Jeff Koons

(b. 1955)

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(1955– )

American artist, one of the most controversial and financially successful figures in art since Andy Warhol. He was born in York, Pennsylvania, and studied at the Maryland Institute of Art, Baltimore, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Before achieving recognition as an artist, he had a prosperous career as a Wall Street commodities broker. He also worked for a time at the New York Museum of Modern Art, significantly and successfully in the fundraising department. During the 1980s he rose to fame with work which addressed issues of commodity culture and kitsch in ways that aroused both critical interest (if not always acclaim) and support from collectors. In early works, branded objects like balls and vacuum cleaners were put in glass cases, emphasizing their cult status by placing them beyond use. Other works not only skirt the kitsch effect but exult in it to an extent that even Pop art would often find embarrassing. French Coach Couple (1986) is made in stainless steel but shines like Rococo silver. As Koons has pointed out, its reflective quality has associations with luxury: ‘Polished objects have often been displayed by the church and by wealthy people to set a stage of both material security and enlightenment of a spiritual nature.’ Other works play specifically with religious symbols. Ushering in Banality (1988) has two little angels leading forward a pig with a red-clad urchin behind. Such works are lovingly crafted. Koons employs German woodcarvers and frequently appropriates existing images. Robert Rosenblum has compared the shock he first received from the work of Koons to that he had from his first sight of the cartoon images of Lichtenstein, but the difference is surely that the comics of the older artist are material which few would mind admitting to have enjoyed at least when young. Koons has stated that his aim is to capture a large audience and ‘also have the art stay on the highest orders’ (Flash Art, summer 1986). He continues: ‘I tell a story that is easy for anyone to enter into and in some way enjoy’. His fame (or notoriety) has been enhanced by his relationship with the Hungarian-born Italian porn star and politician Ilona Staller (La Cicciolina). She figures in much of his work, which includes glass sculptures and enlarged colour photographs of the couple in sexually explicit poses. They married in 1991 but soon separated. Although some critics, like Rosalind Krauss, have found his engagement with kitsch and the marketplace abhorrent, he has gained considerable acceptance within the museum world. For instance his floral sculpture Puppy is permanently installed at the Guggenheim Bilbao. An exhibition of his sculpture in 2008 at the Château de Versailles was picketed by a right-wing nationalist group who claimed that it was ‘an insult to Marie-Antoinette’.

Further Reading

G. Politi, ‘Jeff Koons’, Flash Art (February/March 1987)R. Rosenblum, On Modern American Art (1999)P. Schedahl, ‘From Criticism to Complicity’, Flash Art (summer 1986)

Subjects: Art.

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