Jeff Koons presents a large conundrum to the art world. Here is an artist that has made millions from his work; in November of last year, his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie’s $58.4 million, a record-breaking sum for a living artist sold at auction. Koons produced a series of Balloon Dogs and the orange version was among the first of these to be fabricated.
In addition to these sculptures, Koons commercial success puts his work in rarified air. In 2011, “91% of Koons’s works on auction were sold, with an average sale price of $1.6 million”; in 2013, ” 78% of Koons’s works offered were sold” (Lane, 2004), all part of trend where the demand for Koons’ work weathered the financial crisis of the last decade quite well. The conundrum of Koons is in his position within the art world, where for many, he remains a divisive figure straddling the paper-thin border between pioneer and self-aggrandizer. Some of his stronger critics have dismissed his work as “crass” and “kitsch” (Galenson, 2006). Kimmelman (1991) criticized an exhibition of Koons in SoHo with “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” Famed critic Peter Schjeldahl went so far as to write, “Jeff Koons makes me sick. He may be the definitive artist of this moment, and that makes me sickest” (Schjeldahl, 1988, p. 81).
But others like Danto (2004) argue for a less vitriolic response, noting “It is widely acknowledged that Jeff Koons is among the most important artists of the last decades of the twentieth century” (p. 27). Were art critics polled for their opinion regarding Koons, “we would encounter a fair amount of resistance to the idea that Koons is anything more than a clever opportunist who has pulled the wool over the rest of the Art World’s eyes” (Danto, 2005, p. 286-287). Danto acknowledges the acrimony towards Koons, but argues this contempt held toward him justifies his preeminence, “That by itself would be evidence of his importance” (p. 287).
Nowhere is Koons’ importance more evident than within the well-known series of Balloon Dogs discussed at the beginning of this post.
Often labeled as Post-Pop, Koons emulates Warhol’s extensive use of the materiality of pop culture, specifically in art that imitates commercial mass production, but takes the notions of materiality, consumerism, and what’s discarded to further degrees. Where Warhol used soup cans and boxed soap, Koons does giant balloon animals.
The most celebrated series is aptly called “Celebration”. These large-scale sculptures and paintings of balloon dogs, Valentine hearts and Easter eggs were conceived in 1994, but some are still being fabricated. Each of the 19 different sculptures in the series comes in five differently coloured “unique versions”. The most coveted have luminous, reflective surfaces. “The ‘Celebration’ series made Koons the number one contemporary artist and pulled up the value of the rest of his work,” says Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of contemporary art at Sotheby’s Europe. (Thornton, 2009)
Remarkably, Koons claims his work has no subtext. “A viewer might at first see irony in my work, but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation” (Koons & Rosenblum, 1992, p. 82). He presents his cultural refuse without interpretation, and what could be more disposable than balloon dogs? By their very nature, balloon dogs are disposable art, made by clowns and magicians for the enjoyment of children meant to attract their attention for a few minutes only to eke air slowly to die on a bedroom floor days later, or an shattering explosive death by popping soon after their fabrication. Koons’ dogs are quite the opposite, large, durable, but just as garish. Perhaps that’s the meaning in the materiality, begging the question, what if the materiality of these temporary items achieved permanence?
Art is not without the notion of place in its materiality. Just as temporal considerations conditions the available material and methods, adding the space where the art is consumed is integral to its meaning. Amongst a number of small protests, a number of pieces from the Celebration series including Balloon Dog were on display in the Palace at Versailles.
Seeing Koons’ work placed in such a monumental site is intriguing. The enormous catalogue of the exhibition is, aside from the ability to transport oneself back to the latter months of 2008, the closest one can come to fully experiencing the impact of Koons’ work at Versailles. The catalogue is full of wonderfully clear images of the sculptures in situ. The images are undoubtedly seductive; the ornate ceiling decoration and elaborate textures of the palace tapestries are mirrored in the reflective surfaces of Koons’ Balloon Dog, placed in the Hercules Salon, and Hanging Heart (Red/Gold) in the alcove of the Staircase of the Queen. (Rychen, 2011, p. 2)
Rychen (2011) for her part, acknowledges the paradox of seeing Post Pop Art in such a setting as she refutes the hand-wringing of Christopher Mooney in his review of the exhibition for Art Review (referring to it as “viral and virile” and “abominable whimsy”) while another review in French weekly Valeurs Actuelles bemoans the loss of a perception for the millions of visitors experiencing Versailles for that “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
What happens to their perception of Versailles if the one time they see it is with a large hanging lobster in the Mars Salon and an enormous pink balloon dog in the Hercules Salon? Does the existence of Koons’ art destroy the authentic experience that the visitors are expecting and possibly deserve? The article claims that the Koons exhibition is the result of an agenda that does not consider Versailles’ main audience. (Rychen, 2011, p. 8)
In this way, we begin to understand the meaning of Koons pretense that he has no hidden message. Is there any place more opulent than Versailles, and is there any better way to assuage the viewer such pretentiousness than with a giant balloon dog with its reflective metal skin?
Danto, A. C. (2004). Kalliphobia in contemporary art. Art Journal, 25-35.
Danto, A. C. (2005). Unnatural wonders: essays from the gap between art and life. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Galenson, D. (2006). “You Cannot be Serious: the conceptual innovator as trickster”, National Bureau of Economic Research.
Kazakina, K. & Boroff, P. (2013, Nov. 1). Koons’s Puppy Sets $58 Million Record for Living Artist.Bloomberg.
Kimmelman, M. (1991, Nov. 29). “Jeff Koons”, The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/29/arts/art-in-review-233491.html
Koons, J., & Rosenblum, R. (1992). The Jeff Koons Handbook. Thames and Hudson.
Lane, M. (2014, Feb 14). Christie’s, Sotheby’s Post Robust Sales. MarketWatch: The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.marketwatch.com/story/christies-sothebys-post-robust-sales-2014-02-14-144492256
Mooney, C. (2008). “Jeff Koons,” Art Review, no. 28.
Rychen, J. (2011). Abundance and Banality: Jeff Koons at the Palace of Versailles. Shift, Graduate Journal of Material and Visual Culture, 4, 1-11.
Schjeldahl, P. (1990). The “7 Days” Art Columns, 1988-1990. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures.
Thornton, S. (2009, Nov. 26). “Inflatable investments – The volatile art of Jeff Koons”, The Economist. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/node/14941205
Vogel, C. (2013, Nov. 12). At $142.4 Million, Triptych Is the Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold at an Auction. New York Times.