#L’Artiste: Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955, is regarded as the most successful contemporary living artist. No contemporary sold his works for a higher price, and no one makes art dealers as rich. As unquestioned as American’s success is, his creative achievements are controversial. For many, he is a mere showman and cynical businessman. Others consider him a genius and his works defining.

In the years 1972 to 1975 Jeff Koons studied at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, in Baltimore. He continued his studies from 1975 to 1976 at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. In this phase, he focused on contemporary art. In 1976, he moved to New York and worked there on the Wallstreet. Koon’s paintings followed the stylistic language of realism. Then his work focused on the pop art of the sixties.

In this era he satirized objects of the consumer society, for example by making ceramic knickknack or rococo figurines. He imitated or alienated objects he chose from advertising or pornography. The irony of the everyday objects and kitsch culture is what made it so artistically valuable.

Koons used inflatable toys and put them in plexiglas boxes. With this concept he linked to the ready-made art of the French artist Marcel Duchamp, which he extended to consumer products. In 1980 Jeff Koons had his first solo exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, showing his sculpture series “The New”. In 1985, another exhibition took place at the International Monument Gallery in New York, which presented work on industrial products under the title “Eqilibrium”.

His creative work included the marketing of art objects on the market as presented in the “Luxury and Degradation” series (1986). In 1990 wood carvers from Oberammergau made a life-size sculpture of the artist designed by himself. At the Venice Biennale the nude sculpture was exhibited together with the Italian pornstar Cicciolina, dressed in lingerie, whilst “making love”.

Jeff Koons turned himself an art object. One year later, in 1991, he married the adult actress. This event, as well as the birth of their son, was made into a media spectacle entitled “Made in Heaven”, which brought the rules of the art market into the light. Koons had by now become one of the highest-selling living artists, his stainless steel sculptures already valued at several million dollars. In 1992, on the sidelines of the Documenta IX, which he had not been officially invited to as an artist, he surprised the public with the work “Puppy”, a twelve-meter-high “dog” consisting of 17,000 flowers. Then he stepped out of the spotlight for several years.

In 2000, the German Guggenheim in Berlin presented Koons’ new series “Easyfun-Ethereal”. For an award in honor of Muhammad Ali, Koons designed the sculpture Radial Champs, which consists of a car tire, an inflatable dolphin and a wooden stool. In 2005, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also appeared in Sean Penn’s movie “Milk” in 2008, where he played the Californian politician Art Agnos. For the 2007/2008 season at the Vienna State Opera, he designed the enormous “Geisha” (176 m²) as part of the “Iron Curtain” exhibition series.

In 2010, he designed BMW’s latest BMW Art Car, a BMW M3 GT2, which participated in the Le Mans 24-hour race with drivers Dirk Müller, Andy Priaulx and Dirk Werner; The vehicle was not a sporting success. In December 2012, Philippine de Rothschild announced that Koons is designing the label for the 2010 vintage of Château Mouton-Rothschild. In October 2013 Koons designed the cover for the album Artpop by Lady Gaga. Koons is considered to be the most expensive living artist in the world since November 12, 2013 with the auction of a Balloon Dog (Orange) for $58.4 million at the New York auction house Christie’s.

Most recently Koons has made headlines with his 14m high inflatable ballerina that was placed in front of the Rockefeller Center in New York. She smiles at the golden Prometheus statue below her. The installation is intended to draw attention to the month of missing children. “I hope the ballerina can give people of all ages hope and optimism for the future, but above all, small children can look at it and get a sense of their own potential,” Koons said. His inspiration was a small porcelain figure of a sitting ballerina.

His series are always closely linked to the decision for a certain “style” or for a certain material, which plays a special role with Koons, especially in his early and middle work. Series can also communicate with each other in different defined periods by the artist, picking up certain elements and then placing them in a new context. The artist’s overall work is divided as follows:

Inflatables, 1979
Sculptures made of prefabricated mass products: inflatable swimwear in combination with square mirrors and plexiglas panels.

Pre-New, 1979
Found objects, mainly kitchen utensils mounted on fluorescent tubes.

The New, 1979/80 – 1987
Vacuum and foam cleaners for carpet cleaning, which are presented in custom-made plexiglas showcases in different compilations, often in combination with fluorescent tubes. In addition to this, panel pictures were made from advertisements, some of which were applied to the canvas in lithography or mounted in light boxes, all of which proclaim the word “New” in their advertising message. They also included a children’s photo of the artist.

Equilibrium, 1985
Bronze sculptures of diving and swimming equipment, as well as basketballs and footballs and an original poster of a Nike advertising campaign with famous athletes. The series is completed with elaborately manufactured objects, where basketballs are put into different equilibrium states in water-filled glass boxes. Since this series, Koons has published his works in editions, mostly of three pieces plus an artist proof.

Luxury and Degradation, 1986
Sculptures made of stainless steel dealing with the topic of alcohol. Including barber tools and a bourbon-filled train with attached wagons, based on a porcelain model produced by Jim Beam. The sculptures are combined with magnified, original advertising advertisements for alcoholic beverages, which are then applied to canvas.

Statuary, 1986
Small sculptures of stainless steel, which represent kitschy knickknacks, which in their original form presumably consisted of plastic, cheap wood or similar material.

Kiepenkerl, 1987
Commissioned by the city of Münster as part of the Münster sculpture projects. Stainless steel copy of a historic bronze figure from Münster.

Banality, 1988
Designed by Jeff Koons, on which he himself is depicted, and which appeared in various art magazines as advertising for his exhibition Banality, shown simultaneously in three large cities. The series consists of large porcelain and wood sculptures as well as mirrors. The topic of trivial objects from the Statuary series is continued in an enhanced form.

Made in Heaven, 1989-1991
The series explores thematically with the love and sexual life of the artist and his then wife Ilona Staller, implemented in different artistic techniques. For example, there are large lithographs on billboards imitating the advertising of a movie. There are small Murano glass figurines in various colors depicting Kamasutra positions, colored wood and plastic sculptures of the couple having sex, dogs and bouquets of flowers made with painted wood, marble busts of his wife, a marble kitten and blackboard paintings (mainly screen-printed) showing Koons and Staller in detailed intimate poses.

Puppy (Flowers), 1992
With Puppy, as well as at Kiepenkerl, it is a singular piece of work that has been commissioned and first shown in Germany in front of Arolsen Castle. Puppy is a nearly 12 m high sculpture of various living flowers in the shape of a doggy. Meanwhile, this sculpture has been shown in various public places and has a fixed place in front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Celebration, 1994 – present day
The series consists of elaborately made sculptures made of stainless steel, colored with a special glaze, as well as hand-painted oil paintings. The theme includes childlike toys and party utensils for children’s birthdays. The series is not yet complete.

Easyfun, 1999 – 2000 / Easyfun-Ethereal, 2000 – 2002
Commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim in 1999, Koons began a new series, Easyfun, comprising paintings and wall-mounted sculptures. In 2001, Koons undertook a series of paintings, Easyfun-Ethereal, using a collage approach that combined bikinis, food, and landscapes painted under his supervision by assistants.

Popeye, 2002 – present day
Oil paintings, which take up the theme series of the previous series, it further develops and extends to the element of the comics, also under the special consideration of historical pioneers like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, which are also processed in the form of mirrors. The panels and mirrors are surrounded by aluminum sculptures, which represent colorful animal floats, mounted on standard ladders and fences, or suspended from chains from the ceiling.

Hulk Elvis , 2004 – present day
Oil paintings and sculptures, dealing with variations of the comic figure Hulk. The oil paintings continue the collage technique introduced in Easyfun in a hitherto unattainable hyperrealism.

Antiquity, 2009 – 2013
Referring to the ancient Roman marble statue Callipygian Venus, Metallic Venus was made of high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating and live flowering plants. At the center of each scene in the Antiquity paintings is a famous ancient or classical sculpture, meticulously rendered in oil paint and scaled to the same size as the sculptures. The equally detailed backdrops include an Arcadian vision.

Critics are sharply divided in their views of Koons. Some view his work as pioneering and of major art-historical importance. Others dismiss his work as kitsch, crass, and based on cynical self-merchandising. Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques.