ARTISTS YOU MUST KNOW: JEFF KOONS

Written by Saria Eid

Jeff Koons in Gallery

You might know Jeff Koons’ work, even if you don’t know that you know it. Giant mirror balloon animals, anyone? A life-size gilded sculpture of Michael Jackson with his pet chimp Bubbles? Explicit fairytale paintings showing the artist and his ex-wife as sexy Adam and Eve?

If you haven’t heard of him before, you might be tempted to seek him out.

Art for the masses

Born in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1955 to well-off creative parents, Jeff Koons started his career as an exhibiting sculptor and painter in 1980 and he’s still going strong.

Fresh out of art school, he began exploring popular culture and everyday objects in his work – toys, cartoons, household items, china figures – his aim being ‘to communicate with the masses’ and challenge people about what fine art really is. Within his work, familiar objects pop up looking a lot less familiar, because they’re blown up to bigger proportions or reinterpreted as objets d’art with a kitsch twist.

‘I like to think that when you leave the room, the art leaves the room. Art is about your own possibilities as a human being. It’s about your own excitement, your own potential, and what you can become. It affirms your existence.’
— Jeff Koons

The artist equivalent of Marmite?

Throughout his 40-year career, Koons has regularly served up provocative food for debate. Many find his style fun and funny, playful and uplifting. Looking from a different perspective, non-fans dismiss it as tacky, banal, pointless and firmly focused on financial gain. Wherever you stand, it’s pretty hard to ignore.

Much of it is, sans doute, exquisitely executed. The sheer feat of producing a glossily immaculate 3m-high balloon animal from stainless steel certainly deserves a bravo. (In fact, he has a studio of assistants to help put these highly technical works together.) When one of his five different-coloured Balloon Dog sculptures sold for a record $58m in 2013, it was the most expensive artwork made by a living artist. Poodles pay, évidemment.

Jeff Koons Balloon Dog Koons, Balloon Dog

The artist likes using super-shiny metallic finishes because this allows viewers to physically see themselves reflected in the artwork. In doing so, they become a part of it – it gets personal.

‘The job of the artist is to make a gesture and really show people what their potential is. It’s not about the object and it’s not about the image: it’s about the viewer. That’s where the art happens.’
— Jeff Koons

Seeing is believing

Since you might not be able to afford a Koons of your very own, you can browse his work online or keep an eye out for an exhibition in a gallery near you. Believe it or not, he only exhibited in the UK for the first time in 2019.

Some of his works are on display in public spaces where their jumbo scale makes a greater impact than inside a museum. Green-slash-pet lovers might appreciate his ‘living’ sculpture Puppy which permanently guards the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This enormous 12m-high West Highland terrier is brightly clad in flowering plants which change colour with the seasons. Adorable!

Jeff Koons Puppy Koons, Puppy at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

(Ever stood beside it? What did you think?)

Success brings scrutiny

Koons is no stranger to controversy, having been pulled up a few times for taking inspiration a little too directly from the work of others…

As part of his Banality series, Koons created a sculpture called Fait d’Hiver depicting a fashion model trapped in the snow being rescued by a pig and couple of penguins (oui, really). In a 2014 retrospective of his work at Paris’s Pompidou Centre, a French ad executive was stunned to realise this piece was a direct copy of an ad campaign he’d created nearly 30 years previously. A long court battle raged, the exec won €€€ damages and Koons was fined for plagiarism.

Jeff Koons Fait D'Hiver

Perhaps that’s why he decided to gift Paris this gigantic Bouquet of Tulips to commemorate victims of the terror attacks in 2015/16? Next time you’re at the Petit Palais museum, you can’t miss it.

Jeff Koons Bouquet of Tulips Koons, Bouquet of Tulips

Ancient meets ultra-modern

Among Koons' most recent work, you’ll find Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa holding what looks like a glassy blue ball. It’s part of his Gazing Ball Series which reproduces classic sculptures and Old Master paintings, each featuring this startling extra. Fabulous? Unoriginal? You decide.

Jeff Koons Gazing Ball Koons, Gazing Ball (Da Vinci Mona Lisa)

If we asked Mona to check her unconventional crystal ball and give us an idea what Koons will dream up next, could she tell us? We think not. But we’re looking forward to it.

Merci.
PHOTOS: Unknown
WORDS: Eileen MacCallum