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Jeff Koons’s art is glitzy, but does it still have power to shock?

This article is over 5 years, 1 months old
A new exhibition featuring 17 famously grotesque pieces by Jeff Koons jostles with antiquity at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, writes Kate Douglas
Issue 2642

One of the rooms of the Ashmolean filled with Koons’s grotesque art

One of the rooms of the Ashmolean filled with Koons’s grotesque art (Pic: David Fisher. Courtesy of Ashmolean)

Jeff Koons’s giant bling appals and enthrals, and it has arrived in Oxford.

Koons—until recently the world’s highest-priced living artist—still has massive appeal. This show of 17 sculptures and paintings at the Ashmolean is already the fastest-selling exhibition in the ­museum’s history.

He is best known for his stainless-steel sculptures of balloon animals and trinkets reproduced on an enormous scale. He was the quintessential artist of the 1980s—a period of greed and arrogance.

After a decade of austerity, his overblown pieces are becoming expensive items for showing off at luxurious lobbies everywhere in New York.

But Koons still manages to provoke and shock, whether it’s the sheer ­glitter glamour or admiration at the precise perfection of the craftsmanship.

The first room at the Ashmolean has a series of three sculptures in a line, down the centre of the room.

An orange basketball floats halfway up in a tank of water, ­preserved in its motionless state forever.


This is followed by Koons’s signature work, Rabbit (1986), a stainless-steel blow-up of a cheap inflatable toy.

Based on a “ready-made”—an existing, mass-produced toy, Rabbit is unexpectedly complex.

The disconcertingly blank face reflects the viewer in its perfect sheen making the piece seem continually changing and never the same for each viewer.

In the second room here are gigantic “mirror-polished” stainless steel sculptures reproducing decorative porcelain figurines of ballerinas.

Also featured is the magnificent Balloon Venus (Magenta) inspired by a tiny Stone Age figure known as the Venus of Willendorf.

Koons used an industrial CT scanner to produce minutely detailed information of the balloon model.

And he further manipulated the data on a computer to create his trademark super-reflective coloured steel on a huge scale. The vast finished piece weighs nearly 1.5 tonnes.

And, according to Koons, it has the “energy of a cult figure… an ancient tribal goddess, but in materials that also place her firmly in the present”.

In the third gallery is the “Gazing Balls” series, very typical of Koons’s work.

They bring together copies of masterpieces of painting and sculpture, and the reflective, highly polished balls that are used to adorn US gardens. The artist includes both us and the artwork in the reflections of the gazing balls.

In the Ashmolean museum where the collections range from prehistory to the present, Koons’s work will ­provoke debate about the history of art and ideas.

Whether you see Koons as the Donald Trump of the art world or a luxury brand this exhibition is worth a look.

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