No one has been more important to the revival of public art than Jeff Koons, contemporary sculpture’s genius lightweight, whose up-and-down, hellbent-on-perfection career is the subject of an illuminating if rather crowded survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was Mr. Koons’s giant “Puppy” — a West Highland terrier covered with dirt, planted densely with flowers and first shown 16 years ago — that broadcast most loudly and clearly that public sculpture was neither an exhausted form nor necessarily a dumbed-down one.
“Puppy” was well placed and well timed. It stood in the courtyard of a handsome, mustard-colored Baroque palace that framed it perfectly. It was June 1992, and a few miles away, in the German city of Kassel, the international megashow “Documenta 9” was opening. Scores of art-world denizens made the short schlep to Arolsen to see what Mr. Koons was up to.
What they found was a shocking simplicity, accessibility and pleasure. “Puppy” was intensely lovable, triggering a laugh-out-loud delight that expanded your sense of the human capacity for joy. It was a familiar, sentimental cliché revived with an extravagant purity, not with enduring materials like marble or bronze but with nature at its most colorful and fragile. The flowery semblance of fur made “Puppy” almost living flesh, like us.
The sculpture could also be read as a redemptive gesture, a kind of mea culpa after the sexually explicit harshness of Mr. Koons’s “Made in Heaven” series, exhibited the previous year at galleries in New York, Brussels and Lausanne, Switzerland. Four of these paintings hang in the Chicago show behind a wall flanked by dire parental warnings, showing them to be almost anti-public compared with most of his subsequent work.
“Puppy” also provided a karmic bookend for an occurrence that happened almost exactly three years before its Arolsen debut: the removal, in March 1989, of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” from the plaza at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan. The dismantling came after a court ruling, complaints by the people who worked in the building — they hated the Serra — and days of acrimonious public hearings overseen by the General Services Administration.
“Tilted Arc” was in many ways the dark before the dawn not only of the Koons “Puppy,” but also of the shining achievement of Mr. Serra’s post-Arc work. He has in essence taken his revenge on the public by making stronger, more elaborate pieces that it could not resist — judging from how people line up these days to walk through his torqued ellipses, spirals and arcs.
The “Puppy” set a high standard that Mr. Koons reached again only with his recent works in gleaming high chromium stainless steel, especially his big hatched egg and his prim yet erotic “Balloon Dog” sculptures. The dogs imbue a greatly enlarged child’s party toy with the tensed stillness of an archaic Greek horse while subtly evoking various bodily orifices and protrusions. “Balloon Dog (Yellow)” is on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it draws crowds, functions as a photo op and yet retains its dignity. “Balloon Dog (Orange)” is among the Chicago survey’s high points.