Tue, 19 Feb 2019
IT’S great to meet a superstar who turns out to be a thoroughly nice guy, as was the case at the Jeff Koons press opening at the Ashmolean last week. This legend of the contemporary art world – who has been described as the most famous, important, subversive, controversial and expensive artist in the world – was there in the flesh at the exhibition he had co-created.
Xa Sturgis, the museum’s director, said it was students who had enticed the American artist. The university’s Edgar Wind Society had set up a contemporary art prize and the first winner was Koons, so they invited him to Oxford.
“In an entirely typical way, Jeff got on a plane, flew to Oxford for the day, accepted the prize, spoke to the students, was incredibly giving of his time and incredibly gracious in every respect and then flew back to New York that same night.”
From this, plans emerged for this mini-retrospective of Koons career, featuring some of his best-known works, at the oldest museum in the world. What better place, the artist asked, to instigate a dialogue about art today and what it can be?
Don’t underestimate the boldness of the Ashmolean, with its tradition in antiquity, in confronting its loyal following with contemporary art of the highest order. A collection of 17 works, 14 of which have never been shown in the UK, this ‘retrospective’ view of Koons’ career, one in which he has pushed at the boundaries of contemporary art practice, begins with his important early works. To be in the same space as these iconic pieces is awesome. Most of Koons’ work is about air and breath and their connection with life and death: inflatable toys, blown-glass balls, and basketballs. Each work, the artist explained, is a metaphor.
The show begins with the works that made his name, through the use of the readymade and appropriation of modern imagery: the One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank of 1985, which broke all the rules of its time, and the iconic balloon Rabbit (1986) the first steel ‘inflatable’ and Ushering in Banality (1988). It also explores his more recent focus on the art of antiquity and the western art canon where layered images of ancient and modern art meet in his singular vision. Among the highlights are the spectacular Balloon Venus (Magenta), 2008-12, evoking the tiny PaleolithicVenus of Willendorf statuette – one of the world’s oldest works of art, but made on a monumental scale – an inflated balloon intimating transcience, with its flawless mirror-polished surface positioning the viewer in the work.
In his Antiquity paintings of 2009 onwards, photo-realist reproductions of classical sculptures are set against broken collages of other artworks or abstract backgrounds, overlaid with ‘grafitti’ marks. In more recent works, Koons explores his ‘cultural DNA’ using paintings and sculptures from world-famous collections that have personal meaning for him. The Gazing Ball series, from 2012 on, positions perfectly-blown reflective glass spheres on casts of ancient sculptures, meticulously painted masterpieces and museum-style casts of mundane objects such as mailboxes and birdbaths. They continue Koons’ experiments with the remade ‘readymade’ – high art meets the vernacular while engaging in a new way with art from the past.
The media buzzed around Koons like bees to a honeypot, as the softly-spoken New Yorker, whose mild manner belies the punch his work packs, patiently explained his concepts.
In this venerable institution, where collections range from prehistory to the present, we were asked to look at Jeff Koons anew, against a backdrop of art history and the ideas with which his work engages. I certainly came away with a fresh perspective and a new-found admiration for Jeff Koons.
Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean is showing at the Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries until June 9 Tickets £12.25/£11.25