Whether you love it or hate it, there is little doubt that the pop-glitz kitsch and luxury ostentation of Jeff Koons’ work has made him one of the most important artists of the last 20 years. Conflating ideas of horror and exuberance, innocence and obscenity into something that is both vacuously monumental and exultantly celebratory, the American multi-media artist holds a mirror up to the modern world — and, like a reflection in the surface of one of his iconic ‘inflatables’, his work reveals society and human nature in all its grotesque contradictions.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, by the age of 12 Koons was making copies of Old Masters and selling them in his father’s furniture shop. He studied art at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore and then at the Art Institute in Chicago, before moving to New York in 1977. In 1980 he was recruited by a Wall Street brokerage on the strength of his salesmanship of memberships to the Museum of Modern Art. He invested his Wall Street earnings into the deluxe fabrication of his own art.
Although many of Koons’ early pieces, such as the vacuum cleaners of his The New series, possessed little material value, the huge production expense behind his bronze Lifeboat (1985), his first, now-iconic inflatable, Rabbit (1986), or the rococo statuary of Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), was a fundamental part of Koons’ approach. Two decades earlier, Andy Warhol had extolled the banality of consumer culture; Koons’ postmodern project was to push art even further — to the gaudy, commercial extreme of luxury ornamentation. Of those years leading up to his reputation-clinching exhibition in 1988 of his Banality series in New York, Chicago and Cologne, he told The Daily Telegraph, ‘I lost money. I sold the bronze lifeboat for $3,000 but it cost me $19,000 to make. It was either I’m going to break in or I’m not.’
The bet paid off. Koons is now one of the most important and valuable artists of his generation. Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994-2000), part of his Celebration series (a disturbing, ebullient evocation of the fripperies of childhood) sold for $58,405,000 at Christie’s in 2013, setting a new record for the artist.
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