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Artists Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons

American Painter, Illustrator, Sculptor

Movement: Neo Pop Art

Born: January 21, 1955 - York, Pennsylvania

"The job of the artist is to make a gesture and really show people what their potential is. It's not about the object, and it's not about the image; it's about the viewer. That's where the art happens."


Jeff Koons derives inspiration from things you might find at a yard sale: inflatable plastic toys, vacuum cleaners, porcelain trinkets and other items not typically considered fine art. He is the epitome of Neo-Pop, a 1980s movement that looked to earlier Pop artists, particularly Warhol, for inspiration. His steel Balloon Dog sculptures, probably his best-known works, transpose an ephemeral childhood memory into an enduring form. His work looks cheap, but is expensive, an ingenious reversal of economic logic that forms the basis for his stunning commercial success. Rather than offending the art snob, Koons has challenged top collectors to revise their notions of what fine art looks like. This is a brilliant marketing strategy. His work brings the highest prices of any living artist on the auction market. Evidence of a turning point in art history, Koons is a new kind of genius in art. A significant departure from the modernist ideal of the misunderstood visionary, Koons is the anti-modernist, a shrewd, self-proclaimed crowd-pleaser, and avid promoter of his own work.

Key Ideas

With greater showmanship, and on a grander scale, than any artist before him, Koons presents us with the clash between high art and popular culture.
Koons is essentially a late twentieth-century incarnation of Marcel Duchamp. Like the French Conceptual artist who thought America's bridges and plumbing her finest artworks, Koons strips industrially-made objects of their practical purpose and re-presents them as art.
His sculptures are not merely conceptual, but aesthetic, in ways that challenge us, especially those of us accustomed to fine art. Kitsch and high culture, religion and eroticism, weightlessness and mass are among the apparent opposites that mix and mingle in his work.
Koons was among the first American artists to cast himself as a populist. In the rising economy of the 1980s, his message resonated with audiences sick of art world elitism. His outspoken distaste for abstract art, already fading from fashion, vaulted him into the limelight.
Somewhat paradoxically, his embrace of bad taste has won over the most discerning and ostensibly elitist audiences. By collecting Koons, collectors and museums show that they can take a joke.

Most Important Art

New Hoover Convertibles Green, Blue; New Hoover Convertibles Green, Blue; Double Decker (1981-1987)

In Koons' work, the vacuum cleaner is an important recurring symbol. In conversations about it, he has called attention to its anthropomorphic and androgynous qualities, almost as if it were a totemic figure. "It is a breathing machine" he once stated, which "displays both male and female sexuality. It has orifices and phallic attachments." In a series entitled "The New," Koons explores America's fetishization of pristine commodities and their relationship to notions of sexuality, innocence, and cleanliness. Here, four commercial vacuum cleaners housed in a monolithic plexiglass vitrine are lit from below with fluorescent lights. Duchamp's original 'readymades', especially his presentation of a urinal in 1919 as art, are obvious precedents for this work. Whereas Duchamp turned the urinal on its head and signed it (R. Mutt), however, Koons one-ups Duchamp, giving us no visible sign of his involvement in the work. The categorization of New Hoover Convertibles as art transforms the retail display into a shrine to commerce. As "art," it evokes a host of miraculous events depicted by artists, from the raising of Lazurus to the Resurrection of Christ. We are reminded of the ways in which modern life has been transformed by living, "breathing machines." Whether Koons is celebrating or condemning this transformation is an open question. Koons' ability to put his finger on the pulse of such moral ambiguities, without telling the viewer what to think, is perhaps his greatest strength as an artist.

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Jim Beam: J.B. Turner Train (1986)

Completed in 1986, Jim Beam: J.B. Turner Train is one of the key works in Koons' Luxury and Degradation Series, in which the artist sought to create "fake luxury" as he put it, "visually intoxicating, disorienting," promising the trappings of success, but actuality offering degradation. Alcohol, the ultimate symbol of this type of threatening luxury, is the substance showcased by this nearly ten-foot long miniature train rendered in polished steel and filled with Jim Beam whiskey. While an uninformed viewer might reasonably assume that the whiskey is replaceable, Koons has claimed that if the contents of this work are ever consumed, it will destroy the work of art.

By insisting that the whiskey was an irreplaceable element of the artwork, Koons was, in effect, presenting his audience with the very definition of a readymade: an everyday object (or in this case a substance) presented as art, but which can only remain art as long as it is useless. Koons' statement also implies that this whiskey is different from other whiskey, leading us quickly into the direction of religious comparisons. The gleaming silver of the train invites associations with the communion vessel, which transforms wine into the blood of Christ. Other works in this exhibition, stainless steel vessels filled with alcohol and accompanied by canvases printed with liquor ads, entice us to drink and forever delay our gratification. They are intended to convey the tension created by luxury, its conflation with leisure and escape, but also its relationship to abuse and degeneracy.

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Hennessy, The Civilized Way To Lay Down the Law (1986)

This work is an unaltered reprint of an advertisement for Hennessy cognac. The presentation of this ad in a gallery opens it up to a level of scrutiny unintended by the company. An elegant African American couple relaxes in a well-furnished apartment. The clock reads just after 2am, and the man looks up from his law books, removing his glasses and smiling at his pretty companion. She wears his cardigan and beams at him coquettishly, handing him a glass of Hennessy as a reminder that it is time to come to bed. "Hennessy/The civilized way to lay down the law,"a caption typical of the advertising industry's multi-layered symbolism, accompanies the image.

Koons' inspiration for the series in which this and Jim Beam: J.B. Turner Train (1986) were included came to him while riding the subway in New York, during which time he surveyed "the whole spectrum of advertising" from "the lowest economic base to the highest level," and observed "how the level of visual abstraction [was] changing. The more money came into play, the more abstract. It was like they were using abstraction to debase you..."

The work was exhibited alongside Koons' stainless steel trains carrying alcohol and other reprints of liquor ads in his Luxury and Degradation series. This image functions in the tradition of Duchamp's readymades, but with an element of social commentary that is almost entirely dependent upon context. An image means one thing on a billboard in Harlem and another in a high-end gallery, where we are invited to unpack its troubling layers of meaning. Symbols of status, aspiration, and wealth here are carefully designed in such a way as to target the insecurities of a minority community especially vulnerable to alcoholism. While the image reinforces a positive perception of minorities, the words have multiple associations, some of which are decidedly negative. To "lay down the law" means to give instruction in a bossy way, and is often used to describe spouses setting the limits on drinking. The term "civilized" (which emerges both in the caption and Hennessy's slogan 'The Most Civilized Spirit") is also loaded, reminding us of the bigoted assumption that people of non-European descent are less civilized. These positive and negative associations swirl around the image, reinforced by the text. While Koons' intention is clearly to give us a direct glimpse of the manipulative psychology of advertising, he makes no effort to intervene or correct the messages at the heart of this work. He maintains an ambiguity that would remain part of his allure for sophisticated art audiences.

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Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988)

Michael Jackson and Bubbles is perhaps the ultimate expression of Koons' abiding interest in flouting the conventions of good taste. Unlike his re-presentation of advertisements for Cognac, there is no obvious moralizing message here, nor is there any irony, of the type we might expect from an artist like Claes Oldenburg. This ornate, slightly larger-than-life-sized porcelain sculpture is based on a photograph of the pop star and his pet monkey, Bubbles. Its garish charm is a brazen assault on the refined sensibilities of the art world insider. On the other hand, gilt is a material associated with Christian iconography since the middle ages. In keeping with Koons' approach to similarly banal forms like the vacuum cleaner, it reconstructs Jackson as a religious icon, evokes celebrity worship in pop culture, and reminds us of the sacrifices individuals had to make to maintain their celebrity status - a statement that proved prescient in light of Jackson's untimely death. The impeccable craftsmanship - commensurate with that of a Renaissance masterpiece - and imposing scale of this sculpture underscore the lack of humorous intent. Koons is, in effect, asking us to regard Michael Jackson and Bubbles as a sincere and significant artwork.

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Made in Heaven (1989)

Made in Heaven, a series of large-scale photographs depicting Koons in a variety of sexually explicit poses with his Italian porn star lover, soon-to-be-wife Ilona Staller, remains the artist's most polarizing and controversial series. The exhibition, which premiered in 1991 at Sonnabend Gallery, included this billboard, announcing a feature film Koons intended to produce with "La Cicciolina" (Staller's stage name) - a project that was never realized.

Even critics who had so far liked his work sought to distance themselves from this body of work, which elicited virtually universal condemnation. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times opened his review with the scathing reflection: "Just when it looked as if the 80's were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade."Other critics were not much more generous. While other artists, from Carolee Schneeman to Vito Acconci, had featured themselves in sexually explicit acts, and the poses in Koons' work quoted well-known old master paintings, the general view was that Koons, by showcasing himself as a porn star (and his wife, who really was a porn star) in these images, had overstepped the boundaries of good taste. This, of course, was precisely the point, breaking new ground in blurring the line between erotic imagery and pornography. Continuing a line of reasoning that begins much earlier in his work, Made in Heaven raises the question, if a poster and a vacuum cleaner can constitute art, why not pornographic imagery?

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Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994-2000)

Koons' most famous works to date are the towering sculptures inspired by balloon animals. This one stands over ten feet tall and weighs in excess of a ton. Its sumptuous skin, according to the artist, is intended to "manipulate and seduce," like the Baroque decor of Christian cathedrals. Like the cheap, shiny rubber it is meant to imitate, the surface of Balloon Dog (Orange) evokes the eternal appeal of precious metal. Since this really is metal, its immaculate, reflective surface and perfectly concealed joints invite us to marvel in the absolute symmetry and perfection of the objects. Up close, however, the overall composition fades, and the viewer is confronted by his or her own distorted, imperfect image.

Koons once remarked that he believed Balloon Dog (Orange) to be "a very optimistic piece, it's a balloon that a clown would maybe twist for you at a birthday party. But at the same time it's a Trojan Horse. There are other things here that are inside: maybe the sexuality of the piece." The work recalls the unbridled optimism and wonder of childhood, while functioning simultaneously as a memento mori of this naive state of development, replaced in adulthood by covetousness for luxury and beauty. The idea that commerce is the new religion is in many ways the key to Koons' oeuvre. Building on Duchamp and Warhol, he harnesses religious iconography (especially Catholic) borrowed from the history of Western art.

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Rendering of Play-Doh (1994-2014)

For generations of adults, from the baby boomers to millennials, the mere sight of Play-Doh is nostalgic, conjuring the scent and tactile appeal of this strange, yet calming synthetic substance. First unveiled at Koons' 2014 Retrospective Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Rendering of Play-Doh is the culmination of two decades of planning and execution. Most of us (artists and non-artists alike) make our first sculptures out of Play-Doh, so there is a humorous, self-referential element in this work by one of the world's most famous sculptors, returning to square one. The apparent informality of work, however, is deceptive. What looks like Play-Doh scraps haphazardly lumped together was carefully constructed from polyethylene and ultimately assembled from twenty-seven interlocking pieces of painted aluminum. Like Balloon Dog, it is nearly ten feet tall and transforms an ephemeral, disposable childhood theme into a monument, poised to withstand the test of time.

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Early Life

Jeff Koons Biography

Born in Pennsylvania on the first day of 1955, by the age of eight years old, he had begun creating replicas of Old Master paintings, which he signed 'Jeffrey Koons' and sold at his father's antique shop. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where he painted neo-surrealist dreamscapes heavily inspired by his hero Salvador Dali.

Jeff Koons Biography Continues

In 1974, Koons viewed an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City by the Chicago Imagist Jim Nutt, which came to represent a watershed moment in his life and career. On the basis of that show, he transferred to Chicago, in order to work with Nutt and other Chicago Imagist teachers, among them Karl Wirsum and Ed Paschke. After studying directly under Paschke in Chicago for a year, Koons returned to the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he graduated with a B.F.A in 1976. He was awarded an honorary degree from the Chicago Institute of Art some 30 years later.

In 1977, after graduating from college, Koons moved to Manhattan and took a job selling memberships at the Museum of Modern Art. In New York City, he explored the New Wave and Punk music scenes at the now legendary clubs CBGB and the Mudd Club, and mingled with David Salle and Julian Schnabel, slightly older artists with an established reputation in New York. It was during this period that he began producing the first inflatable sculptures, which would become a hallmark of his practice.

In 1980, Koons left MoMA and began selling stocks and mutual funds for the First Investors Corporation, building on his background in sales. This financed the body of work that would constitute The New series. In 1980, he debuted the series in the New Museum's storefront window on 14th Street in Lower Manhattan, which included three illuminated vacuum cleaners encased in plexiglass vitrines. Koons received almost instantaneous critical acclaim for his work. Only three years after this public debut, critic Roberta Smith declared him one "of the strangest and most unique of contemporary artists."

Mature Work

Jeff Koons Photo

The New Series garnered Koons significant critical attention throughout the early 1980s, but it was not until 1986 that he achieved major media traction, when he - along with fellow artists Peter Halley, Ashley Bickerton, and Meyer Vaisman - made the much publicized jump from International With Monument gallery to the esteemed Sonnabend Gallery, collectively acquiring the title "The Hot Four" on the cover of New York Magazine. Two years later, Koons unveiled the Banality series which catapulted him to international fame. The series, featuring sculptural amalgamations of stuffed animals, plush toys and magazine imagery among other inspirations, debuted nearly simultaneously at Sonnabend Gallery in New York, Max Hetzler in Cologne and Donald Young in Chicago. Having been featured in the pages of Time Magazine and on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, Koons' renown grew exponentially when, a year later, he released his most controversial series to date, Made in Heaven, consisting of monumental photographs depicting him nude and in sexually explicit acts with his then girlfriend, soon-to-be wife Ilona Staler, the famed Italian porn star also known as "La Ciccolina." Brazenly flouting conventions of good taste, the series elicited an overwhelmingly condemnatory response from critics and the public alike, threatening to dethrone Koons from art world preeminence. Ultimately, however, Made in Heaven proved the adage that any publicity is good publicity. News from Missouri to Helsinki covered Koons' outrageous suite of pictures, and his subsequent engagement to Staler. Koons retained his title as a bona fide art star.

From then on Koons' reputation has continued to grow. Riding the wave of interest and rising values of contemporary art, his work in recent decades has explored themes related to sexuality, kitsch, celebrity, consumerism, and childhood. Series such as Hulk Elvis, Gazing Ball, and Balloon Dog resonate with critics and the public alike. He remains one of the most celebrated figures in contemporary art.


Jeff Koons Portrait

Since the 1980s, Koons has been a prevalent influence on contemporary artists who explore commercialism, advertising strategies, Duchampian conceptualism and pop aesthetics. His career is fascinating to contrast with that of West Coast artist Mike Kelley, an artist who used similar materials, but whose sculptural experiments with stuffed animals, balloons and other expressions of childhood merriment, are ultimately about dejection and angst. The influence of Koons is manifest in the work of a panoply of artists. Canonized figures such as Mike Kelley, and Isa Gentzken, and emerging art stars such as Darren Bader and Nick Darmstaedter are among those artists who have been impacted by his work. In his ability to identify themes that resonate with and captivate the public, he is most comparable to Damien Hirst, his slightly younger contemporary whose art star status in England parallels Koons' in the U.S. Hirst's world famous shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde is especially indebted to Koon's early work. Koons' forays into advertising laid the groundwork for Hank Willis, who has delved more deeply into the racial implications of contemporary marketing imagery.


"I believe that art has been a vehicle for me that's been about enlightenment and expanding my own parameters, to give me courage to exercise the freedom that I have in life."
Jeff Koons
"Art has this ability to allow you to connect back through history in the same way that biology does. I'm always looking for source material."
Jeff Koons
"Art's a very metaphysical activity. It's something that enriches the parameters of your life, the possibilities of being, and you touch transcendence and you change your life. And you want to change the life of others, too. That's why people are involved with art."
Jeff Koons
"I've always enjoyed feeling a connection to the avant-garde, such as Dada and surrealism and pop art. The only thing the artist can do is be honest with themselves and make the art they want to make. That's what I've always done."
Jeff Koons
"I believe that my art gets across the point that I'm in this morality theater trying to help the underdog, and I'm speaking socially here, showing concern and making psychological and philosophical statements for the underdog."
Jeff Koons
"Art was something I could do better. It gave me a sense of self."
Jeff Koons
"I try to be a truthful artist and I try to show a level of courage. I enjoy that. I'm a messenger."
Jeff Koons
"If cheap cookie jars could become treasures in the 1980s, then how much more the work of the very egregious Jeff Koons, a former bond trader, whose ambitions took him right through kitsch and out the other side into a vulgarity so syrupy, gross, and numbing, that collectors felt challenged by it."
Art Historian Robert Hughes
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