Jeff Koons (born January 21, 1955), is an American contemporary artist and sculptor. He is noted for his use of kitsch imagery, sometimes in sculptural form and extremely large in size. His work is amongst the most expensive in the world for a contemporary artist.
Koons’ work is classified as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop, as part of an 80s movement in reaction to the pared-down art of Minimalism and Conceptualism in the previous decade. Although the use of commercial imagery is a starting point, some also see the incorporation of some of the Conceptual approach which implies an irony. Koons denies this: “A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation,” (which in turn might well be perceived as an ironic double bluff).
He caused controversy by the elevation of unashamed kitsch into the high art arena, exploiting more throwaway subjects than even, for example, Warhol’s soup cans. His work Balloon Dog (1994-2000) is based on balloons twisted into shape to make a toy dog. Koons’ sculpture differs in two major respects to the original: 1) it is made of metal (painted bright red to give the appearance of balloons), 2) it is more than ten feet (three metres) tall.
Koons has received extreme reactions to his work. Supporters claim (for Balloon Dog) “an awesome presence… a massive durable monument” (Amy Dempsey, ed. Styles, Schools and Movements, 2002, Thames & Hudson), and for other work that they are “wowed by the technical virtuosity and eye-popping visual blast” (Jerry Saltz, art critic for the Village Voice).
However, Mark Stevens of The New Republic dismissed him as a “decadent artist [who] lacks the imaginative will to do more than trivialize and italicise his themes and the tradition in which he works… He is another of those who serve the tacky rich.” Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times saw “one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the 1980s” and threw in for good measure “artificial,” “cheap” and “unabashedly cynical”.
Whether Koons will be seen in time as a critical commentator in the tradition of the Dadaists and a genuine leader in the controversial tradition of the avant-garde, or merely as a fashionable purveyor of meaninglessness and banality, remains to be seen. However, this judgement cannot be made in isolation from the evaluation of the wider contemporary art scene. He has had an undoubted influence on noted younger artists: his extreme enlargement of mundane objects has been copied by Damien Hirst (e.g. in Hirst’s Hymn, an eighteen-foot version of a fourteen-inch anatomical toy) and Mona Hatoum amongst others.
Even a cursory study of history shows that contemporary institutional acceptance (his work has been exhibited in London’s Royal Academy) is no reliable guide to the judgement of posterity. What can be said is that at the moment Koons attracts extremes of enthusiasm and vitriol, and that his work is amongst the most expensive in the world.