Jeff Koons ‘couldn’t think of a better place to talk about art today’. That’s just as well, as the Ashmolean appears to be one of the few public museums in the UK that will give him a platform. His last big UK show was at the Serpentine a decade ago. Koons already had a connection to Oxford: he received an honorary membership to the Edgar Wind Society for History of Art in 2016. He flew in for the evening to make an appearance. According to Oli Lloyd-Parry, the society-president at the time, ‘Jeff was incredibly generous with his time and relished engaging with the diverse group of students, academics and curators in attendance’. In the same evening, Koons extended an invite to society members and Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, to visit his New York Studio. From these transatlantic exchanges, Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean was developed. This exhibition is the culmination of the society’s enthusiastic efforts.
Jeff Koons’ oeuvre doesn’t stand a chance of hiding amongst the Ashmolean’s collection. One can sense his excitement at thrusting his own brightly coloured sculptures amongst classical marbles. Indeed, Koons is very much in charge here – he curated the whole show himself, assisted by previous collaborator Norman Rosenthal. Both men have some familiarity with controversy. Koons being best remembered for his reproductions of kitschy, grossly capitalist imagery. Rosenthal, alongside Charles Saatchi, introduced the YBAs to the masses through his 1997 show Sensation: a blockbuster exhibition which very-much played up to the ‘shock-factor’, catapulting artists such as Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst to fame.
As I enter the Ashmolean exhibition, I am met by ‘One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank’ (1985). A Spalding basketball suspended in the centre of a fish tank. It looks a little like a medical specimen, recalling the formaldehyde boxes of dead animals in Damian Hirst’s work. I realise basketballs haven’t changed a great deal in thirty years – they are a classic symbol of American teenagerhood. The wall caption informs me that it is ‘about air and breath and their intimate connection with life and death’, which is also an enduring theme in ‘Rabbit’ (1986). An inflatable rabbit replicated with striking craftsmanship in stainless steel. Its pretend weightlessness is so convincing that I feel I could lift it from its plinth by one hand. I am confronted by my own reflection in its surface at all angles which makes me uneasy, and as I move ever-closer I engage in an increasingly intense face off with myself. These first two works are accessible in scale and concept which makes them immediately enjoyable. From this point on in the exhibition I have to work a little harder.
‘Ushering in Banality’ (1988) is next: a polychromed wood carving that portrays a tracksuit clad avatar of Koons himself, as he pushes the lifeless lump of a huge pig, aided by cartoon-like cherubs with vacant smiles. This apparently depicts a personal struggle. The determination with which Koons propels an unpleasant image right to the front of the procession of Western art, commands respect. Speaking of the Banality series, Koons claims he ‘wanted to make works that just embraced everyone’s own cultural history and made everybody feel that their history was perfect just the way it was.’ The inclusion of contemporary sportswear resituates this early-20th century image neatly in the 1980s, giving it the opportunity to age itself.
Many of Koons’ works can be read as studies of transatlantic cultural exchange, or rather extraction from Europe to America. ‘Ushering in Banality’ is a direct enlargement of a Hummel figurine, which were produced in continental Europe during the 1930s and sent home as gifts by American servicemen. This transcription is one of a series of three, expertly made by European craftsman (Koons rarely makes the work himself, but almost always hires a workshop). Low art is elevated to high art then returned, perpetuating this transatlantic and trans-hierarchical art historical exchange. I find the sentiment behind this work, once I know Koons’ explanation, to be deeply sincere – even touching. Yet, it is just too difficult to read. A wealth of creative ideas are drowned by poster paint colours.
Rosenthal asserts that the use of low and high art conveys Koons’ ‘central idea of the acceptance of the self as we “gaze” ourselves at art’. Indeed, the viewer is apparently central to Koons’ artistic intent- he likes to make us feel special. He wants to give something to his audience and he believes that the art happens inside the viewer, yet the idea of gaze is frequently complicated by his subject matter.
As I move into the second room of the exhibition, I am immediately confronted by my reflection in the swollen shiny-pink buttocks of the giant ‘Venus of Willendorf’, rendered in Koons’ trademark stainless-steel modelling balloons. The wall caption helpfully informs me that this sculpture weighs nearly 1.5 tonnes. I can sense this looming mass yet the material seems to be trying to convince me otherwise. The taught elasticity one would expect from a plastic balloon remains static, planted to its plinth and I am dumbfounded as to how stainless-steel has been manipulated with such precision. I am so lost in the confusing sensory experience that I abandon any attempt for analysis. The charm of the balloon series, particularly on this grand scale, is that one can get lost in the artwork as a collection of forms and material processes. Yet as I stare into the Venus’ bulging midriff, I am reminded of the neighbouring works behind my fairground mirror reflection: a number of erotic paintings of a leering satyr preying on a recoiling woman.
Koons told Xa Sturgis in an interview that he wants to look at sexuality ‘as far back as [he] can, from the division of the first amoeba’. His Antiquity painting series certainly examine sex, yet they seem to do so through a tokenistic inclusion of the classical past, set before hectic backdrops. Each work includes a perfect reproduction in oils of ‘Aphrodite, Pan and Eros’, an ancient Greek statue, in which a horny pan tugs at Aphrodite’s left wrist, which is held defensively across her groin. In her right hand she raises a sandal to retaliate. This is the moment before a burst of action, as if Koons is asking us to imagine what will happen next. What I do find uncomfortable is that the use of this image is purely playful, without any awareness of the violence in what is, essentially, a rape scene.
What Koons does say is that this series wants to return to ‘art not being an intimidating thing. You don’t have to bring anything to it’. It seems to me that he is asking the viewer to submit; like Aphrodite, we have no choice. I can’t even step back to take in the entire picture as I would crash into one of two giant steel ballerinas occupying the centre of the room – who coyly bend and reveal their long, shiny, stainless-steel legs; a startling contrast to the sturdy pink goddess that they stand below.
I’m not sure what Koons wants the viewer to imagine as they look at their own reflection in the boneless thighs of a giant ballerina. He regards them alongside prehistoric Venus figurines but in light of his inflatable works, they look a little bit too much like sex dolls. As enlargements of small porcelain figurines, their features are indistinct. Layers of translucent colour have been applied to the mirror polished surface of the metal. My image is projected onto their bodies.
‘That Europe is nothin’ on earth but a great big auction, that’s all it is, that bunch of old worn-out places, it’s just a big fire-sale’. So says Big Daddy, in Tennessee Willams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Jeff Koons exhibits a similar outlook in his latest Gazing Ball series. A google search of ‘famous painting and sculpture’ might return a collection such as that in the final room of his show. Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa is reproduced to great detail, going so far as to show evidence of repairs and Craquelure on the original. Starting with a high-resolution photograph each of the painting’s colours have been carefully reproduced in oils, then applied with the aid of hundreds of stencils, executed by Koons’ workshop. The effect is of disquieting flatness, which feels oddly hollow compared to the experience of viewing the real original. The flattening technique conveys nothing of the liveliness of oil paint and looks more like a large print-out. It is ironic that to see these works in person, rather than on a screen, actually detracts from their effect.
‘If you don’t move nothing happens’. A gazing ball is stuck to the painting at waist height so the viewer can see themselves entirely encompassed by the crescent picture plane. Koons locates these mirrored spheres in a low-art, quotidian context: they resemble the balls adorning the front gardens of Pennsylvania, where he grew up. These works are about looking, finding ourselves in the ‘idea’ of an artwork, as perhaps the young Koons once did. The great care taken (by Koons’ workshop employees) to produce this work may remind us of our own facility to reproduce images at will with the aid of technology. The problem here lies that a selfie taken in the Louvre would do the same thing… and might not look quite as tacky.
In 1907 the industrialist Andrew Carnegie commissioned the most comprehensive collection of classical plaster casts to be established in his Pittsburgh museum. Sadly in Europe, photography had superseded plaster as a means of cataloguing artefacts. Very few museums continued to maintain a plaster workshop and the market had all but collapsed, so Carnegie received a fragmented collage of the ancient world. I can’t help but be reminded of this story as I look at the final works in Koons’ Ashmolean show. He claims to believe that the art is about the viewer, yet I repeatedly feel like I can’t ask questions. There is an uncritical complacency in his presentation of these objects. Koons includes a plaster cast of the Belvedere torso. The sight of those ‘thighs, of inexhaustible strength and god-like length’, made a great impression Johann Wincklemann. Must we approach this work with Enlightenment era values in order to fully appreciate it? How can Koons ‘talk about what art can be’ if he is constantly referring to what it was, as perfection? This lack of criticality throughout the show deflates its initial impact. It is disappointing that the viewer is not provided with any alternative to Koons’ justifications – his complete control over curation and the labels has perhaps, let us down.
Between the torso’s legs the viewer might pick out the creator’s signature in Greek, translated as ‘Apollonios, son of Nestor, Athenian’. I gaze into the reflective ball perched atop the torso’s shoulder, and wonder what he might make of all this.