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Balls, balloons and ballerinas: The weird world of Jeff Koons

6 February 2019

The world’s most controversial artist arrives at the world’s oldest museum this week, as Oxford’s Ashmolean mounts a major Jeff Koons retrospective. His art makes millions – until recently he held the record for the most expensive work by a living artist – but his kitsch sculptures and remakes of Old Masters split audiences like Marmite. We take a look at some of the key works on display.

Jeff Koons poses in front of his sculpture Seated Ballerina at the Ashmolean Museum | Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Gazing Ball series

This experience is about you. Your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image

The Ashmolean’s retrospective includes seven pieces from Koons’ Gazing Ball series, dating from 2012 onward, which are being shown in the UK for the first time.

In these works, a perfectly blown, highly reflective blue glass sphere is placed in front of meticulously repainted versions of masterpieces by the likes of Titian and Rubens, as well as plaster casts of ancient sculptures and modern objects such as bird baths and mailboxes.

The device also features on his cover artwork for Lady Gaga’s 2013 album Artpop.

Koons believes the balls allow audiences to engage in a new way with the art of the past, with viewers seeing both themselves and the work reflected in the sphere.

He has said of the technique: “This experience is about you. Your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image [...] It's not about copying.”

Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso), 2013, plaster and glass | © Jeff Koons. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy Gagosian
Gazing Ball (Rubens Tiger Hunt), 2015, oil on canvas, glass, and aluminium | © Jeff Koons. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy Gagosian

Antiquity series

The exhibition also explores Koons’ long-running fascination with combining images and techniques from ancient and modern art, playing with scale and materials.

One of the reasons I work with technology the way I do is that I can really be assured that the vision I have from the outset is what will be at the end

Balloon Venus (Magenta) is a gigantic, polished stainless steel sculpture based on one of the world’s oldest works of art: the tiny Ice Age statue, the Venus of Willendorf.

The Ballerina sculptures likewise take small figurines of decorative porcelain and blow them up to an imposing scale.

In the Antiquity paintings, Koons overlays photorealistic depictions of classical sculptures with collages of other artwork, graffiti-like marks and abstract backgrounds.

As with all of Koons’ work, these pieces exhibit a fanatical attention to detail, using hi-tech production methods and requiring a small army of assistants to realise.

He said: “One of the reasons I work with technology the way I do is that I can really be assured that the vision I have from the outset is what will be at the end. And that that vision isn’t altered through the process.”

Antiquity 1, 2009-12, oil on canvas| © Jeff Koons. Photo: Tom Powell Imaging
Balloon Venus (Magenta), 2008-12, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating | © Jeff Koons. Photo: Marc Domage. Courtesy Almine Rech Gallery
Seated Ballerina (detail), 2010-15, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating | © Jeff Koons. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, 2017. Courtesy Gagosian

Banality series

Unveiled in 1988, the eight sculptures in the Banality series took Koons’ use of kitsch imagery to new extremes. Inspired by Hummel figurines, they include a giant porcelain Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Koons has said: “Some people certainly think that my work is kitsch, but I never see it that way. What I’m saying to people, actually, is that they shouldn’t erase their past, that they should blend together everything they are and move forward.”

Ushering in Banality, 1988, polychromed wood | © Jeff Koons

Statuary series

Visitors can also see 1986’s landmark work Rabbit – one of the first pieces to use his signature technique of casting inflatable rubber toys in highly polished stainless steel. It’s a form that Koons has returned to many times since.

Rabbit, 1986, stainless steel | © Jeff Koons

Equilibrium series

The earliest work on display is 1983’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, one of a series of pieces featuring basketballs floating in distilled water. Koons researched the project with the help of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series), 1985, glass, steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water, one basketball | © Jeff Koons

About Jeff Koons

Born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955, Jeff Koons attended Maryland Institute College of Art, followed by the Art Institute of Chicago.

After moving to New York in the late 1970s, he worked on the membership desk of the Museum of Modern Art and, briefly, as a commodities broker on Wall Street.

The money he made there gave him a degree of independence from the art market – as he put it: "I could make exactly what art I wanted to make.”

Over the past four decades his provocative work, produced with the help of a team of assistants at his enormous New York studio, has consistently pushed boundaries and divided opinion.

His pieces make headlines and sell for millions, yet to his critics their kitsch populism and huge price tags represent everything wrong with modern art.

Whatever your view on the artistic merits of his work, there’s no denying its commercial success. In 2013 his Balloon Dog (Orange) became the most expensive work by a living artist when it was sold for $58.4m (then around £36.7m) – a record which stood until last November, when a David Hockney painting sold for $90m (£70m).

My art deals with desire but consumerism is just one little aspect of it. I’m more involved in a philosophical dialogue about life
Jeff Koons

Art of America, 2011

Jeff Koons

Andrew Graham-Dixon meets artist Jeff Koons in his Manhattan studio

imagine... 2015

Jeff Koons plays the Hulk organ

Jeff Koons demonstrates playing the Hulk Organ

Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean runs from 7 February - 9 June 2019 at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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