Jeff Koons is putting a new shine on the Ashmolean
The opinion-dividing master of the modern readymade is at the centre of a newly opened exhibition at the Oxford museum
Jeff Koons is back. The American artist and art commerce kingpin has just opened his latest show at Oxford’s Ashmolean, the world’s oldest public museum. Seventeen significant works – 14 of which make their first appearance on UK soil – span the artist’s career and radically distinctive oeuvre including Equilibrium, Antiquity and Gazing Ball in a show curated by Koons himself and his long-term friend and collaborator, Sir Norman Rosenthal.
Since he burst onto the scene in the early 1980s, the former Wall Street stock jockey came to embody the blue collar, blue chip creative, not least because of the stunning market value of his work. We watched in awe and outrage as the new boy in town spun kitsch into a high art amid a mob of gutsy neo-expressionists. Releasing that Made in Heaven series of 1991 – a billboard depicting the artist’s coital jaunts with then-wife, porn star and politician, Cicciolina – saw him ascend to new heights of notoriety and net worth.
Koons’ work is a vacuum of the art canon, a notion he executed in very literal terms in early work: everyday objects like vacuum cleaners, basketballs and twee household ornaments were elevated onto the pedestal of high art. This is an artist who once compared his own work to Francis Picabia and his studio to Raphael’s. Unlike these historical titans, Koons’ art brokerage – an industrial-scale studio based in Hudson Yards, New York – is far from a one-man operation.
Over time, he has devised a rigorous colour-by-numbers system using meticulously trained assistants executing each piece as if done by Koons’ own hand. But as the 1990s arrived, this method of art production proved to be anything but financially watertight, costing so much and taking so long that it brought Koons and his empire to the brink of bankruptcy.
Koons arrives at the exhibition – minus any entourage – typically suited and noticeably reputed by all who gawp like magpies at his cluster of shiny things. ‘I’ve always performed very intuitively as an artist. I like to think of the body and the mind together,’ he reflects.
It’s not long before Ashmolean visitors’ senses are inflated with the most classic of all Koons: polished stainless steel casts of cheap party balloons twisted into a crossbred rabbit and a bloated, magenta iteration of the Ice Age-era Venus of Willendorf. ‘I look at the reflection and the surfaces and I think of the philosophy, and the idea to reflect and contemplate,’ he says.
In recent years, Koons has scaled back his workforce, favouring computer-aided design, which has only heightened his pathological creative perfectionism. His balloon sculptures are now engineered through CT scans and data analysis, which Koons can manage on a micro scale, explaining he ‘can be responsible for every thousandth of a millimetre’.
‘I’ve always performed very intuitively as an artist. I like to think of the body and the mind together’
In his Antiquity series (2009 onwards) Koons collages hyperrealists fusion of culture overlaid with liberal mark making and Ben-Day Dots. Antiquity 2 (Dots) sees a scantily clad Gretchen Mol playing Bettie Page and riding a dolphin. ‘It’s a representation of a desire and our biology, genes and DNA,’ he says of the series. But with their cut-and-paste classical sculptures, assortments of bodies and anonymous fleshy lumps, these feel more like a collision of Hustler magazine and a trip to the Pantheon. Elsewhere, his Gazing Ball series (2012) has steel cobalt baubles hijack the most celebrated paintings and sculptures in history – posed on the shoulder of the burly Belvedere Torso, and perched on the deck of The Raft of Medusa.
Perhaps Koons’ work is more at home at the venerable Ashmolean than at first glance. The historical treasures in this building are part of antiquity’s bloodstream, and antiquity in turn flows in Koons. ‘I had no idea about the power of art until my first art history lesson in college. Art so effortlessly connects you with all the human disciplines,’ adds the artist. ‘It’s about the removal of judgement. Art is not about high art – you don’t have to bring anything to it apart from who you are.’
Koons is a lot of things: modern master of the readymade, appropriator, re-appropriator, cultural meddler and master of his own PR. But here at the Ashmolean, he has allowed past and present, priceless and the ludicrously priced to occupy the same space, as equals. ‘I couldn’t think of a better place to have a dialogue about art today and what it can be.’ §