Jeff Koons loved to draw as a kid. He knew that he wanted to be an artist by the time he was five years old. For the past thirty-five years, Koons has made sculptures and paintings that comment on the world we live in and challenge our ideas about what art can be.
Koons experiments with ordinary objects including inflatable toys, basketballs, and vacuum cleaners. He also works with experts to transform everyday objects into large-scale sculptures in bronze, aluminum, or stainless steel, pushing the limits of what can be done with these materials.
Come see Koons’s awesome sculptures and paintings in Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, the artist’s first major museum exhibition in New York City.
HERE’S A SNEAKPEEK. . .
Born in York, Pennsylvania in 1955, Jeff Koons studied art at Maryland Institute and College of Art and at the Art Institute of Chicago. He moved to New York City in 1976. Koons’s first job in New York was at the Museum of Modern Art selling memberships. Then he worked on Wall Street to earn money to help pay for the cost of making his artwork.While he was working at the Museum of Modern Art, Koons began to look at the art on view—especially the work of Marcel Duchamp, (1887-1968) who invented the readymade just over 100 years ago. Duchamp chose ordinary, manmade objects, altered them by combining them or signing them, and declared that they were art. This act changed people’s ideas about what a work of art could be. Koons started experimenting with readymades in the late 1970s, making sculpture with store-bought objects such as these blow-up toys. He arranged the inflatable flowers and rabbits on shiny surfaces like the mirrors here. Koons often makes series of artworks to explore his ideas. This group of artworks is called Inflatables.
Koons’s father ran a home decorating store that sold furniture and lamps. When he was a kid, Koons often visited the store and even sold his own paintings there! Inspired by the arrangements of home furnishings in his father’s showroom, Koons made a series of works from household appliances that he called The New. He put these brand new vacuum cleaners in a lit case―as if they are being displayed at a store. The vacuum cleaners reminded Koons of the shiny new Hoover vacuums that door-to-door salesmen would sell to his mother in the 1950s when he was a child. Notice how the case protects the vacuum cleaners from the dirt they are designed to clean up. Koons has said that if these vacuum cleaners were ever used, it would destroy the whole sculpture!
For a solo exhibition in 1985, Koons made another series of works called Equilibrium. Equilibrium is achieved when opposite forces are equally balanced. When you throw a ball into water it usually floats on the surface, but Koons wanted his Equilibrium basketball to magically float in water exactly in the center of the fish tank. He asked a scientist to help him create a mixture of distilled water and salt to suspend the ball in the tank. It’s a delicate balance: a vibration or a slight change in the water temperature could make the ball move!
This is a sculpture of an inflatable lifeboat, which is often used for rescuing people from the ocean. But this lifeboat wouldn’t save anyone. It would sink straight away if it was put in water because it is made of heavy bronze metal!
Koons has worked with expert craftspeople to make sculpture out of wood, porcelain, and different metals, overseeing every detail of their creation. This rabbit is part of a series of sculptures called Statuary, which means a carved or cast figure of a person or animal, especially one that is life-size or larger. Koons had this rabbit cast in stainless steel, turning a soft, inflatable plastic toy into a hard, long-lasting, shiny metal sculpture. Stainless steel is an inexpensive metal usually used for pots and pans, not sculpture! Casting is when metal is melted into a liquid and poured into a mold to cool and set. The process is similar to making Jello or ice cubes in a mold. Compare this rabbit with the inflatable flower and bunny sculpture that Koons made seven years earlier. What is similar about them? What is different?
This huge bear and smaller policeman are from Koons’s series of sculptures called Banality, which means really ordinary. These sculptures look like the type of cheap ornaments or toys that you could find in a tourist gift shop. Koons had this large-scale work made by expert craftsmen who work in wood because he thinks that all kinds of objects are interesting to look at, even knick-knacks!
In 1994, Koons began a series of sculptures and paintings called Celebration to mark holidays and birthdays with subjects like cakes, hearts, ribbons, and balloon dogs. Have you ever played with a balloon dog and noticed how they become soft and squishy when they lose air? This balloon dog won’t deflate— it is made of sixty shiny, hard metal parts. It is 10 feet tall and weighs over 2,000 pounds! Koons worked with a foundry to have this sculpture cast in stainless steel.
This sculpture was inspired by a Play-Doh mound that Koons’s son created when he was a kid! It may seem like a gigantic pile of Play-Doh that was quickly thrown together, but it took Koons more than twenty years to make this artwork, with the help of a special foundry, which is a factory that produces objects cast in metal. Like Balloon Dog, it is much larger than life, and it is made of twenty-seven pieces of painted aluminum that fit together perfectly. Even though it is made of metal, Koons wanted this sculpture to look exactly like real Play-Doh, with all of its colors, cracks, and crevices.
In the late 1990s, Koons made a series of works called Easyfun. This painting, Loopy, is from that series. Koons began the Easyfun paintings by making a collage of images from packaging, ads, or magazines. He scanned each collage into a computer and used Photoshop to complete the image. Then a team of his assistants transferred the image onto a canvas, painting each separate color by hand. Take a close look at this painting. What can you see that’s loopy?
This recent work, Hulk (Organ) may look like a soft inflatable toy, but it stands 8 feet tall and weighs almost a ton! It’s made of solid bronze metal and it’s carrying an organ on his back. If the organ played, it would sound as loud as a helicopter or a jackhammer. The Hulk started out as a comic book character. He was an ordinary guy named Bruce Banner who turned into a green superhero with incredible strength whenever he gets angry. If you were a superhero or heroine, what special powers would you want to have?
“One of the amazing things about art is that it changes every day, and its meaning to you changes every day.”
My father, Henry Koons, was a decorator. And so I grew up being in my father’s showroom. Understanding, really, very young in life and through our home, too, that different colors, different textures make you feel different sensations.
Here are some of the materials that Jeff Koons has used in his work.
This is Koons’s sculpture of Popeye, a cartoon character who would eat spinach when he wanted to become really strong. Notice that Koons has replaced Popeye’s can of spinach with real live flowers! In the artist’s words:
Popeye is about an image of, I am what I am. Kind of a symbol of self-acceptance that you have to embrace who you are. Popeye has spinach. Spinach brings about his transcendence, and brings about his power. That’s what art [is]. Art is our spinach.
Please note that a number of the works on the third floor of the exhibition feature sexually explicit content.