• chierkute

Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

The other day I was reading notes on “The Conditions of Success. How the Modern Artist Rises to Fame”, the lecture given by Sir Alan Bowness. He proposed that there is a clear and regular progression towards artistic success, and that is through four successive circles of recognition: from young artist’s equals and contemporaries; from art critics; patronage from dealers and collectors; and public acclaim. I feel that Jeff Koons should be considered in favour of this theory, and I will give some reasons for this in the article.

Jeff Koons (b.1955) has been called the world’s most famous, controversial and subversive living artist. Koons was born and raised in Pennsylvania, the son of a furniture dealer and interior designer from whom he learned aesthetics. His father was very supportive of son’s passion for arts. Soon after Jeff expressed interest in drawing and painting, he found his eight-years-old son a teacher. His father also hung Jeff’s imitations of Old Master paintings in his store, and customers bought them, for several hundred dollars apiece.

At school Koons’s main focus was arts, and later he chose the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore. He went to the college and found the lack of knowledge of art history –Cézanne, Matisse, Braque was unknown to him. But instead of being scared, he felt a sense of inadequacy, leading to understanding that art is about self-empowerment and your ability to empower people. Truth be told, the one of the only art books in his parents’ house was a coffee-table volume on Dali, and Koon had spent hours looking at it. As he learned that Dali stayed a part of the year at the St. Regis hotel, New York, Koons, seventeen-year-old student, called the St. Regis and was put through to Dali (1904-1989). “He met me in the lobby,” Koons recalls, “wearing that majestic fur coat and carrying a black cane with a silver handle. <…>I just remember leaving New York that day feeling that this type of life was accessible.”

During his early student years, Koons was mainly interested in Surrealism (surprise, surprise), but once he moved to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and met the Chicago painter Ed Paschke, he no longer was that passionate about subjective art. Ed Paschke introduced him to everyday life experience as the source materials to art. Ready-mades by Duchamp were known to Koons, but Ed showed how to link it to the present. Soon after, he moved to New York and found a job as a ticket seller at the Museum of Modern Art. There he was known as the best membership seller, who attracted attention with unusual apparel: polka-dot shirts, floral vests, big bow ties (sometimes two at once), and, occasionally, an inflatable plastic flower.

To earn more money Koons had quit his job at the museum, got his broker’s license and worked in Wall Street. Koons spent his nights at Max’s Kansas City and Fanelli’s Café, and he knew a lot of artists and dealers. To name a few who took him provisionally: Julian Schnabel and David Salle, Mary Boone, Anina Nosei. By the time he finished his The New and Equilibrium series, in the spring of 1985 a new East Village gallery, called International with Monument, held Koons’s first one-man gallery show. The novelty of the works attracted attention of quite a few artists, and I feel, it is reasonable to say, that Jeff Koons had surpassed the first recognition circle.

He quitted his job as a broker to concentrate on art, and this time he dedicated himself to stainless steel, the material he found “intoxicating” due to its impersonal, reflective brilliance. Trains from the Luxury & Degradation and Statuary series were ready-mades recast in stainless steel, shining as kitsch and at the second solo show attracted attention of art critics - they were fascinated, even compared him to Brancusi for the perfect forms of the artworks. Here you go – you can tick the second circles of recognition for Jeff Koons. The third show “Banality” was opened in three galleries in New York, Cologne and Chicago, but this time critics’ opinions were divided, no one was sure whether Koons was joking or was serious. Nonetheless, this show made Koons a real superstar in the art world.

Charles Saatchi, known as the influential British collector, bought one of the three bourbon trains from the Luxury & Degradation. This allowed Jeff Koons step into the third circle of recognition. Since then, there were ups and downs in his career, though, the support from the dealers and collectors make him one of the richest living artists with estimated net worth of $500 million. Four months ago, he still was the world’s most expensive living artist selling his sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000) (taller than 3,5 meters) for $58.4 million, but his record price was doubled by David Hockney, making Koons take the second place in the ranking.

What about the public acclaim? His eye-catchy artworks fascinate many art-lovers – there were more than 20 solo exhibitions within the last five years. Many articles in widely recognised magazines (The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Guardian, etc.) can be found about the artist, his background, reviews of his artworks showing the undisputable interest in the artist. And most of all, the latest Jeff Koons’s exhibition is for the public and about the public.

In 2017 Jeff Koons received an award for an “Outstanding Contribution to Visual Culture” inaugurated by the Edgar Wind Society, undergraduate art-history students in Oxford University. The thoughtful and bold students’ initiative was the seed of the current show at the Ashmolean, known as the world’s oldest public museum. The exhibition features seventeen works from the 1980s to today, and fourteen of them have never been to the UK before. Thus, in the university galleries of Ashmolean, where the collection ranges from prehistory to the present, and within the active art community involvement, the artist finds himself in the position to discuss the relationship of art-history and his works, to connect the present and the past, to lead to the future.

I couldn’t think of a better place to have a dialogue about art today and what it can be.

Jeff Koons

Regarding Sir Bowness's lecture, another observation that caught my attention was on the means of art discussion. As Bowness put it: “Paintings and sculptures are, like music, non-verbal arts, but it is impossible to discuss them without recourse to words. In the case of music, Hans Keller tried to develop a musical analysis of music with some success among the musically literate, but no one has pursued the visual analysis of the visual arts, so far as I know. Thus, we are forced into the creation of a new vocabulary to discuss any new art”. I would be more than happy to hear your opinion on the visual analysis. If you know any examples, please let me know. And how about ‘tidying up art’? As funny as it sounds, could it be used as a method of the visual analysis? Anyway, I felt the exhibition Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean requires rearrangement. See the image below.

Figure 1. A sketch of artworks from the Jeff Koons exhibition at the Ashmolean museum. Early works: (1) One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series) (1985); (2) Rabbit (1986); (3) Ushering in Banality (1988). Works from the Antiquity series: (4) Ballon Venus (Magenta) (2008-2012); (5) (left) Ballerinas (2010-2014), (right) Seated Ballerina (2010-2015); (6) one of four Antiquity painting Antiquity (Forest) (2010-2013). Works from the Gazing Ball series: (7) (top, from left to right) readymades Gazing Ball (Birdbath) (2013), and Gazing Ball (Mailbox) (2013); (middle, from left to right) Gazing Ball (Silenus with Baby Dionysus) (2013) and Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) (2013); (bottom) a sketch of front and side view of one of three paintings from the Gazing Ball Series.

(1) One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series) (1985) from the Equilibrium series

What is it?

A basketball in the state of equilibrium in the water.

How is it made?

Jeff Koons is an appropriation/commodity sculptor: everyday objects are used to create sculptures giving to the objects a new context, while preserving its original identity. The ball in the tank is quintessentially American, something that every teenager owned.

The Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman was one of many physicists he consulted, by telephone, to arrive at the correct proportions of distilled water and saline water that would keep them stable. The work needs to be reset as the distilled water and saline water mix.

What does Jeff say about it?

Water is always very spiritual. The Equilibrium tanks used water, and I loved that. In its very pure state it is like birth.

(2) Rabbit (1986) from the Statuary series

What is it?

A stainless-steel statue, roughly 1 metre in height, based on a ‘ready-made’, in this case an existing, cheap, inflatable toy Rabbit.

How is it made?

An ordinary inflatable toy Rabbit was scanned to ensure that all the features are acquired to the perfection. In Koons’s world, no detail goes overlooked. To recreate his small models, he used all the technological means available at the time. Rabbit is finished in custom stainless-steel alloy.

What does Jeff say about it?

My art was always used sex as a direct communication line to the viewer. The surface of my stainless-steel pieces is pure sex and gives an object both a masculine and a feminine side: the weight of the steel engages with the femininity of reflective surface.

(3) Ushering in Banality (1988) from the Banality series

What is it?

The Banality series is re-imagined mass-produced trinkets and figurines on a hugely enlarged scale. The track suited boy pushing the pig from behind is Koons himself.

How is it made?

This particular figurine was a deliberate copy of Barbara Campbell’s photograph ‘Boys with Pigs’. The Banality sculpture is polychromed wood, made in an Alpine workshop known for traditional church carvings with the direct instructions by Koons.

What does Jeff say about it?

I wanted to make works that just embraced everyone’s own cultural history and made everybody feel that their history was perfect just the way it was.

I don’t see a Hummel figurine as tasteless. I see it as beautiful. I see it and respond to the sentimentality in the work. I love the finish; how simple colour green can be painted. I like things just being seen for what they are. It’s like lying in the grass and taking a deep breath. That’s all my work is trying to do, to be as enjoyable as that breath.

(4) Balloon Venus (Magenta) (2008-2012) from the Antiquity series

What is it?

1.5 tons in weight, around 2.60 metres in height, Balloon Venus is a sculpture from mirror-polished stainless-steel with transparent colour coating, inspired by a tiny Stone Age fertility figure known as Venus of Willendorf.

How is it made?

In general, all Koons’s Balloon Sculptures follows the following procedure: scaling from the initial object to balloon model and then from the balloon model to his trademark super-reflective sculpture. Koons’s work traffics in composite ideals—to create his Balloon Venus he inflated and tied hundreds of balloons so that he could select the perfect buttocks, breast, and head of each. However, only by using a single balloon, Jeff could get the sense of continuous pressure and air throughout. Later to capture the exact surface of a balloon, the CT scanning, a technology powerful enough to detect a brain tumour and not often used outside the medical field, was used. The sculpture was then created from a custom stainless-steel alloy Koons developed in collaboration with German fabrication firm. The result shows the Balloon Venus with hyper-realistic precision. Similar process is used for other sculptures, but for some light scanning method is applied.

What does Jeff say about it?

To connect the present to the past to continue to tie people to the narrative of biology. It is different from instinct but similar to instinct; we carry things with us in a very profound way, and this connecting force is a powerful narrative.

(5) Ballerinas (2010-2014), Seated Ballerina (2010-2015) from the Antiquity series

What is it?

More than two meters in height each, Ballerinas are sculptures from mirror-polished stainless-steel with transparent colour coating mimicking dancers, possibly, in the moment of the preparation for their performances.

How is it made?

Similar to Balloon Sculptures, Ballerinas are scaled from tiny porcelain figures (Seated Ballerina is taken from Eastern European artist) to a grand monumental sculpture. CT, structured-light scans, 3D computer rendering, computer design software, steel milling, mirror polishing are involved in the process required to recreate initial porcelain figurines. Within the development of technologies, the process became faster, if at all possible.

What does Jeff say about it?

I’ve tried to make work that any viewer, no matter where they came from, would have to respond to, would have to say that on some level ‘Yes, I like it’. If they couldn’t do that, it would only be because they had been told they weren’t supposed to like it. Eventually they will be able to strip all that down and say: ‘You know it’s silly, but I like that piece. It’s great.

It is really about beauty and even a sense of contemplation, a sense of ease.

(6) Antiquity 1 (2009-2012), Antiquity 2 (dots) (2009-2012), Antiquity 4 (20010-2013), Antiquity (Forest) (2010-2013) from the Antiquity series

What is it?

Paintings (oil on canvas) larger than 2x2 metres in size. The Antiquity series layers classical sculptures with elements from modern works.

How is it made?

The series’ paintings are collages made of several photoshop layers. The images range from abstract landscapes to elements of American iconography and characters such as Hulk or inflatable plastic monkeys or dolphins.

Jeff Koons’s studio assistant shared his experience of making a painting Cracked Egg (1995-1999) from the Celebration series. The desired photo was projected onto a blank 80-square-foot (7.4-square-metre) canvas and traced by hand. In the centre of the room was a glass-topped table surrounded by spotlights, staffed by four painters whose sole responsibility was mixing hundreds of colours to match the original image. Each custom-mixed hue and tint was assigned a name, like cool cyan magenta nine or warm cobalt blue four. Once the drawing was complete, the sections were coded accordingly with abbreviations like CCM9and WCB4, a taxonomy of colour. My job was simple: Paint by numbers. The most intricate sections required miniature brushes, sizes 0 and 00, their bristles no longer than an eyelash. The goal was to hand-fashion a flat, seamless surface that appeared to have been manufactured by machine, which meant there could be no visible brush strokes, no blending, no mistakes.

Having in mind that this painting was made ten years to Antiquity’s series, the process is a little bit different. Now, Koons more relies on Photoshop to separate the images by their RBG values. Then thousands of laser-cut stencils are prepared to accurately apply paints onto canvas. Only this pixel-by-pixel painting is done by assistants as before.

What does Jeff say about it?

I would hope that a viewer could come in and just get excited, as they would start to be visually stimulated from images. I would hope that it’s very intuitive. It’s not about using history or technique against the viewer.

I’m always interested to make a painting bigger than its parts, something that doesn’t just seem to be composed by sticking things together. I want the connections to enrich the work and to hide the formal construction of the piece.

(7) Gazing Ball (Birdbath) (2013), Gazing Ball (Mailbox) (2013), Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) (2013), Gazing Ball (Silenus with Baby Dionysus) (2013), Gazing Ball (Titian Diana and Actaeon) (2014-2015), Gazing Ball (Rubens Tiger Hunt) (2015), Gazing Ball (Gericault Raft of the Medusa) (2014-2015) from the Gazing Ball series

What is it?

The Gazing Ball series two physical objects: a glass ball and a deliberately chosen iconic artwork from western history of art. Koons’s versions of old masters are accurately reproduced but not intendent to be exact copies. He changes scale and the way the object was created. Plasters sculptures vary in height of 1 to 2 meters, roughly. Paintings vary in size of around 2 by 2 metres. The ball is placed on a shelf attached to a canvas.

In the show, two sculptures featuring ready-made objects, two sculptures featuring ancient Greek statues and three remakes of 15th-17th century paintings.

How is it made?

Each glass ball that features in the series is hand-blown. As stated in the catalogue, around 350 are rejected for everyone sufficiently flawless to feature in a work, but some other articles suggest that 350 balls in total were created for the entire series of 35 artworks. I prefer 350 balls for each piece of work. It makes it look more perfect :) Though they appear to be perfectly balanced, the globes are attached to the shelves with a rod reaching into the hollow bauble.

Not many information is given for the process of creating the series. However, I believe, that the already discussed technologies and their updates were used to receive highly detailed reference of the old masterpieces. Only the paintings reproduce the appearance of the original composition rather than the texture. To repeat the studio assistant: a flat, seamless surface that appeared to have been manufactured by machine. At each step, care is taken to maximize objectivity, and Jeff Koons’s studio manager noticed that all of his painters wear headphones while working, because they don’t need access to that headspace in which creativity—and subjectivity—prosper. “It is a moral commitment to the viewer.” To be perfect.

What does Jeff say about it?

I love to make reference to other artists – kind of art about art in that it’s a way to time travel, to pay homage to our forebears. Everything – all the information, all the knowledge, everything that has been brought to the table to this moment.

Reflection affirms the viewer. It affirms the right here, right now, and from that point you can start time travel. You can play with metaphysics.

The experience is about you – your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image.

By the way, the exhibition is curated by Jeff Koons himself in collaboration with Sir Norman Rosenthal, a honorary contemporary curator at the Ashmolean. And it is funny, how walking around the exhibition, you see the Balloon Venus from behind first.

Indeed, Jeff Koons is very controversial artist. More and more articles appear on lawsuit against the artist as guilty on plagiarism, debates on his character, political belief. One is clear that Jeff Koons always tried to deliver the idea in the most flawless way in all the means possible. I believe, the question whether Jeff Koons earned his place in art history has to be answered, as much as art history covers today. The artist with the help of the highest level specialist and assistants gives the public bright shining objects and waits for the moment they will see themselves there – the source of pleasure is sight, not touch. Now everything is about them.

I think about the life circle. I do have children, I have a family, and so I think about longevity and all this through that. But as the idea of my work itself, no. I think about it functioning today and I think about the people who are alive today and hopefully can interact with it. But my interest drops there.

Jeff Koons, from the interview with Xa Sturgis, exhibition "Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean" catalogue

My article is based on the information I found in the exhibition catalogue, the website of the artist, and numerous websites which I list here, in case you are interested to explore more of Jeff Koons.

BBC review of the current exhibition

Guardian review of the current exhibition

If you wanted to buy..

Most expensive living artist, artsy, 2018

Jeff Koons on his Glazing Ball Paintings, Guardian, 2015

Key points in Jeff Koons's career

Art Critic Roberta Smith on Jeff Koons's exhibition in 1999

Jeff Koons’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton, New York Times, 2017

Very interesting interview with Jeff Koons, New Yorker, 2007

Hans Ulrich Obrist interview with Jeff Koons, 2018

Jeff Koons about the size of his studio, 2019

Jeff Koons about the downsizing of his studio, 2017

Jeff Koons interview just after Michael Jackson's death, 2009

List of the richest living artists, 2019

How Jeff Koons became a superstar, 2007

The science behind the Jeff Koons's art, 2014

Has Jeff Koons earned his place in art history?, 2016

How to make a Koons, Vanity Fair, 2014

Open letter by Koons's studio assistant, New York Times, 2012

Lawsuit against Jeff Koons, 2018

Jeff Koons: ARTIST ROOMS, tate

Teacher Guide: Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014

Audio Guide: Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Arts, 2014

Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Press Pack, Centre Pompidou, 2014-2015

Sculpture Since 1945, A. Causey, Oxford University Press, 1998

Sculpture Today, J. Collins, Phaidon, 2007

Sculpture Now, A. Moszynska, Thames&Hudson world of arts, 2013

jeff koons at the ashmolean

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Arcaeology

Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH

7 Feb 2019 - 9 Jun 2019

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