Jeff Koons’ mini-retrospective at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the world’s oldest public gallery, opened on Thursday, Feb. 7, marking his first public exhibition in the United Kingdom in ten years. The show, curated by Koons himself with Normen Rosenthal of the Royal Academy, is quickly selling out, but the artist remains as controversial as he is popular. Alongside the backlash that comes with a long, prolific and commercially successful career— critics like to say his work is vacuous or brash—his fine-art allusions have earned him several charges of plagiarism. Last November, a French court found the artist guilty of copyright infringement after Franck Davidovici recognized similarities between Koons’ 1988 poecelain sculpture, “Fait d’Hiver,” and his own 1985 advertising campaign for the French clothing brand Naf Naf (Artnet News, “Jeff Koons Is Found Guilty of Plagiarism in Paris and Ordered to Pay $168,000 to the Creator of an Ad He Appropriated,” 11.09.2018).
The Ashmolean exhibition features only 17 objects, 14 of which have never been displayed in the UK. They range from “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank,” constructed in 1985, to inflatable balloons, to the “Banality” and “Gazing Balls” series. (“Banality,” to which belongs “Fait d’Hiver” and some startlingly ugly porcelain sculptures depicting icons from St. John to Michael Jackson to Pink Panther, has produced five lawsuits.) “One Ball,” his breakout piece, is a Spalding basketball suspended in a glass display case. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman helped Koons with the seemingly gravity-defying work, and the piece is endlessly entertaining.
“Gazing Balls” is a painting series comprised of direct reproductions of famous works like “The Luncheon on the Grass” by Édouard Manet and the “Mona Lisa,” except Koons places a chromatic blue sphere in the center of each. The balls look almost accidental at first, but they create a toy-like interactive aspect. “Rabbit” from 1986, a cartoonish sculpture cast in slick silver steel and “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” from 2008, also of mirror-polished stainless steel, are inflated balloon sculptures. More recently he released a number of balloon dogs.
Of the mirrored sculptures, Koons remarked, “I look at the reflection, at the surfaces, and I think of philosophy, I think of the idea to reflect, to contemplate. For me, everything is a metaphor for self-acceptance, and the ability, once you accept yourself, to be able to accept other people” (Artnet News, “Jeff Koons Wants to Teach Brits About Transcendence With His New Show at Oxford—and Tickets Are Selling Out Fast,” 02.06.2019).
Illustrator Michael Craig-Martin’s work reminds me a bit of Koons. Both appreciate consumer objects and culture, and seem averse to the artistic canon—dignified and fancy subjects, religious figures and reclining women. Koons, for example, interrupts the once-imposing Picassos, Renoirs and Titians through “Gazing Ball.” He contributes lots of material and space to the brilliantly precise balloon animals. To him, fine art and balloons are equally beautiful. His work isn’t particularly pretty or creative, but this leveling of fine art and ordinary objects is sincere. It certainly exemplifies his interesting reverence of party balloons.
Craig-Martin explained to It’s Nice That how, as a young artist, he realized that the viewer is just as active as the creator (It’s Nice That, “‘More famous than famous’: Michael Craig-Martin on the changing nature of ‘ordinariness,’” 02.06.2019). Without anyone to see a work of art, it ceases to be a work of art, meaning that the relationship between piece and viewer strengthens when the subjects are ordinary. He draws items that the contemporary viewer knows, maintaining his illustrative approach through the years. A drawing of a tape cassette from the ’80s— with its minimal linework, solid background and sharp, harmonious color-blocking— looks similar to recent depictions of a disposable coffee cup, an iPhone or a credit card.
I admire Craig-Martin more than Koons because his love of the ordinary is far more subtle, contributing to a feeling of tranquility and reserved beauty. The artist said, “Ordinary is everywhere, ubiquitous, instantly familiar and so familiar that it’s invisible.” Through his flat and minimal style, “He realised he ‘could bring to the foreground in anybody who looked at it an unbelievable wealth of associations and feelings’” (It’s Nice That).