Jeff Koons
Biography of Neo-Pop Artist, Contemporary Sculptor.
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Dog (1994)
Stainless steel sculpture made to
resemble a children's party balloon
in the shape of a dog.

Jeff Koons (b.1955)

Contents

Biography
Training and Early Works
Banality Series
Made in Heaven Series
Celebration Series
Exhibitions
Jeff Koons - Postmodernist Artist or Showman?



"Puppy" (1992) Topiary sculpture.
This version on the terrace at the
Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.

AVANT-GARDE ART
For a guide to modernist artworks,
plus details of styles and schools,
see: Contemporary Art Movements.

Biography

The contemporary multimedia artist Jeff Koons is one of the most financially successful but controversial postmodernist artists since Andy Warhol (1928-87). Influenced by several of his Pop-art predecessors, like Claes Oldenburg (b.1929), Koons is known for his Neo-Pop kitsch style of avant-garde art, exemplified by works such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988, porcelain/ gold, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art), and by giant reproductions of banal objects like Puppy (1992, flowering plants, Bilbao Guggenheim Museum), and Balloon Dog (1994-2000, stainless steel, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York). Art critics are divided in their opinions of Koons' postmodernist art, even though his works have sold at auction for astronomical prices. In 1991, one version of Michael Jackson and Bubbles sold for $5.6 million. In 2007, his magenta coloured Hanging Heart, sold at Sotheby's New York for $23 million, at the time, a world auction record for a living artist. In July 2008, his Balloon Flower sold at Christie's London for a record $25.7 million, just before the global crash. Since then the value of contemporary art has plummeted although prices for Koons' earlier series are reportedly holding their own. Still employing more than 100 people in his New York studio, Koons retains one very important advantage: he is treated with enormous respect by the museum world - a clear sign of his popularity with the general public. (See also: American Art:1750-2010). For other postmodernist sculptors, please see: Top Contemporary Artists.


Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988)
Versions of this work appear in:
Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art,
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,
and elsewhere.

MODERN ARTISTS
For a list of painters like
Jeff Koons, see:
Modern Artists.

WORLD'S BEST PAINTING
For the leading works, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

MODERN SCULPTURE
For a list of modern artists
see: 20th Century Sculptors.

WORLD'S BEST SCULPTORS
For the best US artists, see:
American Sculptors.
For the top 100, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

Training and Early Works

Born in York, Pennsylvania, Koons studied at the Maryland Institute of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Before establishing his reputation as an artist, he enjoyed a prosperous stint as a Wall Street commodities broker. In addition, he also worked for a period in the fundraising department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the mid-1980s he aroused both critical interest and support from collectors with works that explored issues of kitsch and commodity culture. As well as conceptual art, mainly sculpture, such as Three Ball 50/50 Tank (1985), comprising three basket balls floating in a half-filled glass water tank, his early works featured branded items like balls and vaccum cleaners placed in glass cases to emphasize their cult status. Other works positively exult in their kitsch quality, such as French Coach Couple (1986), made of stainless steel with a luxurious silver-like sheen.

Banality Series

The Banality series was Koons first major series of works. It included several different types of sculpture, including several devoted to religious symbolism. The lovingly crafted Ushering in Banality (1988), for instance, features two little angels leading a pig followed by a tracksuited boy. The series climaxed in 1988 with three versions of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a life-size porcelain and gold-leaf statue of the pop star cuddling Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee. In 1991, one version - now in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art - was auctioned at Sotheby's New York for more than $5.5 million. It featured in Koons' second retrospective at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, in 2008. The Bubbles statue - seen as an icon of 1980s pop art - raised Koons to the level of artist-celebrity, something he reinforced by opening a Warhol-like factory studio in SoHo New York, where he employed 30 specalist assistants. In addition, he began using contractors such as German wood-carvers, and hired an image consultant.

 

Made in Heaven Series

Having become an art star, Koons turned next to film, and decided that the quickest way to become a film star was to make an 'adult' film. This led him to meet and marry the Italian actress La Cicciolina (Hungarian-born naturalized-Italian Ilona Staller), who subsequently appeared in much of his Made in Heaven work, including paintings, glass sculptures and colour photographs of herself and Koons in explicit poses. (See also: fine art photography. See also: Is Photography Art? ) Hugely controversial, its admirers see the series as his greatest work, confronting issues of guilt/shame in a similar way to the Renaissance masterpiece Adam and Eve's Expulsion From the Garden of Eden (1426, Brancacci Chapel) by Masaccio. In 1991 Koons and Staller married, and the following year had a son, Ludwig, but the marriage ended soon afterward. After agreeing to joint custody, Staller absconded to Italy with the child. Koons later destroyed much of his Made in Heaven work during the custody battle.

Celebration Series

This set of work, associated with Neo-Expressionism, began when Koons' son Ludwig was born in 1992, and focused on the shapes and colours of the baby's first toys - the sort of art that a small child could relate to. The idea was to make huge reproductions of easter eggs, valentine hearts, balloon animals and other joyful images in brightly coloured metal. Unfortunately, many works ended up taking longer and being far more costly to produce than planned. Luckily, in 1992, Koons was commissioned to produce a piece of work for a German art exhibition in Bad Arolsen. Koons duly made one of his most popular works, Puppy, a forty-three feet high sculpture of a West Highland White Terrier puppy made out of flowers arranged on a skeletal steel structure. It was bought by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1997 and installed outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. An exact duplicate was made for the Connecticut estate of the multi-millionaire businessman Peter Brant.

The Celebration series also included several 9-feet tall highly polished steel hearts, painted in different colours. In 2007, a magenta-coloured version (Hanging Heart) sold at Sotheby's for $23 million, a world auction record at the time for a living artist. Other sculptures from the Celebration series were shown in public in 2008, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Koons' Celebration Series eventually appeared in several of the best art museums around the world, where it enhanced his reputation as a crowd-puller if not exactly the next Michelangelo.

Exhibitions

In 2008, seventeen sculptures by Jeff Koons were exhibited at the Baroque Palace of Versailles, the chateau's first major show devoted to an American contemporary artist. In the same year he had a retrospective at the Chicago Art Institute, and a major exhibition at Berlins's Neue Nationalgalerie. In 2009, Koons had his first major solo exhibition in London, at the Serpentine Gallery. The exhibition showcased his new Popeye Series, a set of metal sculptures of inflatable toys. They included dolphins, lobsters and others, cast in aluminum, together with realist paintings of Popeye smoking his pipe, with a red lobster hovering over his head. Meantime, following the donation of a number of Koons works by his former dealer Anthony d'Offay, the Tate Modern has opened a special room dedicated to the artist.

Jeff Koons - Postmodernist Artist or Showman?

Differences of opinion about Koons' worth as an artist essentially revolve around differences in the meaning of art. Traditional art theory places great importance on the craftsmanship disclosed by an objective work of art - like a beautiful painting or a wonderfully realistic sculpture. Furthernore, purists consider that only certain subjects are worthy of artistic representation. Using these criteria, critics point to the lack of craftsmanship in Koons' works, and the fact that a lot of the work was performed by assistants. What's more, his subjects are uniformly low-brow - too low-brow to be "artistic". His admirers, on the other hand, point to his popularity among the general public, his high regard among museums, and his bank balance, and say something like: it may not be art, but people like it. The debate continues.

Works by Jeff Koons and other postmodernists like Damien Hirst (b.1965) and Tracey Emin (b.1963) can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

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