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In a society where the majority of people are critical of modern art, and argue that it is not really ‘art’, Jeff Koons is the perfect example of an artist whose work generates such controversy. After all, it was truly remarkable to see that a piece as simple as his ‘Balloon Dog (Orange)’ was sold at auction back in 2013 for the ridiculous price of over $58 million, which at the time, made his work the most expensive piece of art ever sold by a living artist (source: The Independent, 2013).
The now 62-year-old artist grew up in the suburban environment of York, Pennsylvania and spent his childhood being fascinated by American consumer culture in the 1960s. He used to go door-to-door selling gifts to his neighbours and spent years staring out of the windows of his family home at the inflatable toys floating in his neighbours’ swimming pool, the ornaments sitting on their windowsills and the elaborate sculptures sitting in their front gardens, ranging from classical Ancient Greek-style statues to banal garden gnomes. What makes Jeff’s work so interesting to me is how his art displays this child-like curiosity, it’s as though these images from his childhood are imprinted in his mind permanently and they have had a lasting influence on the art that he now creates.
Critics of Jeff Koons argue that he simply creates replicas of things that he has already seen, that it lacks originality and feels somewhat hollow. But many of these critics do not see how his art connects with broader themes such as love and death. I truly believe that he is the greatest ‘pop’ artist of our generation and in my eyes, he encourages his viewers to think about consumer culture in a way that no other artist ever has.
For example, many of his works such as the ‘Gazing Ball’ series and the ‘Balloon Dogs’ are super shiny and reflective, which is completely intentional. These artworks are not designed to be shiny for the sake of looking pretty, Jeff intended for spectators to see themselves reflected in the artwork, as it helps them to relate to the art and connect with it on a deeper level. For one of the ‘Gazing Ball’ pieces, he positioned one of the blue gazing balls on top of an old mailbox, which were commonplace on the lawns of most houses in the suburbs where he grew up. Now these mailboxes have become obsolete, they have been rendered useless due to technological developments, such as the introduction of email, and have lost their functional value. His intention is for viewers to relate to this feeling of uselessness, in a time when automation is leading to mass unemployment. This is his way of connecting with the viewers of his artwork and a way of making them realise something which they weren’t previously aware of.
Relating back to his childhood and the inflatable pool toys in his neighbours’ garden, Koons has made several pieces such as ‘Lobster’, in which he creates larger versions of these pool toys out of metal and paints them with such immense detail that they look as though they are in fact inflatable. He loves the juxtaposition of creating an object which looks like you could pop it with a pin, even though it is incredibly strong. This is his way of immortalising objects which are too often seen as disposable. Consumer culture teaches us that everything can be replaced and that everything is produced in huge batches of identical products. By making this product bigger, and out of metal, Jeff draws your attention to the object and thus the viewer starts to almost personify the object, to feel sorry for it in a strange way, especially with the way that he suspends the ‘Lobster’ upside down from the ceiling. We feel sort of sorry for the object because it is not fulfilling its function, which relates to the way that we as humans will be miserable if we are not feeling fulfilled by our work or social lives.
In another series, he displayed brand new hoovers in glass cabinets, which aimed to discuss seemingly unrelated themes such as virginity and immortality. He realised that as soon as an object is removed from its packaging and used for the first time, its exchange value decreases massively and it starts the journey towards ‘death’ (i.e. when it no longer becomes useful to its owner). It may all seem very wacky and conceptual, but there is something to be valued in the way that Jeff Koons thinks. He certainly creates art which can be interpreted on a number of different levels, even if some of those layers aren’t immediately visible to the spectator.
However, I think his most brave, bold and ambitious work is the ‘Made In Heaven’ series, his only work which features himself. This piece is, to put it bluntly, pornographic. It shows him and his ex-wife Ilona Staller in very sexual positions, with a backdrop of dreamy/fantasy imagery, a sort of ‘Garden of Eden’ scene. This is by far his most controversial work, but I am still convinced that it’s art. It was Jeff’s first significant attempt at engaging with celebrity culture, as his marriage to Ilona did make him into a minor celebrity. The fact that she was previously a porn star created a lot of controversy and led to her being shamed in the press. To me, this was Jeff’s way of playing with the media and trying to make something artistic out of sex. He wasn’t going to let the media carry on portraying his wife in a degrading way, so rather than shying away from her past, Koons embraced it and made a huge set of pornographic works with his wife – a set of photographs which would give the media even more to talk about, yet also nothing to talk about. In creating this piece, he took the scandal out of his wife’s past and made it their scandal. It was a piece of art which changed people’s perception of sex, as something beautiful and romantic, rather than dirty or scandalous.
For me, this is where Koons’ genius lies, he is always one step ahead and is capable of viewing situations and objects in a multilateral way. And for that, I practically worship him and his art, and I hope that one day I’ll be lucky enough to see his work in a gallery with my own eyes.