High Art, Public Art, Garden Art: Koon’s Split Rocker at Rockefeller Center


Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2000; Stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants; 446 7/8 x 483 1/8 x 427 5/8 inches. Edition of 1, plus 1 AP. Installation view at Rockefeller Center, New York City; June 25 – September 12, 2014; © Jeff Koons. (Photograph mine)

Summer is over, but I was reminded of some of the public art I saw in New York City this summer when I reread this great article on Hyperallergic discussing Kara Walker’s Subtlety and Jeff Koon’s Split Rocker and how both use the monumental forms of public artSplit Rocker, a mammoth topiary riffing on childrens’ toys, has an illustrious visitation record, being shown at Versailles before its recent incarnation this summer at Rockefeller Center in New York City. In both cases, Koons takes advantage of the long public vista to create a dominating perspective for the eye to stare down and, secondarily, a sense of irony when the playful bearer of the eye is considered. In Versailles, the vegetation referenced the history of the gardens surrounding the palace and its carefully pruned hedges. Amid Rockefeller Center’s towering buildings and hard asphalt, it seems equally light-hearted but totally vacuous.


This piece is named Split-Rocker because it takes the two different rockinghorse models and splices them together, the disjunct most clearly seen in the metal edging when viewed from the side. The playful irony continues by presenting the blown-up children’s toy  where one might expect a monument or heroic statue.


In a nod to the season, the surface is made up on flowers, which will grow and blow at different points through the summer, giving it some amount of variability. In Koon’s work, this superficial layer of vegetation is just that: superficial. Although artists have done interesting works that change because of natural growth over time, this piece is carefully maintained to always bloom and be colorful.


Tellingly, when I saw Split-Rocker in July, I was strongly reminded of a recent trip to the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The plant-covered sculptural installations there greatly resemble the Koon’s piece, but they certainly do not function in the art market at all like one, nor are they considered high art.



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