Summary of Jeff Koons
Deriving inspiration from everyday items including children's toys, cartoon characters, porcelain figurines, and party decorations, Koons' appropriates advertising campaigns and consumer goods alike. In doing so, he initiates a dialogue about the role of material objects in our lives and the consumerism of society as a whole. Many of his pieces look cheap, but are expensive, an ingenious reversal of economic logic that forms the basis for his commercial success. Rather than offending the art snob, Koons has challenged top collectors to revise their notions of what is fine art. This marketing strategy has been very successful, and his work garners some of the highest prices of any living artist. A significant departure from the modernist ideal of the misunderstood visionary, Koons is the anti-modernist, a shrewd, self-proclaimed crowd-pleaser, and avid promoter of his own work. This has made him a very divisive figure in the art world and he has drawn criticism for the kitsch, crude nature of his art, and the objectification of women in many of his pieces.
- In the 1980s, Koons' engagement with popular objects attracted those who felt excluded by art world elitism making him an accessible and powerful cultural figure. Despite his consumer-focused points of reference, however, he still seeks to challenge people and "create work that doesn't make viewers feel they're being spoken down to". Somewhat paradoxically, his embrace of the common place has also won over the most discerning and ostensibly highbrow audiences. By collecting Koons, collectors and museums show that they can take a joke.
- Mirrors and highly-polished surfaces feature in many of Koons' works and he favours these for both their flawless finish and the fact that they allow the viewer to see themselves in the artwork. In this manner the viewer becomes part of the piece itself and their changing reflection alters how they encounter the work, making it a very personal experience.
- Although carefully designed by Koons, his work is created in his studio by a large staff force that build, paint, or fabricate his pieces, often producing multiple copies of the same artwork. In outsourcing the actual production of his work, Koons raises questions about authenticity and what it means to be an artist.
- Koons can be linked to a range of art movements, but his work is most closely aligned with Pop Art and artists such as Andy Warhol. Clear parallels can also be drawn with Marcel Duchamp, the inventor of the readymade. Like the French artist, who exhibited found items including a urinal, bottle rack, and bicycle wheel as art, Koons takes everyday objects and artistically re-interprets them.
The Life of Jeff Koons
Balloons and inflatable toys have provided the inspiration for much of Koons' work over the decades since 1978 when he began with them. Discussing his famous series of oversized Balloon Dog sculptures, he noted that "It's a balloon that a clown would maybe twist for you at a birthday party...they're like us...You take a breath and you inhale, it's an optimism".
Important Art by Jeff Koons
New Hoover Convertibles
This installation forms part of Koons' first series of artworks, The New, which he started creating in 1979 when he was still an unknown artist and working as a Wall Street commodities broker. He debuted some of the series in 1980, garnering his first public attention, but continued to work on it throughout the 1980s. The series presented vacuum cleaners in clear display cases and here, two upright Hoovers are housed in a tall plexiglass case, lit from below with fluorescent lights. In this presentation, Koons celebrates the commercial and the mundane, seeking to spark joy and wonder in the re-examination of everyday objects. Duchamp's original readymades, especially his exhibition of a urinal (Fountain, 1919), are obvious precedents for the work and Koons himself cites Duchamp as a significant influence.
Through the categorization of vacuum cleaners as art Koons explores America's fetishization of pristine commodities and their relationship to notions of gender and cleanliness. A glorification of domestic consumption was particularly prevalent in the post-war homes of the 1950s and 60s, where families were encouraged to adopt traditional gender roles, invest in labor-saving devices and display their status through the objects that they owned. Koons grew up in this atmosphere and the continued influence of his mother and the suburban ideal can be seen in this work. Parallels can also be drawn between domestic expressions of status in the 1950s and the burgeoning materialism of the 1980s in which the work was created.
The vacuum cleaner is an important recurring symbol for Koons and in conversations about it, he has also called attention to its sexual symbolism, as it "displays both male and female sexuality. It has orifices and phallic attachments." Consequently, these brand-new machines can be seen to represent preserved virgins, unused and unsullied by dirt. This reference to religious notions of purity is reinforced by the reverence and veneration with which they are presented.
Vacuum cleaners, plexiglass and fluorescent lights - The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Hennessy, The Civilized Way To Lay Down the Law
This is one of the key works in Koons' Luxury and Degradation series, in which the artist sought to present images that promised the trappings of success, but also had the potential to result in degradation. Alcohol, the ultimate symbol of this type of lifestyle is represented here. Koons' inspiration for the series came to him while riding the subway in New York, during which time he surveyed "the whole spectrum of advertising" from "the lowest economic base to the highest level", and observed "how the level of visual abstraction [was] changing. The more money came into play, the more abstract. It was like they were using abstraction to debase you..."
The piece can be seen as descendent of Andy Warhol's consumer-focused work, where he appropriated and reproduced marketing graphics, most famously Campbell's soup cans. It also shows parallels with the work of Richard Prince, who re-photographed iconic advertising images. Here, however, Koons goes a step further, presenting a completely unaltered reprint of an advertisement for Hennessy cognac and in doing so he opens it up to a level of scrutiny unintended by the company. An image means one thing on a billboard and another in a gallery, where we are invited to unpack its troubling layers of meaning.
In the advertisement, an elegant African-American couple relaxes in a well-furnished apartment. The clock reads just after 2am, and the man looks up from his law books, removing his glasses and smiling at his partner who hands him a glass of Hennessy as a reminder that it is time to come to bed. "Hennessy, The civilized way to lay down the law", a caption, typical of the advertising industry's multi-layered symbolism, accompanies the image. While the advertisement presents a positive image of a minority couple as educated and aspirational the words have multiple associations, some of which are decidedly negative. The term "civilized" (which emerges both in the caption and Hennessy's slogan "The Most Civilized Spirit"), for instance, is loaded, reminding us of the bigoted assumption that people of non-European descent are less civilized. These positive and negative associations swirl around the image, reinforced by the text. While Koons' intention is clearly to give us a direct glimpse of the manipulative psychology of advertising, he makes no effort to intervene or correct the messages at the heart of this work, maintaining an aloof ambiguity.
Oil inks on canvas - Private Collection
Michael Jackson and Bubbles
Michael Jackson and Bubbles is an expression of Koons' abiding interest in flouting the conventions of good taste. It forms part of his Banality series, where he created giant porcelain sculptures which alluded to cheap, collectible figurines. As many of the sculptures were based on other original artworks, this led to a number of copyright lawsuits, all of which Koons lost. This ornate, slightly larger-than-life-sized sculpture, on the other hand, is based on a press photograph of the pop star and his pet monkey. Whilst it projects a garish charm, there is no clear message here and certainly no irony of the type we might expect from an artist such as Claes Oldenburg. Despite its kitsch appearance, Koons is asking the viewer to regard Michael Jackson and Bubbles as a sincere and significant artwork.
The impeccable craftsmanship, large scale, triangular arrangement (reminiscent of Michelangelo's Pieta) and significant use of gold in the piece references Medieval and Early Modern religious statues. As Koons noted, "I wanted to create him in a very god-like icon manner. But I always liked the radicality of Michael Jackson; that he would do absolutely anything that was necessary to be able to communicate with people". Thus, Koons compares religious zeal with modern celebrity worship and reminds us of the sacrifices that individuals make to maintain their celebrity status - a statement that has proved prescient in light of Jackson's untimely death. It is possible to see very similar themes in Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962). Created soon after her death, the all gold canvas and screen-printed image memorializes Munroe's celebrity status in a reverent manner whilst revealing the price of fame.
Porcelain - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
Made in Heaven
Made in Heaven, a series of large-scale photographs and sculptures depicting Koons in a variety of sexually explicit poses with the Italian porn star, Ilona Staller, remains the artist's most polarizing and controversial series. The exhibition, which premiered in 1991 at the Sonnabend Gallery, included this billboard, announcing a feature film Koons intended to produce with La Cicciolina (Staller's stage name), a scheme that was never realized. Koons and Staller, who met during the project, married in 1991 and divorced three years later, sparking a lengthy custody battle over their son, Ludwig.
Even critics who had thus far liked Koons' work sought to distance themselves from this series, which elicited virtually universal condemnation. Koons' heterosexual, condom-less images seemed tasteless at the height of the AIDS epidemic and Made in Heaven came in the wake of censorship of Robert Maplethorpe's work, seeming to mock the concerned art establishment. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times opened his review with the scathing reflection: "Just when it looked as if the 80's were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade." Other critics were not much more generous.
While other artists, from Carolee Schneeman to Vito Acconci, had featured themselves in sexually explicit acts, and the poses in Koons' work quoted well-known old master paintings, the general view was that Koons, by showcasing himself as a porn star (and Staller, who really was a porn star) in these images, had overstepped the boundaries of good taste. This, of course, was precisely the point, breaking new ground in blurring the line between erotic imagery and pornography. Continuing a line of reasoning that begins much earlier in his work, Made in Heaven raises the question, if a poster and a vacuum cleaner can constitute art, why not pornographic imagery?
Lithograph Billboard - Private Collection
Balloon Flower (Red)
Koons' most famous works to date are his towering sculptures inspired by balloon animals. This one stands over ten feet tall and weighs in excess of a ton. Its shiny exterior, according to the artist, is intended to "manipulate and seduce". Unlike the cheap rubber it imitates, the surface of Balloon Flower evokes the shininess of precious metals. Since this really is metal, its immaculate, reflective surface and perfectly concealed joints invite us to marvel in the absolute symmetry and perfection of the objects. Up close, however, the overall composition fades, and the viewer is confronted by his or her own distorted, imperfect image. Koons is often compared to British artist Anish Kapoor and it possible to see the resemblance between Koons' balloon sculptures and Kapoor's mirrored work, most notably Cloud Gate (2006), a large public sculpture in Millennium Park, Chicago.
Koons once remarked that he believed Balloon Dog (part of the same Celebration series) to be "a very optimistic piece, it's a balloon that a clown would maybe twist for you at a birthday party. But at the same time it's a Trojan Horse. There are other things here that are inside: maybe the sexuality of the piece." The work recalls the unbridled optimism and wonder of childhood, while functioning simultaneously as a reminder of this naive state of development, replaced in adulthood by covetousness for luxury and beauty. The idea that commerce is the new religion is, in many ways, the key to Koons' oeuvre.
Mirror polished stainless steel with transparent color coating - Photo from the small park in front of 7 World Trade Center in New York City
One of the largest and most complex sculptures in Koons' Celebration series, Play-Doh appears to be formed from giant, haphazardly arranged scraps of the famous modelling substance. However, it is actually constructed from twenty-seven interlocking pieces of aluminum. Requiring significant engineering, the sections are held together by gravity alone and in Koons' search for perfection each piece is painted in its entirety even though only parts are visible to the viewer. For generations of adults, the mere sight of Play-Doh is nostalgic, conjuring the scent and tactile appeal of it. Many of us make our first sculptures out of Play-Doh, so there is a humorous, self-referential element in this work by one of the world's most famous sculptors, returning to square one. Only here, the Play-Doh has been monumentalised. The mound dwarfs the viewer and serves as a visceral memorial to childhood. This is particularly poignant as Koons states that the work was inspired by his son who, as a toddler, presented his father with a similar mound of Play-Doh, "He was so proud. I looked at it, and I thought this is really what I try to do every day as an artist, to make objects that you can't make any judgements about. That it's perfect, that you just experience acceptance."
Clear parallels can be drawn between Play-Doh and the work of Mike Kelley, particularly his pieces that include large assemblages of childhood toys such as More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin (1987) and Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991-99). In the latter, Kelley utilizes amorphous spheres of plush toys to satirize the dogma associated with Abstract Expressionism. In many ways, Koons is doing the same thing, this sculpture appears to fall into the expressionist canon, but although it has the appearance of spontaneity, it is actually minutely designed and engineered. Furthermore, it presents the tensions generated by the modern artist who is a designer rather creator. The piece appears to have been shaped by human hands, bearing the imprints of giant fingers, but has actually been created via a fabrication process undertaken by staff without the physical involvement of the artist.
The Celebration series focuses on parties, holidays and other similar annual landmarks and in doing so Koons highlights the passage of time. Many of the pieces reference these celebrations through the trappings of childhood and through this Koons draws attention to the cycle of birth, growth, and sex and emphasizes the human drive to procreate. The artist has indirectly referenced this process in Play-Doh, stating that, "If you take Play-Doh apart...they're organic shapes that all stack on top of each other...so that these surfaces are meeting on the inside and you never see that...the public doesn't see it but I think that you feel it and it has kind of a Freudian quality to it. I really thought that Play-Doh captures the twentieth century and you have this aspect of Freud with this mound of Play-Doh and the way the organic shapes are on top of each other."
First unveiled at Koons' 2014 Retrospective Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Play-Doh was the culmination of two decades of planning and execution. From this showing it garnered almost universal admiration, with Roberta Smith describing it in the New York Times as "a new, almost certain masterpiece whose sculptural enlargement of a rainbow pile of radiant chunks captures exactly the matte textures of the real thing, but also evokes paint, dessert and psychedelic poop".
Polychromed aluminum - Bill Bell Collection
Hulk (Organ) is one of a number of similar works from the Hulk Elvis series in which Koons pairs sculptures of the cartoon character, The Incredible Hulk with incongruous props such as children's toys, a replica of the Liberty Bell and a wheelbarrow filled with live flowers. As such, the pieces play with concepts of gender, combining the testosterone-fueled Hulk with more conventionally feminine symbols. In doing so, Koons attempts to balance the traditional masculinity of the Hulk with a more neutral depiction of gender.
The sculptures closely mimic the appearance of vinyl inflatables, but are actually constructed from polychromed bronze, creating a sense of visual trickery and playfulness and contrasting an appearance of weightlessness with the actual solidity of the works. Inflatables are a reoccurring theme in Koons' work and this can be traced back to his Inflatables series (1978-79) where he presented a selection of cheap, store-bought inflatable flowers (and a rabbit) surrounded by mirrors which reflected the objects, distorting and multiplying their appearance and challenging the viewer to determine what was real. The Hulk Elvis series can be seen as a direct development of this early work as Koons continues to challenge notions of perception, presenting something that is in opposition to what it seems.
In Hulk Organ, keys, pipes, and buttons protrude from the Hulk's body creating a fully working and very powerful organ, albeit one that intentionally has some keys missing and does not produce a perfect pitch. This combination of precision and exuberance, seen in both the sculpture itself and in the organ, reflects the combination of rationality and chaos seen in the character of the Hulk, but also references the Asian traditional of guardian gods, who can be both welcoming and violent. As Koons explains, "Hulk Elvis represents for me both Western and Eastern culture, a sense of a guardian, a protector, that at the same time is capable of bringing the house down".
Polychromed bronze, mixed media - The Broad
Seated Ballerina forms Part of Koons' Antiquity series, which fuses imagery and techniques from ancient and modern art. Koons envisioned the piece to be a contemporary interpretation of the mythical Roman Goddess, Venus. A common trope in ancient and classical art, Koons notes that, "You could be looking at a Venus of Willendorf or some of the oldest Venuses. It is really about beauty and even a sense of contemplation, a sense of ease." The dancer's pose is reminiscent of a traditional depiction of Venus, rooting the figure in historical precedent, but it is also visibly contemporary, merging past and present. Koons comparison of this sculpture, which seems to depict a teenage girl, with the Roman goddess of sex and fertility, however, drew some criticism for the sexualization of young women.
Based on a small porcelain figurine by the Ukrainian artist, Oksana Zhnikrup, who produced a range of similar designs for factory production in the Soviet Union, Koons has scaled the image up to create a larger-than-life rendering in futuristic color-coated steel. In doing so, he revisits questions about art, industrial production and mass market appeal, a discussion that is particularly applicable to his own practice, in which multiple copies of the same work are created by industrial processes (this sculpture is one of four produced).
The reflective surface of the piece allows the viewer to see themselves in the sculpture. As Koons notes, "in a reflective surface, your existence is being affirmed. When you move, your abstracted reflection changes. The experience is dependent upon you; it lets you know that art is happening inside of you." Placing the viewer at the center of the artwork in this manner features in a number of Koons's most significant works including his Celebration series as well as elsewhere in the Antiquity series. Most notable on this front, however, are his Gazing Ball paintings and sculptures (2012-15) in which he had assistants meticulously copy Old Master paintings and classical sculptures. On or in front of these were placed blue shiny spheres which reflected the viewer and their surroundings and inserted them into the artwork. As Koons explains this demonstrates both "the vastness of the universe and at the same time the intimacy of right here, right now".
Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating - Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA)
Biography of Jeff Koons
Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania to Henry and Gloria Koons. His father was a furniture dealer and worked as an interior designer and decorator, whilst his mother was a seamstress. By the age of eight, he had begun creating replicas of Old Master paintings, which he signed 'Jeffrey Koons' and sold in his father's shop. As an older teenager he became fascinated with Salvador Dalí. Keen to meet his hero, he called the hotel that Dali was staying at in New York City and was put through. Dali offered to meet Koons and they attended an exhibition of his work at the Knoedler Gallery together. After graduating from high school, Koons enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where he continued to cultivate his interest in Dali, painting Neo-Surrealist dreamscapes.
In 1974, Koons viewed an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City by Jim Nutt, a founding member of the 1960s Chicago Surrealist movement, the Chicago Imagists. The exhibition was a watershed moment in Koons' life and on the basis of it he transferred to Chicago in order to work with Nutt and other Imagist teachers, among them Karl Wirsum and Ed Paschke. Wirsum and Nutt were both members of the group, The Hairy Who, known for their bright, often grotesque paintings inspired by consumer culture. After studying in Chicago for a year, Koons returned to the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he graduated with a BFA in 1976. He was awarded an honorary degree from the Chicago Institute of Art some 30 years later.
In 1977, after graduating from college, Koons moved to Manhattan and took a job selling memberships at the Museum of Modern Art (a job he has said that he hugely excelled at). In New York City, he explored the New Wave and Punk music scenes at the now legendary clubs CBGB and the Mudd Club, and mingled with David Salle and Julian Schnabel, slightly older artists with an established reputation in New York. He also became involved in the East Village Art scene, an alternative community of artists who rejected the mainstream art world and embraced counter-culture aesthetics including graffiti. This created a vibrant melting pot of new ideas that inspired music, poetry, writing, and the visual arts and provided a platform that launched some of the great names of late-20th century art including Peter Halley, Joan Wallace, and Ashley Bickerton. East Village Art also spawned new movements including Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo and Neo-Pop, all of which had an impact on Koons' work. Spurred on by the culture of creation and experimentation around him, it was during this period that Koons first began producing his inflatable sculptures, a concept that would become a hallmark of his practice.
In 1980, Koons left MoMA and began selling stocks and mutual funds for the First Investors Corporation and, later, for Smith-Barney, building on his background in sales. This financed the body of work that became The New. In the same year, he debuted this series in the New Museum on 14th Street in Lower Manhattan. The exhibition, which was designed to look like a showroom, presented vacuum cleaners in illuminated plexiglass boxes. In 1983 he started creating The Equilibrium series which consisted of basketballs floating in tanks of distilled water alongside posters of basketball stars. These works can be viewed as forming part of East Village Art and particularly the Neo-Geo movement, in which pieces were used to criticize and parody consumer culture and the commercialization of the modern art world. Koons received critical acclaim for these early works and only three years after this public debut, famous critic Roberta Smith declared him one "of the strangest and most unique of contemporary artists".
The New Series garnered Koons significant critical attention throughout the early 1980s, but it was not until 1986 that he achieved major media traction, when he - along with fellow artists Peter Halley, Ashley Bickerton, and Meyer Vaisman - made the much publicized jump to the esteemed Sonnabend Gallery, collectively acquiring the title "The Hot Four" on the cover of New York Magazine. Two years later, Koons unveiled Banality which catapulted him to international fame. This series of lifesize sculptures combined the sentimental aesthetic of collectable figurines with celebrity and pop culture imagery. Koons produced multiple copies of each statue, allowing the exhibition to debut simultaneously at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, Max Hetzler Gallery in Cologne, and Donald Young Gallery in Chicago.
Koons released his most controversial series, Made in Heaven in 1990. This consisted of large photographs and sculptures depicting him nude and in sexually explicit acts with Ilona Staller, the famed Italian porn star also known as Ciccolina. Having seen Staller featured in European magazines, Koons flew to Rome to suggest they collaborate, and this resulted in the photographic sessions that formed the basis for the series. During their time together, the two fell in love, despite neither speaking the other's language. Brazenly flouting conventions of good taste, the series elicited an overwhelmingly condemnatory response from critics, threatening to dethrone Koons from art world preeminence. Ultimately, however, Made in Heaven proved the adage that any publicity is good publicity. News from Missouri to Helsinki covered Koons' outrageous suite of pictures, and his subsequent engagement to Staller. Staller and Koons married in 1991 and had a son, Ludwig, in 1992. The marriage broke up soon after and Staller returned to Italy with Ludwig, prompting Koons to destroy many of the works in the series and instigating a custody battle for their son that continued for over a decade.
During the early 1990s, Koons was sued several times for copyright infringement over his use of commercial and artistic source material in his pieces. The cases were all upheld and included the prominent Koons vs Rogers in which Art Rogers, a professional photographer, agreed an out of court settlement with Koons after it was demonstrated that Koons' sculpture String of Puppies (1988) from the Banality series was a copy of the Rogers' photograph Puppies (1985).
Originally conceived in 1994 the Celebration series is still being manufactured today and consists of 20 highly polished stainless steel designs, each of which has been produced in different colors. Some of the sculptures reference Koons' earlier Inflatables series and feature a range of objects including a balloon dog, monkey, swan and different types of balloon flowers, whilst others are oversized hearts, diamonds and eggs. All the objects are related to personal and festive celebrations such as birthday parties, Valentine's Day, and Easter - while Balloon Dog (1994-2000) has become particularly iconic. The initial stages of the project were beset by serious financial difficulties and this resulted in a cancelled exhibition at the New York Guggenheim in 1996. During this difficult period in his career, Koons married the artist Justine Wheeler, who he had originally employed in his studio. The pair have six children and live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Subsequently Koons managed to convince investors and dealers to finance the project before its completion and the sculptures were widely exhibited from the early 2000s. Cracked Egg (Blue) won the Charles Wollaston Award for the most distinguished work in the London Royal Academy's 2008 Summer Exhibition and sculptures from the series were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and featured in a large exhibition of Koons' work in Versailles, France the same year.
Even though Koons was the subject of numerous copyright infringement claims, Koons launched his own in 2010, issuing a cease and desist letter to Park Life, a San Francisco book shop and gallery, who were selling balloon dog bookends. The case was dropped early in 2011 after the lawyer representing the bookstore filed a complaint for declaratory relief, stating that, "As virtually any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog, and the shape created by twisting a balloon into a dog-like form is part of the public domain...Jeff Koons LLC purports to represent the intellectual property rights of Jeff Koons, a retired stockbroker whose sculptures and other works are well-known for copying pre-existing forms and images from popular culture."
Between 2002 and 2014, Koons worked on two series which referenced cartoon characters, Popeye and Hulk Elvis and included sculptures, oil paintings and collages. He also worked with Lady Gaga on her 2013 studio album, Artpop, creating the sculpture which featured on the cover. Riding the wave of interest and rising values of contemporary art, his work in recent years has continued to explore themes relating to sexuality, celebrity, consumerism, and childhood. His works are now created in a studio in Hudson Yards, New York City where he employs between 90 and 120 assistants. He moved his operation to its current location from long-time Chelsea studio in 2019.
In October 2019, Koons unveiled a new statue in Paris, called Bouquet of Tulips. Commissioned by the former United States Ambassador to France it was intended to be a memorial to those who lost their lives in the 2015 and 2016 terror attacks in the city. Featuring a hand that emerges from the ground and clutches a spray of balloon flowers, reminiscent of his earlier work Tulips, the piece has been beset by controversy. When the project was first outlined in 2016, members of the French cultural establishment published an open letter in the daily newspaper Liberation calling the piece, "opportunistic and even cynical" and requesting that the scheme was cancelled. The letter sparked a public outcry and many aspects of the project were criticized from the design itself to the cost. As a result of this pressure, the planned location of the piece was moved to a less prominent location and the work was funded by private donors, rather than using taxpayers' money. The controversy continued after the unveiling with philosopher Yves Michaud comparing the sculpture to "eleven coloured anuses mounted on stems". As a result, the sculpture has become known as the "culipes", which roughly translates as "asstulips".
The Legacy of Jeff Koons
Since the 1980s, Koons has been a prevalent influence on contemporary artists who explore commercialism, advertising, readymades, and new concepts of Pop Art. His career is fascinating to contrast with that of both Mike Kelley and Takashi Murakami. Kelley used similar materials to Koons, but his sculptural experiments with stuffed animals, balloons and other expressions of childhood merriment, are ultimately about dejection and angst. On the other hand, Murakami's work draws on contemporary Japanese pop culture to create huge, brightly colored canvases which are produced in his studio by a large staff team. It is this outsourced process of creation and his combination of high art and mass culture that mirrors the work of Koons.
The influence of Koons can also be seen on a wide range of artists, including Isa Gentzken and Hank Willis, as well as emerging art stars such as Darren Bader and Nick Darmstaedter. Most prominently, Koons had a significant impact on Damien Hirst, a key member of the Young British Artists. Hirst cites Koons as his main artistic influence, noting that, "a great reaction to any art is 'Wow!', and Jeff's work is full of that. ... Makes me think about America - all the shit about America, and all the great things about America at the same time." Hirst's world-famous shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991) can be seen as a direct reference to Koons' Equilibrium series. In the late-1990s and early-2000s, American artist Paul McCarthy created a number of sculptures based on Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) including Michael Jackson and Bubbles (Gold) (1997-99) and Michael Jackson Fucked Up (Big Head) (2002-10).
Koons has a record of polarizing critics and he has garnered both rave reviews and strongly-worded critiques. This became more pronounced after his incredibly controversial Made in Heaven series (1989-92), with more negative reviews surfacing from the early 1990s. This shift in critical perception can, in part, be attributed to the widespread condemnation that greeted Made in Heaven, but also to Koons' move from being a new artist with shock value on his side to a more established and commercially-focused figure.
Koons' work is reviled and revered for many of the same reasons. his admirers have lauded him for his comments on consumerism and materialism, as well as the meaningful contrasts he creates. Writing in the New York Times, Roberta Smith singled Koons out for special praise from a group show at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1986, noting that, "The show's only sculptor and most developed artist, Koons has made a name for himself by presenting vacuum cleaners and basketballs in pristine light- or water-filled vitrines, creating works of a strange, disembodied beauty that expand our notion of what sculpture is and means." More recently, his retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2014, drew mixed comments including a number of glowing reviews, with art critic Jerry Saltz writing that, "The show looks great...'A Retrospective' will allow anyone with an open mind to grasp why Koons is such a complicated, bizarre, thrilling, alien, annoying artist."
On the other hand, detractors call his pieces crude, derivative, expensive, and vacuous. A review by Christian Viveros-Fauné of the same Whitney Museum exhibition, noted that if "Koons's objects could sing, they'd belt out the Macarena and the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song... In clown speak, Koons's art is all whoopee cushion." Similarly, in a one-star review of Damien Hirst's 2016 retrospective of Koons' work, Guardian critic, Jonathan Jones wrote that Koons "is the Donald Trump of art. In what is now a pretty long career, Koons has done more than any other human being to destroy taste, sensitivity, and the idea that striking it rich as an artist has anything to do with talent."
Although Koons says that his artwork has no right and wrong interpretations, he finds the notion of professional art criticism in opposition to his ideals of acceptance. Calling them gatekeepers to the artworld, he believes that the popular and accessible nature of his work has informed the critical rhetoric against him. This does, not however, make him immune to the criticism, as Jerry Saltz recalls, "In a Madrid club in 1986, I watched him confront a skeptical critic while smashing himself in the face, repeating, 'You don't get it, man. I'm a fucking genius.' The fit passed when another critic who was also watching this, the brilliant Gary Indiana, said, 'You are, Jeff.'"
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jeff Koons
- Jeff Koons: A RetrospectiveBy Scott Rothkopf
- Jeff Koons: Hulk ElvisBy Phillip Tinari
- Jeff KoonsBy Eckhard Schneider
- Jeff KoonsBy Eckhard Schneider and Katy Siegel
- Jeff Koons: New Paintings and SculptureBy Norman Rosenthal
- Jeff Koons: Easyfun-EtherealBy Jeff Koons
- How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about ArtChapter called The Art of Childhood - Jeff Koons at the Whitney (2014) / By David Salle