Best known for his bold – and often kitsch – artworks that explore contemporary obsessions with sex, celebrity, media and consumerism, Jeff Koons is a contemporary Pop artist.
Koons made a name for himself in the mid-1980s as an artist-cum-stockbroker who turned everyday objects into oversize sculptures. Using toys, inflatables, household items and luxury goods throughout his work, Koon references popular culture to explore consumerism and the human experience. This is not only evident in his choice of subject matter but also in his aesthetic – Koon creates smooth glistening surfaces in his sculptures whilst his paintings employ bright and saturated colours.
Born in 1955 in Pennsylvania Jeff Koons began making art from a young age – at the age of nine his copies of Old Masters were already being exhibited in his father’s second hand furniture shop. He went on to study painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he met painter Ed Paschke who had a significant influence on the younger artist’s style. In 1977 Koons moved to New York where he took a job working the membership desk of MoMA, however by 1980 he was working as a broker on Wall Street, which allowed him to “make exactly what art I wanted to make. And I would always know that I didn’t need the art market.”
By the mid-’80s Koons was becoming known for his neo-Pop work and sensational style alongside a number of artists who were also exploring what it meant to produce art at a time when television, advertising, films and celebrities permeated every facet of society. He soon established a large studio – like Warhol’s Factory – in SoHo, where around 30 assistants would fabricate his highly technical sculptures, such as the famous Equilibrium series of basketballs suspended in distilled water.
Koons first began his Inflatables series in the late ’70s. Starting with a balloon animal he would cast it in stainless steel that would be highly polished to create a mirror effect. His most famous example of this is perhaps the early Balloon Rabbit, and the Balloon Dog from his later Celebration series. Commenting on the inflatables Koons has said, “I’ve always enjoyed balloon animals because they’re like us … We’re balloons. You take a breath and you inhale, it’s an optimism. You exhale, and it’s kind of a symbol of death.” Since these first experiments Koons has gone on to produce balloon monkeys, swans and flowers in this signature style.
Michael Jackson and Bubbles
Another of Koons’s most famous works, Michael Jackson and Bubbles is a series of three life size porcelain statues of the singer and his pet chimpanzee, produced by the artist in conjunction with traditional ceramic workshops in Germany and Italy. Part of his Banality series, the works came to represent Koons’s increasing interest in self promotion. All the works in the series were made as an edition of three so they could be exhibited simultaneously in three locations, however Koons anticipated there would be some backlash to this move on the part of critics which might cause them to ignore him and proceeded to produce a number of ads for his own shows to be featured in leading art magazines such as Art Forum, Art in America and Flash Art. He also produced a limited edition porcelain plate for Parkett journal. At the same time he was giving interviews in the third person and cultivating an image of himself as a public persona.
With his factory-like studio and his increasing fascination with the potentials for art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Koons inevitably draws parallels with the master of Pop, Andy Warhol. Much like Warhol was, Koons is fascinated with the relationship between media and reality, consumerism and desire. In his early career however, Koons was also fascinated by the figure of Salvador Dali, whom he met briefly as a teenager – he even used to sport a thin moustache like the Spanish Surrealist. This mix of Pop Art and Surrealism courses through his prolific oeuvre which sees him repeat and transform everyday objects into ridiculous proportions, adding a touch of Alice in Wonderland charm while at the same time questioning our addiction to the high polish of the commercial.
Made in Heaven
Perhaps Koons’ most controversial series, Made in Heaven saw the artist produce a number of photographs inspired by the history of art – with particular reference to Rococo and Baroque artists such as Boucher, Fragonard and Bernini – that depicted the artist and his then-wife Ilona Staller in sexually explicit poses. The series was intended to be just one image for a billboard, commissioned by the Whitney Museum in 1989, that would advertise a film that didn’t exist. The series was then shown at the Venice Biennale of 1990 and has been exhibited widely ever since.
Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons
As with Murakami and Richard Prince before him, in 2017 Koons collaborated with iconic French fashion brand Louis Vuitton on a series of bags that feature reproductions of his favourite Old Masters – from the Mona Lisa to Manet’s Le Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe – emblazoned with the original artist’s name in block capitals. With their garish, souvenir style they embrace the kitsch aesthetic Koons has been playing with throughout his entire career.
Koons’ work can be seen in a number of international collections and public spaces, from the Guggenheim in Bilbao, where his enormous Puppy sculpture stands guard in the museum’s courtyard, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. His work has also been the subject of a number of important retrospectives which have helped drive demand for his pieces on the art market.
Mixing art, commerce and culture has not only made Koon one of the world’s most famous artists but also one of the world's richest. Whilst he regularly breaks records, and his work reaches astronomical prices at auction, the artist has also produced a number of affordable editions, including smaller sculptures and signed prints, that ensure his work remains accessible.