Jeff Koons - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Illustrator, Sculptor
Biography of Jeff Koons
Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania to Henry and Gloria Koons. His father was a furniture dealer and worked as an interior designer and decorator, whilst his mother was a seamstress. By the age of eight, he had begun creating replicas of Old Master paintings, which he signed 'Jeffrey Koons' and sold in his father's shop. As an older teenager he became fascinated with Salvador Dalí. Keen to meet his hero, he called the hotel that Dali was staying at in New York City and was put through. Dali offered to meet Koons and they attended an exhibition of his work at the Knoedler Gallery together. After graduating from high school, Koons enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where he continued to cultivate his interest in Dali, painting Neo-Surrealist dreamscapes.
In 1974, Koons viewed an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City by Jim Nutt, a founding member of the 1960s Chicago Surrealist movement, the Chicago Imagists. The exhibition was a watershed moment in Koons' life and on the basis of it he transferred to Chicago in order to work with Nutt and other Imagist teachers, among them Karl Wirsum and Ed Paschke. Wirsum and Nutt were both members of the group, The Hairy Who, known for their bright, often grotesque paintings inspired by consumer culture. After studying in Chicago for a year, Koons returned to the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he graduated with a BFA 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 (a job he has said that he hugely excelled at). 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. He also became involved in the East Village Art scene, an alternative community of artists who rejected the mainstream art world and embraced counter-culture aesthetics including graffiti. This created a vibrant melting pot of new ideas that inspired music, poetry, writing, and the visual arts and provided a platform that launched some of the great names of late-20th century art including Peter Halley, Joan Wallace, and Ashley Bickerton. East Village Art also spawned new movements including Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo and Neo-Pop, all of which had an impact on Koons' work. Spurred on by the culture of creation and experimentation around him, it was during this period that Koons first began producing his inflatable sculptures, a concept that would become a hallmark of his practice.
In 1980, Koons left MoMA and began selling stocks and mutual funds for the First Investors Corporation and, later, for Smith-Barney, building on his background in sales. This financed the body of work that became The New. In the same year, he debuted this series in the New Museum on 14th Street in Lower Manhattan. The exhibition, which was designed to look like a showroom, presented vacuum cleaners in illuminated plexiglass boxes. In 1983 he started creating The Equilibrium series which consisted of basketballs floating in tanks of distilled water alongside posters of basketball stars. These works can be viewed as forming part of East Village Art and particularly the Neo-Geo movement, in which pieces were used to criticize and parody consumer culture and the commercialization of the modern art world. Koons received critical acclaim for these early works and only three years after this public debut, famous critic Roberta Smith declared him one "of the strangest and most unique of contemporary artists".
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 to the esteemed Sonnabend Gallery, collectively acquiring the title "The Hot Four" on the cover of New York Magazine. Two years later, Koons unveiled Banality which catapulted him to international fame. This series of lifesize sculptures combined the sentimental aesthetic of collectable figurines with celebrity and pop culture imagery. Koons produced multiple copies of each statue, allowing the exhibition to debut simultaneously at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, Max Hetzler Gallery in Cologne, and Donald Young Gallery in Chicago.
Koons released his most controversial series, Made in Heaven in 1990. This consisted of large photographs and sculptures depicting him nude and in sexually explicit acts with Ilona Staller, the famed Italian porn star also known as Ciccolina. Having seen Staller featured in European magazines, Koons flew to Rome to suggest they collaborate, and this resulted in the photographic sessions that formed the basis for the series. During their time together, the two fell in love, despite neither speaking the other's language. Brazenly flouting conventions of good taste, the series elicited an overwhelmingly condemnatory response from critics, 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 Staller. Staller and Koons married in 1991 and had a son, Ludwig, in 1992. The marriage broke up soon after and Staller returned to Italy with Ludwig, prompting Koons to destroy many of the works in the series and instigating a custody battle for their son that continued for over a decade.
During the early 1990s, Koons was sued several times for copyright infringement over his use of commercial and artistic source material in his pieces. The cases were all upheld and included the prominent Koons vs Rogers in which Art Rogers, a professional photographer, agreed an out of court settlement with Koons after it was demonstrated that Koons' sculpture String of Puppies (1988) from the Banality series was a copy of the Rogers' photograph Puppies (1985).
Originally conceived in 1994 the Celebration series is still being manufactured today and consists of 20 highly polished stainless steel designs, each of which has been produced in different colors. Some of the sculptures reference Koons' earlier Inflatables series and feature a range of objects including a balloon dog, monkey, swan and different types of balloon flowers, whilst others are oversized hearts, diamonds and eggs. All the objects are related to personal and festive celebrations such as birthday parties, Valentine's Day, and Easter - while Balloon Dog (1994-2000) has become particularly iconic. The initial stages of the project were beset by serious financial difficulties and this resulted in a cancelled exhibition at the New York Guggenheim in 1996. During this difficult period in his career, Koons married the artist Justine Wheeler, who he had originally employed in his studio. The pair have six children and live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Subsequently Koons managed to convince investors and dealers to finance the project before its completion and the sculptures were widely exhibited from the early 2000s. Cracked Egg (Blue) won the Charles Wollaston Award for the most distinguished work in the London Royal Academy's 2008 Summer Exhibition and sculptures from the series were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and featured in a large exhibition of Koons' work in Versailles, France the same year.
Even though Koons was the subject of numerous copyright infringement claims, Koons launched his own in 2010, issuing a cease and desist letter to Park Life, a San Francisco book shop and gallery, who were selling balloon dog bookends. The case was dropped early in 2011 after the lawyer representing the bookstore filed a complaint for declaratory relief, stating that, "As virtually any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog, and the shape created by twisting a balloon into a dog-like form is part of the public domain...Jeff Koons LLC purports to represent the intellectual property rights of Jeff Koons, a retired stockbroker whose sculptures and other works are well-known for copying pre-existing forms and images from popular culture."
Between 2002 and 2014, Koons worked on two series which referenced cartoon characters, Popeye and Hulk Elvis and included sculptures, oil paintings and collages. He also worked with Lady Gaga on her 2013 studio album, Artpop, creating the sculpture which featured on the cover. Riding the wave of interest and rising values of contemporary art, his work in recent years has continued to explore themes relating to sexuality, celebrity, consumerism, and childhood. His works are now created in a studio in Hudson Yards, New York City where he employs between 90 and 120 assistants. He moved his operation to its current location from long-time Chelsea studio in 2019.
In October 2019, Koons unveiled a new statue in Paris, called Bouquet of Tulips. Commissioned by the former United States Ambassador to France it was intended to be a memorial to those who lost their lives in the 2015 and 2016 terror attacks in the city. Featuring a hand that emerges from the ground and clutches a spray of balloon flowers, reminiscent of his earlier work Tulips, the piece has been beset by controversy. When the project was first outlined in 2016, members of the French cultural establishment published an open letter in the daily newspaper Liberation calling the piece, "opportunistic and even cynical" and requesting that the scheme was cancelled. The letter sparked a public outcry and many aspects of the project were criticized from the design itself to the cost. As a result of this pressure, the planned location of the piece was moved to a less prominent location and the work was funded by private donors, rather than using taxpayers' money. The controversy continued after the unveiling with philosopher Yves Michaud comparing the sculpture to "eleven coloured anuses mounted on stems". As a result, the sculpture has become known as the "culipes", which roughly translates as "asstulips".
The Legacy of Jeff Koons
Since the 1980s, Koons has been a prevalent influence on contemporary artists who explore commercialism, advertising, readymades, and new concepts of Pop Art. His career is fascinating to contrast with that of both Mike Kelley and Takashi Murakami. Kelley used similar materials to Koons, but his sculptural experiments with stuffed animals, balloons and other expressions of childhood merriment, are ultimately about dejection and angst. On the other hand, Murakami's work draws on contemporary Japanese pop culture to create huge, brightly colored canvases which are produced in his studio by a large staff team. It is this outsourced process of creation and his combination of high art and mass culture that mirrors the work of Koons.
The influence of Koons can also be seen on a wide range of artists, including Isa Gentzken and Hank Willis, as well as emerging art stars such as Darren Bader and Nick Darmstaedter. Most prominently, Koons had a significant impact on Damien Hirst, a key member of the Young British Artists. Hirst cites Koons as his main artistic influence, noting that, "a great reaction to any art is 'Wow!', and Jeff's work is full of that. ... Makes me think about America - all the shit about America, and all the great things about America at the same time." Hirst's world-famous shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991) can be seen as a direct reference to Koons' Equilibrium series. In the late-1990s and early-2000s, American artist Paul McCarthy created a number of sculptures based on Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) including Michael Jackson and Bubbles (Gold) (1997-99) and Michael Jackson Fucked Up (Big Head) (2002-10).
Koons has a record of polarizing critics and he has garnered both rave reviews and strongly-worded critiques. This became more pronounced after his incredibly controversial Made in Heaven series (1989-92), with more negative reviews surfacing from the early 1990s. This shift in critical perception can, in part, be attributed to the widespread condemnation that greeted Made in Heaven, but also to Koons' move from being a new artist with shock value on his side to a more established and commercially-focused figure.
Koons' work is reviled and revered for many of the same reasons. his admirers have lauded him for his comments on consumerism and materialism, as well as the meaningful contrasts he creates. Writing in the New York Times, Roberta Smith singled Koons out for special praise from a group show at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1986, noting that, "The show's only sculptor and most developed artist, Koons has made a name for himself by presenting vacuum cleaners and basketballs in pristine light- or water-filled vitrines, creating works of a strange, disembodied beauty that expand our notion of what sculpture is and means." More recently, his retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2014, drew mixed comments including a number of glowing reviews, with art critic Jerry Saltz writing that, "The show looks great...'A Retrospective' will allow anyone with an open mind to grasp why Koons is such a complicated, bizarre, thrilling, alien, annoying artist."
On the other hand, detractors call his pieces crude, derivative, expensive, and vacuous. A review by Christian Viveros-Fauné of the same Whitney Museum exhibition, noted that if "Koons's objects could sing, they'd belt out the Macarena and the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song... In clown speak, Koons's art is all whoopee cushion." Similarly, in a one-star review of Damien Hirst's 2016 retrospective of Koons' work, Guardian critic, Jonathan Jones wrote that Koons "is the Donald Trump of art. In what is now a pretty long career, Koons has done more than any other human being to destroy taste, sensitivity, and the idea that striking it rich as an artist has anything to do with talent."
Although Koons says that his artwork has no right and wrong interpretations, he finds the notion of professional art criticism in opposition to his ideals of acceptance. Calling them gatekeepers to the artworld, he believes that the popular and accessible nature of his work has informed the critical rhetoric against him. This does, not however, make him immune to the criticism, as Jerry Saltz recalls, "In a Madrid club in 1986, I watched him confront a skeptical critic while smashing himself in the face, repeating, 'You don't get it, man. I'm a fucking genius.' The fit passed when another critic who was also watching this, the brilliant Gary Indiana, said, 'You are, Jeff.'"