To say that a work of art holds up a mirror to the world is to recognise an attempt by the artist at portraying the truth. “See what the world really looks like” is the message. Art like this – that seeks to show us the reality of things – does so by parodying, exposing, lampooning and taunting. It invites you to peer into the fracture it has opened up, and when you do so, it’s like standing beside the artist and peering in together. With Jeff Koons it’s always a bit trickier. You sense that he too is holding up a mirror, but what kind of fracture is he asking you to peer into? One that, when the light reaches the depths, you see Koons’ own smile gleaming back at you?
In this retrospective at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the wild and wonderful works on display demonstrate above all Koons’ refusal to give away his allegiances. To trust him maybe to open yourself up to some ridicule that sits latently within the work, and for that reason you feel like Koons is holding all of the cards and yet still expects you to play the game.
Curated by Koons himself, together with guest curator Norman Rosenthal, the Ashmolean exhibition consists of three rooms: the first quick-steps through four decades, passing from his early and memorable One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1986) where a lone basketball floats in a water-filled tank without either sinking or bobbing to the surface, through to a prototype of his Gazing Ball series, Gazing Ball (Birdbath) made in 2013. A short video on the wall has Koons explaining why he is so excited about exhibiting in the world’s oldest museum.
In the following two rooms, Koons does all he can to furnish his oeuvre with references to past works of art. There are two monumental ballerina pieces, making reference to Degas, and a whole series of Antiquity paintings, large pop-art collages of Greek sculpture overlaid with graffiti-like scrawl. And then there’s Balloon Venus (Magenta), a behemothic pink-balloon travesty of the tiny Ice Age ‘Venus of Wilendorf’, one of the most ancient works of art in existence.
Whilst there is undoubtedly a sense of spectacle in these works – I heard at least two people around me gasp on first sight of the inflated ballerinas – the repeating impression is of plunder: like a magpie wafting around the halls of large museums (and their gift shops) when all the visitors have gone, plucking for its own delight objects that it takes and lines its nest with. The Balloon Venus (Magenta) in particular, towering above you like a benign Cyclopes, has the air of glorious and costly folly.
The dominant works of the exhibition are the Gazing Ball series (2010-15) which fill the final room. What is meant by ‘gazing ball’ is those ornamental globes seen in gardens, shiny balls of mirrored steel that reflect everything. They were apparently popularised by King Ludwig II of Bavaria who adorned his palace lawns with them, and have since become an emblem of middleclass bad-taste.
Koons has made his gazing balls into supremely glossy blue baubles. What he has done with them is to place them in front of (or on top of) existing works of art, perfectly replicated masterpieces, including Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and Titian’s Diana and Actaeon. He’s also done the same with sculpture, adopting the Belvedere Torso, for instance, and balancing a blue gazing ball atop its shorn shoulder. About the Gazing Ball series, Koons himself said, “These paintings in their own time were some of the greatest masterpieces in western art history, but in this time, this moment, they’re most powerful as they are in this state of gazing.”
In this way, the work is not simply about kitsch and the hazy line between high and low culture – as if first appears – but about the malleability of context. Art galleries and museums entreat us to look at objects and admire them; with Koons, it’s like we’ve been caught gawping.
And yet it all seems haphazard and rather sad to me. For some time, I stood looking at the Gazing Ball (Gericault Raft of Medusa) and felt a curious sensation of loss: the annulment happens twice in fact, since the reproduced masterpiece is robbed of its original hallowed status – you fail to register it as a painting with a separate history – whilst the Koons’ work itself emanates fabrication in every way you can think about it. On the wall plaque beside the work, Koons’ is quoted: “This experience is about you – your desire, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image.” So here we go again: encouraged to peer into Koons’ worldview whilst the artist himself disappears, abnegating responsibility.
It is impossible, of course, to inhabit the same space as a Koons artwork and not be aware of the immense value of the item in front of you. In these times of growing inequality and incessant consumerism, Koons seems to be an artist that we deserve, an ironist of gloss and ostentation. But is it some type of punishment too? The fraternity of billionaires who swap Koons’ works between them are helpless in this respect, since the metric they are interested in is without nuance or irony.
To my eyes, Koons is a perfect art gallery exhibitionist. His works all have a pristine quality that puts the real world at a distance, so that inside the four walls of a modern gallery the viewer breathes clean air and sees with eyes that are not offended by clutter, mess or scrappiness. It is a type of respite from the loose-ends and cloudy skies of the outside world, and for this reason you can’t help but linger. Reflections slither and colours blush. Face to face, there is nothing hostile about a Koons work: it’s all a play-box of curving surfaces and slippery concepts, and a sense that, somewhere far away, a pop-art playboy is having a merry time. With Koons, there are no right or wrong answers, since you must always consider the bluff, the double-bluff, then the triple-bluff. It’s for this reason that, even when slapped around the face by Koons’ audaciousness, it feels just as easy to walk away and forget all about it.
Christopher P Jones speculates on art, history, fiction and fact, and the meeting place of all four. He is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.