The most expensive work of art by a living artist ever to sell at auction is the Balloon Dog (Orange), sold for an astounding $58.4 million, overthrowing Dimplatz, Mailand by Gerhard Richter. The piece belongs to Jeff Koons, an American contemporary artist, known for his reproductions of banal objects, often in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. He has always provoked reactions from viewers with his multi-million dollar auction prices, the blue chip dealers, the adulation, and the controversy. Rosalind Krauss, one of the founders of contemporary art magazine October, finds his “self-advertisement…repulsive,” whilst Joachim Pisarro, an art historian who served as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, claims Koons’ work “goes back, somehow, to our innermost desires.”
Despite this controversy, art historians refuse to tackle his work in scholarly literature, claiming that Koons’ pieces ooze commerciality. His Balloon Dog from the Celebration Series, conceived in 1994, and recently displayed in ‘Jeff Koons: A Retrospective’ organized at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is a prime example of Jeff Koons’ commercial nature and calculated media persona.
The viewer is not merely looking at Balloon Dog, but experiences it in a new way: through its reflective surface, the work creates a dialogue between viewer and object. The viewer cannot see the Balloon Dog without seeing oneself. In a video interview with Sanden Wolff, Koons reveals that he believes “art happens not inside the object but inside the viewer,” which means art, in this case, is related to feelings of self-fulfillment inspired by Balloon Dog.
What one sees at the Whitney Museum is the mainstreaming of what Dadaist Marcel Duchamp once made: the readymade, the ordinary and frequently mass-produced objects, like shovels, wheels, or stools, reimagined as art objects. Duchamps’ readymades, produced roughly a hundred years ago, were the ultimate insider’s art, and Koons bulked them up and transformed the ultimate insider’s art into the “art that will not shut up.” Although Koons’ overblown souvenirs are exactly what Duchamp warned against, “a habit-forming drug for the superrich,” it might have been what was needed to give Duchamp’s “nerdy anti-art” a fighting chance in our media-mad world. It is Koons’ “weird instinctive salesman’s genius” to capitalize on the art world’s increasingly confused adulation of Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Johns and Warhol. The critics are both condemning and celebrating the commercial culture that is their inveterate subject.
Just like a mass product, the meticulously and mechanically polished Balloon Dog comes in five colors. The clothing chain H&M, a sponsor of the Whitney show, came out with a handbag bearing Balloon Dog’s image, priced at $49.50. The façade of the store where the bag debuted, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, was emblazoned with giant images of Balloon Dog. The overblown sculpture itself symbolizes the way consumers interact with market goods and commodities. The yellow color, combined with the shiny, mirror-polished surface of stainless steel has an effect evocative of gaudy consumer goods. It is the one shiny, expensive object the viewer cannot have, or own, no matter how much he desires it. This is suggestive of the way in which consumers today are never satisfied with the products bought and sold on the market.
Koons himself explains that it is more favorable when an art piece looks as if less energy were put into it in the making than actually was. He explains that he intended to create a body of work that represents blind optimism, which he associates with objects in our commodity culture. Koons’ biography, especially his past employment in the Wall Street, was referenced countless times in attempts to accuse him of commerciality, an attribute frowned upon in art society. Many maintained that Koons was always interested in the fine art of selling and the selling of fine art, but Scott Rothkopf, the curator of ‘Jeff Koons: A Retrospective,’ explains that Koons’ Wall Street experience was aimed only at raising the capital necessary to produce his increasingly expensive art.
To Rothkopf, and perhaps to many more, Koons is a symbol of the prices, the privilege, and the rich collectors. When art critic Peter Schjeldahl considers Koons’ “overblown baubles,” and the gleaming surfaces of the gaudy consumer goods, what he sees is an authentic aesthetic response to the mind-bending pressures of a global consumer society. The commerciality of his pieces deems Koons’ work accessible to the public, which then makes him a part of popular taste. Even Koons himself has told a reporter “I want my work to be accessible to people.” In this regard, nothing is left to the imagination. Koons is a recycler and reproducer of the obvious, which he proceeds to aggrandize by producing oversized versions of cheap objects in expensive materials.
Jeff Koons is an artist of the new millennium and he is here to stay. After his retrospective at the Whitney Museum attention seems to have shifted from his singular, over-priced commercial art pieces, labeled “kitsch” too easily, to the artist and the man. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz declared that “haters will hate, but ‘A Retrospective’ will allow anyone with an open mind to grasp why Koons is such a complicated, bizarre, thrilling … artist.” It is precisely this “real” criticism that he lacked for more than two decades; it may set a precedent for future scholarly coverage of Koons’ aesthetic and vision.