In the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, Dada, and Pop Art, American artist Jeff Koons (born 1955) created controversial works of art that forced the spectator to reexamine the impact of consumerism and popular culture on both the individual and contemporary society.
Jeff Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955. Koons's father, a furniture store owner and interior designer, early on encouraged his son's interest in art. By the age of 18, Koons enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where he was a student between 1972 and 1975. During his senior year, Koons decided to spend his time studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while simultaneously working at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the installations department. In 1976 he returned to the Maryland Institute to finish his course requirements for the Bachelor of Fine Arts before moving to New York in 1977. While in New York he found employment at the Museum of Modern Art working in the museum's membership department while at the same time pursuing his artistic endeavors.
Transforms Everyday Objects
Perhaps one of the most controversial artists of his generation, Koons provoked a wide array of critical responses that oscillated between those who saw him as a latter-day standard bearer of the Dada and Pop movements to those who viewed his art as the product of a shameless self-promoter and charlatan who relied upon kitsch and shock tactics to draw attention to himself. Koons's work appears to follow the traditions established by Marcel Duchamp in his use of the "ready-made" or "found" object, Jasper Johns and his characteristic material transformations of everyday consumer objects into works of art, and Robert Rauschenberg's appropriation of commercial imagery found in popular magazines and the news media. Most of Koons's art makes use of manufactured commercial products: some were bought directly from the store while others were "remanufactured" either by the artist himself or by hired artisans. Koons appropriated these objects and decontexualized them and, like Duchamp before him, raised the objects to the aesthetic and intellectual level. Thus he forces us to see these inanimate consumer objects as things that are capable not only of revealing something about ourselves and the culture in which we live but of illuminating questions surrounding the very meaning of life as well.
Among Koons's first important projects was a series of installations started in 1979 and continued throughout the 1980s that made use of ordinary, store-bought Hoover vacuum cleaners, shampoo machines, and polishers exhibited alone, in pairs, and/or in quadruplicate. All were encased in Plexiglas cases together with fluorescent tube lighting placed either beneath or behind the machines. Thus these appliances seem to be icons of popular and domestic culture and of the consumerism that characterizes the modern world, but they are also animated appliances that, isolated from their normal utilitarian contexts, take on a strangely human, physical presence as "breathing machines."
In 1985 Koons embarked on a series of works involving the use of inflatables such as a raft, an aqualung, and even common basketballs. Each of these works refer to the question of life and death but in ironic and sometimes chilling ways. For example, two of Koons's sculptures from 1985 entitled Boat, a simple life raft, and Aqualung, a diver's tank, are both devices intended to preserve and protect life from the potentially deadly perils of water, yet they are constructed of heavy bronze as if to deny the object's original function as lifesaver and instead offer a reminder of our mortality. His Equilibrium series, which defined his first one-man show, held at a small gallery in Manhattan in 1985, made use of ordinary basketballs (inflated) suspended in water-filled glass flotation tanks; behind these Koons displayed authentic posters depicting famous basketball players advertising sports equipment. These works have also been interpreted in the context of the life process—as the thematic coupling of air and water has been likened to "breath or amniotic fluid." The inclusion of the famous basketball players in the advertisement might be analogous to the artist's own quest to cheat death by achieving, like these athletes, immortality via everlasting fame and recognition as an artist. Such fame came to Koons in 1986 when his work was discovered by the art dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who helped Koons gain exposure on an international scale.
Self-Promotion of Art Criticized
Koons's elevation of kitsch and the appropriation of tacky images and objects culled from popular culture contributed to his unexpected and swift rise to the top of the art world. It also contributed to the often scathing critical responses that made Koons so controversial. Moreover, it is seemingly his unabashed, but highly successful, personal promotion skills—used to facilitate the proliferation of both his art and his reputation—that called into question his integrity as an artist. For example, in 1992 Koons took the unprecedented step of not only brashly mounting a retrospective for an artist so young, but of making his work in duplicate so he was able to stage retrospectives simultaneously in two different cities and to participate in more than 75 exhibitions in more than 15 countries between 1986 and 1993. For this reason many in the art world felt that Koons was nothing more than an exhibitionist and shock artist.
Despite Koons's denial that he intentionally sought to provoke or shock, both his life and work grew increasingly scandalous and publicized. In 1991 Koons made international headlines when he married "Cicciolina" (Ilona Staller), a former pornographic film star and member of the Italian parliament who was fond of shocking her legislative colleagues by periodically baring her breasts in public. Not surprisingly, she was to play an important role in the controversial works of art Koons created between 1990 and 1992, which made up a good portion of Koons's retrospectives. These works, done in a wide variety of media including sculpture, photography, and painting, depicted the married couple in various stages of sexual intimacy ranging from "soft" pornography to "hard-core" images of penetration often blown up to monumental proportions like the countless billboards that line the streets and highways of America. Critics deemed him the "princeling of kitsch" after his 1993 mixed-media sculptures and wall pieces debuted.
In 1992, however, Koons and Staller filed for divorce, and he remained in New York City. In 1995, an Italian judge acquitted the artist on charges that he had threatened his wife and abducted their son when he took the baby from Staller's Italian home in 1993 because the baby was a resident of New York. After a protracted legal battle, custody of their son, Ludwig Maximilian, was awarded to Staller.
Further Reading on Jeff Koons
American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America by Robert Hughes (1997) reviews Koons' work. More has been written about Jeff Koons than perhaps any other artist of his generation yet no major monograph on the artist had been published into the 1990s. The pages of journals, magazines, newspapers, and various museum catalogues are the primary sources for information on the artist. One particularly good catalogue is Michael Danhoff, Jeff Koons, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1988). An important article published by David Littlejohn in Art News was entitled "Who is Jeff Koons and Why Are People Saying Such Terrible Things about Him?" (April 1993).