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A Panoramic Backdrop for Meaning and Mischief

Apr 22, 2008 By KEN JOHNSON
With its breathtaking, panoramic views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, the Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art may strike you as an excellent place to mount a seasonal outdoor sculpture show, which it does every year. In truth, it is an inhospitable site for sculpture, as demonstrated by the 2008 display that opens on Tuesday: three wonderful, previously unexhibited works by the celebrated Pop artist Jeff Koons. Each of these sculptures is a greatly enlarged, glossily lacquered, stainless-steel representation of something small: a toy dog made of twisted-together balloons; a chocolate valentine heart wrapped in red foil, standing en pointe; and a silhouette of Piglet from a "Winnie the Pooh" coloring book, randomly colored as if by a small child.

They are mischievously meaningful works. With its pneumatic, sausagelike parts, "Balloon Dog (Yellow)" is a sly Trojan Horse: it seems innocent but is loaded with aesthetic and erotic perversity. "Sacred Heart (Red/Gold)" acidly comments on the commercial debasement of emotional and religious experience. "Coloring Book" reflects the youth-obsessed infantilism of modern culture and society.

But placed on the architecturally nondescript patio, where there are also shaded areas for patrons of the Roof Garden Cafe, the sculptures too easily turn into benign, decorative accessories.

The biggest problem is scale. Seen in an indoor gallery, the elephantine, shiny metallic "Balloon Dog (Yellow)," which rises to 10 feet at its highest point, would have a weirdly imposing, slightly menacing presence. On the roof it appears dwarfed by the vast sky and by the open expanses of space to the south and west of the museum.

The intimacy of Mr. Koons's sculpture is also diminished. Perfectionist attention to detail is one of his work's most compelling aspects: note the exactingly formed knot that serves as the balloon dog's nose, or the folds, pleats and stretch marks in the heart's wrapper. The distracting outdoor environment, though, discourages careful, contemplative looking.

Because it is both the biggest and the simplest, the 18 ½-foot-tall "Coloring Book" is the least undermined by its environment. But it is also the least interesting formally, being little more than a flat, irregularly contoured slab whose colors are thin and watery.

Their setting aside, Mr. Koons's sculptures remain intellectually and sensuously exciting objects - "Balloon Dog" is a masterpiece - and they are worth visiting under any circumstances.

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