Jeffrey L. Koons is an American artist born on January 21, 1955. He is known for his art production related to pop culture. In his sculptures, Koons often represents everyday objects, works made of stainless steel, mirror-finished surfaces, and his characteristic balloon animals. Many of Koons’ works have been sold for spectacular sums. He holds two auction records for a work by a living artist. One is Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58.4 million in 2013 and Rabbit sold for $91.1 million in 2019.
Critics are very polarized about Koons’ work. There are critics who dismiss his work as basic and based only on marketing. Others consider his work to be pioneering and of great historical and artistic importance. In the present, he alternates his place of residence between New York and his hometown of York, Pennsylvania.
The businessman who produces artworks
Born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955, Jeff Koons studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore where he received a BFA in 1976. He also studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Before establishing himself as an artist Koons worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street. He then opened a workshop with a staff of 30 assistants in 1980. He managed this place in the same way that Andy Warhol had done before with his famous studio known as The Factory.
Some of his most widely known and iconic works are Rabbit (1986) made in highly polished stainless steel; Balloon Dog (1994-2000) of which he made five unique versions in the colors Blue, Magenta, Orange, Red, Yellow, also made of polished stainless steel with a transparent color coating; the monumental floral sculpture Puppy (1992) permanently installed in the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Koons has had solo exhibitions since 1980 at major institutions and galleries around the world. In 2014 a major exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective”, was held. This same exhibition then traveled to the Pompidou Center in Paris the same year and to the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain in 2015.
He has been known as a great businessman who has known how to publicize his work. He even hired an advertising agency to promote his image, something never seen before for this kind of artist. Koons has repeatedly been the subject of legal claims for copyright infringement and lost most of these cases.
Koons married an Italian pornographic actress known as Cicciolina (Ilona Staller) in 1991. She had a child the following year named Ludwig but then the couple dissolved. Although U.S. courts ruled in Koons’s favor, the mother fled to Europe with their son where both live together till the present.
Exploring the meaning of art in the 1980s
Koons was part of a generation of artists in the 1980s who explored the meaning of art in a media-saturated era. During a consumerist era, where the exaltation of the superfluous was used as an artistic theme. It was during this time that Koons gained recognition and later created a studio in a SoHo loft that resembled a factory in New York. He had over 30 assistants, each assigned to a different aspect of production. This was similar to Andy Warhol’s factory where he generated the production of his work.
Each of his assistants could execute his canvases and sculptures as if they had been made “by one hand”, for this Koons developed a system of color by numbers. In the midst of great controversy, Koons generated a work that was embedded in the consumerist environment. This work is intended to criticize as well as move in a disturbing way.
He has known how to use everyday objects, things of very little value, to achieve his goal. Similar to what Duchamp did, placing objects in the middle of illuminated galleries that no longer have their former function. Koons skillfully used advertising to provoke the attitude of the masses. He has used themes such as the dreams of the middle class and the search for fame and money as subjects for his works. Koons seems to think that the middle class is always behind the ephemeral and superficial.
Koons has said that “I think art takes you outside yourself, takes you past yourself. I believe that my journey has really been to remove my own anxiety. That’s the key. The more anxiety you can remove, the more free you are to make that gesture, whatever the gesture is. The dialogue is first with the artist, but then it goes outward and is shared with other people. And if the anxiety is removed everything is so close, everything is available, and it’s just this little bit of confidence, or trust, that people have to delve into.”
The pre-new and the new series
Koons produced separate works of art between 1977 and 1979 that he later referred to as Early Works. From 1978 he worked on his series of inflatables which consisted of inflatable flowers, a rabbit of various heights and colors, placed together with mirrors. But since 1979 Koons has produced works within series such as The Pre-New series. This series brings together a number of domestic objects attached to lamps, resulting in strange and new configurations.
The New, is a series composed of vacuum cleaners mounted on illuminated Plexiglas boxes. Koons often selected these machines by brands that attracted him, such as the iconic Hoover. In 1980 he first exhibited these pieces in the window of the New Museum in New York.
The equilibrium series
The 1983 Equilibrium Series consists of one, two or three basketballs floating in distilled water. The project was carried out by Koons with the help of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. The Total Equilibrium Tanks were filled with distilled water to which a small amount of ordinary salt was added. This produced an effect in which the hollow balls remained suspended in the center of the liquid.
There was a second version of this work called the 50/50 Tanks, where only half of the tank is filled with distilled water, and then the balls float half in and half out of the water. For the Encased series (1983-1993/98) Koons made five sculptures with sports balls stacked with their original cardboard packaging in a glass case. The Equilibrium Series is also made up of some posters with Nike ads and basketball stars.
Koons had begun creating sculptures with inflatable toys in the 1970s. But in 1986 he created Rabbit, one of his most famous works of art. For this he took a prefabricated inflatable rabbit, molded the object in highly polished stainless steel, resulting in a very unique object. Since then, Rabbit has been a recurring element in Koons’ production, and on some occasions, he made them over 50 feet tall.
A giant monochrome metallic-colored copy of Rabbit was used during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 2007. This work was then put on display in 2009 for Nuit Blanche at the Eaton Centre in Toronto. The original Rabbit was sold at Christie’s Auction House for $91.1 million in May 2019. This made Koons set the record for the most expensive piece sold by a living artist.
In 1992 Koons created Puppy, a topiary sculpture executed with a great variety of flowers on a chromed stainless steel structure. The work was 13 m high and had the image of a White Terrier puppy from the Western Highlands. This work was commissioned by three art dealers, and the destination of the piece was the Arolsen Castle in Bad Arolsen, Germany.
In 1995 the sculpture was dismantled and placed in the Sydney Harbour Museum of Contemporary Art. This was part of a joint initiative between the Museum of Contemporary Art, Kaldor Public Art Projects and the Sydney Festival. On this occasion a new, more durable stainless steel frame was used, with an internal watering system.
While the work used for Arolsen had 20,000 plants, the Sydney version had about 60,000. The piece is currently located on the terrace of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The piece was purchased in 1997 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.