In my final paper, I examine Jeff Koons by peering into his work titled Gazing Balls. I will share my contextual discoveries from his interviews about how his oeuvre can be an interface to our current system of values. Through investigating Koons’ networks of influence via interviews and artistic comparisons, I will unpack Koons as he presents himself as an artist and the institution that mediates his work – The Museum. All art is polyphronic – coming from many voices, incorporating many styles, perspectives, references and assumptions. Often people question the validity of Koons’ work as art because its subject matter and meaning seems superficial; however, I argue that his artworks can be an interface to the systems of meaning that make what we see possible. The “context is not just intrinsic to the artwork’s meaning, it is the provider of its meaning” (Pledger, 2014, p. 1). Starting with a brief history of Koons’ life, I will show how Koons interacted with a lesser known group of artists – the Chicago Imagists – and how their influence was a catalyst for making him one of the most famous artists in the world. Much is known about the life of Jeff Koons due to his willingness to be in the public eye and intentional self-branding; however, as Picasso once said, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them” (Rowlandson, 2007, p. 115).
As the Whitney’s Donna De Salvo said, “If Jeff Koons didn’t exist, we would have to invent him” (Brooks, 2014, p. 1).
Artworks are “interfaces to the systems of meaning transmitted in institutions and in the cultural capital of groups and classes with knowledge of the Cultural Encyclopedia” (Irvine, 2018). As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” and no artist better represents the current rapidly growing desire to brand ourselves using social media than Jeff Koons (Yefremov, 2014).On greater scale not only of art, but also of showmanship, the work of Koons can be seen as an interface to the cultural values of our social system. Although his enterprising and masterful approach to self-promoting is unprecedented, art’s relationship with branding is not entirely a new concept. From the Roman Empire, to Napoleon, to Hitler, art collections were used to demonstrate a nation’s power, intelligence, skill and civilized society (Alexander & Alexander, 2007). As collections grew, democracy spread, and public access granted, the museum became a place where all could engage and share a nation’s cultural capital. As a place where cultures intersect, the curator holds much power in his choice of what and what not to display (McClellan, 2008). Museums have adapted over time and to this day they remain like “a cultural coral reef, always growing and changing” (Alexander & Alexander, 2007, p. 38). However, with globalization and growing commodification of the Artworld, becoming a successful artist today requires a wider skillset than just mastery of the craft. Koons stresses “connecting” with people, engaging the public in a dialogue, all while simultaneously promoting his “brand” (Miller, 2015), most likely because connecting emotionally to the public is a key branding technique.
Dressed like he still works on Wall Street, speaking like a politician, and self-promoting like an Instagram star, Jeff Koons is a ball of contradictions (Brooks, 2017). His spectrum of art goes from risqué subject matter like pornography to as childish as mounds of Play-Doh; household objects like vacuum cleaners to “exact” replicas of Old Masters; covering all aspects of our mediated experiences. Coming from a humble beginning in Pennsylvania, he is now one of the world’s richest artists turning cheap objects into expensive cultural artifacts.
He claims his time in Pennsylvania was the inspiration for the Gazing Balls series, but I believe the layers of context go much deeper. As Baudrillard believed, we cannot know our own reality because what we experience is impacted and filtered by language and culture. Traditionally, artists create art as a form of expression, but Koons is an anomaly. As the face and spokesperson of his “brand” he has infiltrated the art world, popular culture, the music industry, and the fashion industry forming a culture of “Koonsurmerism.” His hands-on approach to his brand contradicts the fact that he rarely creates his art himself. In order to understand Koons and his Gazing Balls, contextual history is essential to elucidate how we give his art meaning and attach our own personal experiences and cultural encyclopedia of knowledge.
As the artistic personification of the American Dream, Jeff Koons rose from a middle-class town in Pennsylvania to becoming one of the most successful living artists today. Born to the owner of a home decoration store, Koons began his habit of appropriating art at the age of seven by creating replicas of Old Masters work signed with his signature: Jeffrey Koons. It seems that throughout his entire life, Koons has always been creating art and selling something simultaneously. He attended art school at the Maryland Institute College of Art and School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he furthered his knowledge of art history and soon thereafter he moved to New York City. Beginning his love affair with the Artworld, Koons began working for the Museum of Modern Art selling memberships. According to MoMA’s website, “Koons had a habit of wearing somewhat outlandish accessories–such as inflatable flowers and paper vests–while at the membership desk” (Harvey, 2010). To support his art, Koons began selling stocks on Wall Street. Although merely speculation, I believe Koons not only entered the realm of Wall Street to make money and learn the ins and outs of the market, but also to gain entrance into the network of the wealthy in New York City.
Beginning his career in a generation of postmodern artists in the 1980s, Koons’ first studio was very Warhol-esque with mirrors lining the floors and inflatable objects strewn about. Later, he moved to a bigger space in Chelsea so he could accommodate numerous assistants to create his work (similar to Andy Warhol) and for producing works of art within series or in themes. Like Warhol, “Making the touch of the artist irrelevant to the authenticity of the painting is one significant element in the conceptual revolutions that made the art of the twentieth century so different from the art of all earlier centuries” (Galenson, 2009, p.198). Classified as “Neo-Pop,” Koons avoids hidden meaning in his work; he wants his art to be whatever the viewer wants it to be. His claim that he“tries to reach a widest possible audience by using familiar objects with sentimental value… [and that it is] his mission to make the viewer confident of his own judgment and taste” (Koons as cited in Wikipedia) contradicts accounts of his meticulous way of creating art. Considering Jeff Koons is a ball of contradictions, how are we supposed to believe what he says?
Upon first glance and without prior knowledge of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, one may have mistaken Gazing Ball (Manet Luncheon on the Grass) by Jeff Koons to be the original. However, Koons walks the line between overt copyright and homage to art history intentionally in order to implement one of his many artistic tricks. Koon’s Gazing Balls references influential artists of the past, such as, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rubens, Manet, and 32 others, by recreating their works on a larger scale. Koons elaborates that everyone was referencing each other. Rubens was referencing Leonardo da Vinci, Manet was referencing Titian, Picasso was referencing Manet and Titian; “everybody’s in this dialogue of connecting with each other” (as cited in Miller, 2015, p. 2).
Starting from the beginning, Koons’ foundation of his artistic career began with replicating Old Master’s work. Therefore, it is unsurprising he would circle back to this idea because “the more you make things, the more your voice will become a collection of those influences and start to feel unique” (Riley, 2017, p. 1). The layers of influence appear to be simple with a chain of thought that follows along the lines of: “all artists are influenced by their predecessors, one of Koons’ predecessors and influences was Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp who also appropriated art by adding his own twist, Koons typically works with metal and the metal here resembles his Balloon Dogs. However, it is not just that simple. The Artworld and appropriation has an interesting dichotomy and although it only recently became acceptable, artists are always influenced by the continuum of interpretations (Irvine, 2018). Once you change an artwork, it loses its “aura” of authenticity (Benjamin, 1935).
Museums have traditionally been the context we associate with consuming art; they “are the frame and effective support upon which the work is inscribed/composed.” (Buren, 1985, p. 189). We trust in museums as an institution to present us with authentic work, which affords us the ability to examine Old Master’s ability to transcend the viewer. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history it has experienced” (Benjamin, 1935, p. 4).
Standing in front of an original involves a transcending experience of time-traveling back to the presence of the painter himself. Koons’ hand-painted reproductions that he claims are exact except for the size (Miller, 2015) may have some merit because “reproductions claim to teach us simply what an object looks like” (Beil, 2013, p. 22). In a way Koons is democratizing great works of art by giving them new attention; however, our attention and gaze is blocked by a gazing ball. Similar to Samuel Morse’s Gallery at the Louvre, the viewer is pushed to reflect on not only Koons’ talent, but the talent of great artists of the past who have impacted the trajectory of art history and our socialization within the Artworld. The only way masterpieces like Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” can go away is if we as a human race stop valuing what it stands for as a cultural artifact. Koons reminds us of this by placing us face-to-face with our reflection in his glass ball. Creating his works using the same medium as the originals, Koons increases the size of the oil on canvas and he (and his assistants) places a shelf adorned with a Gazing Ball.
There is hidden meaning in these Gazing Balls.The “blue glass bauble popularized by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and now more often used as garden ornaments […] were specially hand-blown in Pennsylvania” and each one is unique. (Needham, 2015, p. 1). Without the viewer’s actual presence, Koons’ reflecting balls have no effect. Being in the museum allows for viewers to walk around the art and engage with the gallery. Placing balls on shelves like painting on walls, Gazing Balls makes a commentary on the Artworld itself. As the Artworld’s “puer aeternus”says, the gazing ball references “everything” and is the “apex of the objective readymade dialogue” (Frank, 2015, p. 2). The controversy with Koons’ appropriation is that he can make millions as an artist without picking up his paintbrush or creating his own work. This reflects the socio-economic dilemma he was brought up in and the one we are in today. He references “great artists” when he himself is a “great artist” making the whole discovery as cyclical as a spherical gazing ball. When examining Koons’ oeuvre, Roberta Smith (2014) highlights that despite Koons’ irregularity in medium, he often circles back to themes to expand on ideas. Maybe Gazing Balls is just him returning to his childlike days of copying art.
Koons combines high art and the old master’s ability to transcend us into another world with our desire to find ourselves in the art by reflecting our image through the glass ball. Maybe Koons’ implementation of gazing balls symbolizes how he wants to be remembered through history, that he is un-reproducible because anyone who sees his works of art will see something different within the gazing ball. Maybe he is commenting about how these works are received differently now. Maybe he is commenting on time travel and the durability of art thanks to the museum, which is reflected in the gazing ball. By looking into the gazing ball, one can imagine what the future of these great works looks like. Koons however, offers this explanation:
I love the concept of the gaze. People put gazing balls in their yard. It’s such a generous thing to do! It’s informing you, it’s bright, it’s informing you of where you are. It’s a GPS system. Because it reflects almost 360 degrees and it tells you everything it can about where you are in the universe. Your brain is always secreting chemicals because it wants to know where you are in the universe – Jeff Koons (as cited in Miller, 2015, p. 1).
Avoiding the obvious references, one would make such as, to “Gazing Museums,” fortune teller crystal balls at carnivals, time travel and seeing your future; instead he compares it to a GPS system. What is he trying to say?
To him, the balls remind him of his neighbor’s lawns on his hometown of York, Pennsylvania. However, Koons is a somewhat deceiving here, which leads one to think that everything he says cannot be trusted as the full truth. For example, his son who is named Ludwig – like the King of Bavaria (which is present day Germany) – was born in Munich because Koons and his mother were living there at the time. Furthermore, glass balls like this somewhat resemble the crystal balls you would encounter visiting a psychic. With this realization of correlating facts, is the intention truly to reflect the viewer, or is Koons reflecting himself? No matter the answer, by reflecting our image with the Artworld we become a part of his appropriated art. As Freud observed, human intentions are unconscious and I believe the self-promoting genius in him cannot hide all of his unconscious intentions. Koons wants to be an old master and he believes he is changed by experiencing these works:
“I’m a different human being since I saw Manet’s paintings,” Koons said. “My genes have changed. And it’s a fact that through ideas you can morph your genes. Now they don’t know how long you can do that, but Eric Kandel, the Nobel Prize–winner neuroscientist, told me that they domorph, they change.” Kandel won the Nobel in 2000 for his work in “the molecular biology of memory storage.” “Now whether you can pass that on,” Koons continued, referring back—I think—to a person’s morphed genes, “that’s another story. I believe you can. I think that you can. I think that you become a completely different human being and that’s what this is about—that through ideas you can become who you would like to be. You can connect in a dialogue with history, and penetratehistory, and realize the depth and meaning of humanity through ideas and that you can also change your future, and put your foot intothe future through your ideas. And this type of connecting parallels, kind of, the reality that we’re in” – Jeff Koons (as cited in Miller, 2015).
By replicating works as a child to now, he attempts to associate his name with theirs, weaving it into the collective consciousness of the public.
For an artist who is not shy about sharing his influences, Koons neglects to mention his experience working in the Chicago art scene. After seeing Jim Nutt’s show at the Whitney in 1974, Koons decided to spend his senior year away from the Maryland Institute College of Art and transferred to School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Lopez, 2008). Influenced by popular culture like advertising painted on window shops, childlike phenomenon like comics and pinball machines, and artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, Jim Nutt would introduce Koons to a new way of thinking and a new group of artists. The Chicago Imagists under the curator Don Baum, distinguished from the New York art scene at the time, originated as a collection of 5 artists with nothing in common visually about their artistic style, but a lot in common idealistically (Buchbinder, 2015). Baum encouraged the artists to do what they pleased, creating a low risk environment for their artwork. Koons clearly noted this in an interview with Chicago Magazine:
I loved Ed Paschke’s work. After I saw Jim’s show, I became aware of the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists. On the first night in Chicago, I went to the Ink Well Bar that was across from the old MCA, and this guy came in, this tall man, and I thought, “That has got to be Ed Paschke.” I ended up becoming his assistant and I would stretch his canvases and help him in the studio. That’s what I remember and that I loved so much about Chicago, those moments in the studio, just talking to him. – Jeff Koons (as cited in Lopez, 2008).
For their first few shows at Hyde Park Center, the group created comics for their catalogue of the artworks. Koons would most likely have seen every one of these catalogues while at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and working in Paschke’s studio. Their comics as a form of self-promotion could have me the impetus for Koons’ self-promoting success. On The Jeff Koons Show, Mary Boone, gallery owner and director, said “the way in which Andy [Warhol] predicted celebrity, Jeff [Koons] predicted branding” (as cited in Chernick, 2004). For a man who is seemingly extroverted, he is seldom transparent about where his ideas truly come from or his desire to be a famous, influential artist.
During the Chicago Imagists’ short-lived popularity, the East coast began to notice. Although not all reviews were positive, one can make links between their oeuvre that influenced Koons. In the documentary Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists(2014),Peter Fuller from Aspects is quoted describing the group’s work as “Art of degradation, banality, perversion, and formless despair” (Buchbinder, 2015). Koons’ series, following a formless fashion, are titled Luxury and Degradation, Banality, Easyfun, Celebration, Made in Heaven, and Inflatables and all incorporate some perversion. Even with the direct correlations, this tension of influences within the artist is seen in his interview with Chicago Reader. Returning years later to Chicago for an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago, Koons gives us a glance into this internal dilemma when he says:
I really had no interest in the New York scene, dominated by art critics like Clement Greenberg, who seemed too concerned with rules. Inspired by surrealism and Dada, I was interested in dealing with intuitive thought. But I did want to be part of my generation of artists” – Jeff Koons (Elliot, 2015).
The postmodern generation Koons is referencing is one that assumed the conversation of Greenberg, making Greenberg’s argument contextually important for understanding the artwork that followed. In “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” Greenberg (1961) writes, “To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide” (p. 10). In reaction to Greenberg’s writings, postmodern artists reacted by embracing all that popular. Koons’ grasped onto their idea, following the likes of using humor and irony like Claes Oldenburg and cultural icons like Andy Warhol (Jenkins, 2018). However, without exposure to the rebellious Chicago group and their distaste for the New York art scene, Koons may never have found his style. Koons’ recipe is one of a paradox: on one hand he wants to be remembered throughout history as an artist worthy of ‘Greenbergian’ critique and on the other hand, Koons hides his experience with a less famous group of artists who exposed him to certain ideas in the first place.
Regardless, Koons carried his experience with Paschke in Chicago with him to New York and Paschke’s inventive use of media images and popular culture would impact his art forever. Demonstrating his ability to multitask the many roles in the Artworld, Koons curated a show of Paschke’s work at the Gagosian in 2010.
Central to my work is what I refer to as the law of opposites; I believe that there are polarities between things […] Positive/negative, the idea of pacing a painting in terms of complexity and simplicity, the idea of public versus private, are elements that have always interested me and that I’ve always tried in some way to build into the character of the paintings. —Ed Paschke (as cited in Gagosian, 2010)
Paschke was provoking. He took photographs of fat women, carnivals, anything nearby and his attention to detail must have influenced Koons. Although the group had temporary success, surrealism became untrendy and the group was too entrenched in the art scene in Chicago that they were ignored by New Yorkers (Chernick, 2004). This could explain why Koons left Chicago for New York. Sensing their demise whether consciously or not, Koons did not take any chances being forgotten, he wanted to be a modern old master; therefore, he went straight to the source, the Museum of Modern Art, and asked for a job. His art trended towards the New York art scene as he desperately tried to maintain selling something (memberships, stocks, etc) while creating art. Although his artwork has little visual traces of the Chicago Imagists, the most essential parts of what makes Jeff Koons the prototype of branding artists has its influences in his experiences with Paschke.
Like any modern artist, the weight of art history is immense as a result of the affordances of mechanical reproduction. What Michael Baxandall called “the period eye” or culturally learned ways of interpreting visual data can vary from person to person according to our prior experience (as cited in Beil, 2013, p. 22). In his art classes as a child and at the college level, Koons must have encountered numerous genres, types, and styles of painting in art catalogues and art history textbooks which is an affordance of mechanical reproductions. “Technologies need to be mobilized for democratic principles, and used with an awareness of the dangers and misrepresentations when artefacts are reduced to reproductions” (Irvine, 2018, p. 3). As Benjamin and Malraux argued, experiencing art in technologically mediated form does not have the same effect. Photographic reproductions diminish the size, flatten the texture, and decontextualizes the work, resulting a loss of the “aura of authenticity” (Benjamin, 1935). Although Koons’ art history knowledge is vast thanks to photographic reproductions, the experiences of encountering art first-hand while working with Ed Paschke and at MoMA must have had more an influence than he chooses to admit.
Koons’ essence is one of reproduction. He reproduces objects from popular culture by changes the scale. We often can see ourselves in his art, which mirrors the current issue within the Artworld today that is the fear of mechanical reproduction lessening the museum’s importance within society. In her Ted Talk,“Art in the Age of Instagram,” Jia Jia Fei explains that although museums have fought against the selfie-generation and the distractions of mobile phones, photographic reproduction has made the Artworld more approachable thus, spreading public participation and engagement with art. Experiencing art mediated through Instagram has the power to sparks one’s interest, encouraging them to have the authentic experience for themselves. This is one of the Artworld’s most interesting paradox: the authority of the Artworld fights against mechanical reproduction even though it is (and has been since the camera obscura) an essential way of thinking and seeing that affects the artistic process. For a photographic to stand out today it must be impressionable and the majority of Koons’ work is Instagram-worthy. However, the Gazing Balls series is less eye catching because the original works have been photographed over and over again. Is this one of Koons’ many tricks?Just as the Chicago Imagists transformed themselves over and over again (Chernick, 2004), Koons this work by Koons is unlike any other.
By referencing ‘prototype’ artists, Koons executes his goal of “connecting with humanity” (Miller, 2015), whereas referencing the niche group of Chicago Imagists would strike a less impactful chord. He claims he wants to connect with humanity, but maybe he just wants to connect with the Artworld so profoundly that they cannot write him out of the texbooks. The Chicago Imagists copied who they loved – and there is nothing wrong about that by current Artworld norms. Koons also copies from who he loves, but leaves out the Chicago Imagists from his list of inspiration for a number of reasons. Whether an unintentional or conscious attempt to secure his name alongside a historically significant artist, or fear out of admitting that some of his genius was inspired by the rouge group of artists whose impact is largely forgotten, Koons’ choice is a product of his socially constructed reality. He is the GPS of his own life; he is the one gazing into the ball trying to predict his future.
Koons’ wide range and contradicting choices of subject matter, such as, “kitsch and high culture, religion and eroticism, weightlessness and mass,” opens his art to connect with people across a wide spectrum of values and beliefs. Gazing Balls can be appreciated by conservative fans of the Old Masters, his Banality series could decorate a children’s room, and his “Made in Heaven” series can appeal to the mavericks of society. Just about anyone can relate and find different meaning in his Balloon Dogs and that is the point. With his themes and series titles aligning with the Chicago Imagists, his tendency to play tricks with his art, and his heightened sense of self-promotion, Koons’ ambiguous statements about his influences may not be as accurate as I once believed.
Koons’ actual self-congruence between the art he makes and the art he sells reflects his mastery of showing his ideal self – an eternally famous artist – mixed with his actual self – a product of the American Dream myth – resonates with the viewer. According to Malär, Krohmer, Hoyer, & Nyffenegger (2011), those who practice actual self-congruence will have the greatest impact on emotional brand attachment (p. 35). That is what makes Koons’ decision to cast himself as a populist so brilliant. He spoke to the audiences who were sick of art world elitism, but also rose to become one of the highest paid artists. As Ruth Epstein (2018) writes, “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” (p. 1). Contradiction is not only visible in his artwork, but also the joke is a part of his brand. People go to see Koons to be shocked, and to marvel at the brilliance of his self-promoting, whether they realize it or not. I first saw a Jeff Koons work in Bilbao at the Guggenheim. Although the shiny, balloon looking, larger than life-sized tulips did not have the same emotional impact as seeing a Velazquez in real life would, I did remember the tulips. And that’s what Jeff Koons wants: to be remembered.
However, history tells us that society tends to rediscover artists who were largely irrelevant during their lifetime. Maybe in the future the Chicago Imagists will be rediscovered just as Van Gogh was and they will re-enter into the collective memory. When filming the documentary Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, Pentimenti Productions and Loudmouth developed their interactive archive “to provide a freely-accessible resource for students, teachers, artists, researchers, and art enthusiasts who want to learn more about Chicago Imagism” (www.chicagoimagists.com).This interface and archive is a great example of how to incorporate curating style and selection, archival records, and interactive design to lead to discoveries. With such an extraordinary interface already in place, the possibility of the group of artists being rediscovered is much higher.
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