinois): I love Jeff Koons. He's a lot of fun. I like artists that encourage a positive outlook on the world.
STAMBERG: Among the puzzled was Will Barzhay, of near Cincinnati. Will, age 12, was standing in front of Koons' "Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank" — three Spalding basketballs, suspended in distilled water in a rectangular glass box.
Mr. BARZHAY (Cincinnati, Ohio): They're just floating. It's strange. All he used was like a fish tank and a ball.
STAMBERG: Koons made the piece in 1985, part of a series. One ball, two balls, three balls.
Mr. BARZHAY: That's just strange.
STAMBERG: Well it is, but it got your attention, which is very Jeff Koons. He's like the big psst of contemporary art. More about the basketballs later, but first, as we say in radio, little Jeff and the light box - a lit-up, blown-up photograph of a small boy with his Crayola set.
He was probably about seven, maybe, and look at that sweet face. He's got - his hair is so carefully combed, and there's this nice little smile at whoever's taking the picture.
Ms. TRISHA VAN ECK (Curatorial Coordinator, Museum of Contemporary Art): Yeah, it's a perfect photo of Jeff as an artist. The portrait of the artist as a young boy.
STAMBERG: Trisha Van Eck is a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She helped guest curator Francesco Bonami and Koons himself to put this show together.
Ms. VAN ECK: And it's typical of everything that Jeff does. He changes the context. Everything that he does is some kind of magic that he spins on the work.
STAMBERG: In this case, he takes an old snapshot his grandmother may have carried around in her wallet, enlarges it, backlights it and puts it in this exhibition. The message?
Ms. VAN ECK: Here's my work, yeah, ta-da, and ta-da is a huge thing for Jeff.
STAMBERG: Trisha tells a nice story about Koons and ta-da.
Ms. VAN ECK: Jeff came home one day, and his son was drawing, just like he was drawing in that photograph, and his son said ta-da. And Jeff said, ta-da, that's what I work all week in the studio to capture: ta-da.
Koon's big, shiny blue heart is a ta-da. So is the big, shiny balloon dog, a stainless steel dachshund that weighs more than a ton but looks like those air-filled, long balloons that guys in zoos twist into animals.
Ms. VAN ECK: It's orange, it's monumental. You can see yourself.
STAMBERG: And you smile, just smile, no message.
Ms. VAN ECK: It is what it is. It's shiny, it's big, it's perfect. It's taking objects that we're all familiar with and making them larger than life.
STAMBERG: There's a shiny silver rabbit in the Chicago show, a shiny red lobster and various, brand-new Hoover vacuum shampoo-polishers in big acrylic cases, and then behind a sturdy concealing wall, some larger-than-billboard-size works we cannot show you at NPR.org because they're Jeff Koons and his once wife, Cicciolina, the former soft-porn star and Italian Parliamentarian, making, shall we say, whoopee or making babies or making - hey, I don't know what to call it, but that sweet little light-box boy sure grew up.
Is this art?
Ms. VAN ECK: Jeff would say that everything he does is art, and Jeff has always tried to cross boundaries of what is art and what is not, what is high art, what is low art, what is commercial product, what is fine art.
STAMBERG: And while we're on the subject of is this art, back to the basketballs.
Listen, what do you say to people who will say to you, those are really fancy theories, but the guy took two basketballs, stuck them in a case with some water, and here they are in a museum.
Ms. VAN ECK: That's probably the one where you say okay, but how is it floating?
STAMBERG: No, no, I'm not going to say that.
Ms. VAN ECK: That one looks like…
STAMBERG: I'm going to say the guy took two basketballs, and he put them in a case with water.
Ms. VAN ECK: And they're just floating. Then how do you explain this one that just…?
STAMBERG: No, that's not what I meant.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. VAN ECK: Oh.
STAMBERG: What are they doing in a museum?
Ms. VAN ECK: Well again, it's that - it's two basketballs, it's in what you're calling a fish tank or a display cabinet. It's…
STAMBERG: This is not easy, is it?
But the thing that occurs to me as you struggle to find an explanation for this, a simple explanation, is they are ordinary things that an artist has taken and done something to that makes us look at them anew.
Ms. VAN ECK: Right, exactly, and that is the key to his work. It's looking at what's already out there in the world, subtly twisting it, sometimes majorly twisting it, and re-presenting it and saying what you like as a person. You like basketballs? They're here. Why shouldn't basketballs be art?
STAMBERG: In a lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Jeff Koons put it this way.
Mr. JEFF KOONS (Artist): For me, art starts with self-acceptance, with self-trust. Whatever you come to with art, it's perfect. You don't have to come with anything. What you bring to something is the art. That's where it's found. It's found within you.
STAMBERG: Jeff Koons has his critics, of course. One of them is Robert Hughes, erstwhile art critic for Time magazine. On NPR once, Hughes had this evaluation of Koons.
Mr. ROBERT HUGHES (Art Critic): You know, he's one of those guys who would have been, you know, brilliant at selling swamp in Florida or raising money for the excavation of entirely fictional gold mines in Nevada.
STAMBERG: Chicago curator Trisha Van Eck agrees that Koons has a talent for selling things plus a savvy sense of the art market, but she says Koons also has a deep appreciation of art history, aesthetics and the creative process, so the heck with criticism from the experts.
Ms. VAN ECK: He's not interested in that critical dialogue. He's looking around, what do people like, I'm going to show them that. I'm going to give them that, and critics don't like that.
STAMBERG: But the people do. Those crowds at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago were, mostly, smiling. The show is there and there only until September 21. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
AMOS: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.