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Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until June 9

With a little light digging, I’ve discovered this exhibition was made possible by the University of Oxford (with encouragement from the students), who invited Jeff Koons to Oxford to receive its Edgar Wind Society’s first contemporary art prize. Co-curated by Koons, in response to the world’s oldest public museum’s extraordinary collection of art and antiquities, it’s described as a mini retrospective. And perhaps this accounts for the sense of it being a rather sensible edit of the American artist’s work to date, designed to fit the modest spaces given over to contemporary art in The Ashmolean. The fact remains, it’s a huge coup for the museum and for Oxford.

Art of this kind is not generally what people come here for, and is certainly not what this treasure trove is known for. But there is clearly visitor appetite for the American artist, if not an exactly ravenous one on a cold and wet Sunday in late March. Comprised of 17 works, 14 of which have never been shown in the UK before, this well-organised selection offers an introduction of sorts into the career of one of the most audacious artists – there are certainly a lot of balls on display – but one offered from a polite distance. For those who’ve experienced his works in the flesh before, especially in the art churches of late capitalism (the blue-chip gallery or the art fair), this may feel a bit like meeting Koons after the service with his Mum over a cup of instant coffee and a Nice biscuit. We are seeing him on best behaviour.

The trouble is, the word sensible* has no equivalent meaning in Koonsian, as the artist’s sleeve notes (well wall-panel wordings) for the works are testament. One can imagine many factors in (and possible constraints upon) the production of an exhibition of this kind – the scale of the site and its reputation as a family-friendly venue, the fact that the majority of works are worth millions and in the hands of private collectors, etc – and Koons/the curatorial team have not included some of the more obvious career-defining works for display. No greasy-lensed candified sex pics of ex-wife La Cicciolina, for example, or the gilt (but no longer golden) ceramic Mickey J and Bubbles, and the materially improbable cartoon ‘inflatables’. While there are a fair few gaudy, shiny Pop 2.0 things to ogle at, Koons has given over a whole gallery to the relatively new ‘Gazing Ball’ series, with its clear connections to, and blatant pilfering from, art history.

The current issue of ArtReview celebrates the magazine’s 70th year with memorable clippings from across the decades. Writing in 1989, Michael Petry prefaces his review of Koons’ show at Sonnabend, New York, with:

“Is it art, do we care? May be [sic] both. What effluent excreted from his mouth do we get treated to this time?”

Less than 10 years’ later he would have work at the Venice Biennale. And, of course, Koons continues to divide opinion. The exhibition starts in 1985, when he was not long out of commodities brokering on Wall St, with a fat wallet and a sales pitch to match, able to make anything he wanted without compromise. He took Warhol’s systematic production approach and quickly made it his own, setting up a loft for mass-making. Koons’ work, often executed by others, is designed to challenge the hierarchy of high art over other forms of production – no subject off limits and no existing object too naff to replicate – all the while trading on its fine-art tag to boost sales and prices. It’s the kind of art that on paper is essentially consumed by its own ideology, yet is very much present in every room it occupies, and highly, irritatingly seductive in terms of manufacture, casting expensive shadows over everything around.

The business model is still working, though one wonders for how long in these odd times given how few people are controlling the majority of the wealth, and is still being tweaked by the likes of Damian Hirst, of course. In fact, all one can think about while standing in front of early work ‘One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank’ (1985), is that there’s a basket ball rather than a shark in the tank, but it actually offers a nicely simple sculpture-as-metaphor moment in a show full of purposely over-sized and overblown gestures.

“Water is always very spiritual. The Equilibrium tanks used water, and I loved that. In its very pure state it’s like birth,” says Koons in relation to this work. These quotes, part new-age fortune cookie homily, part SEO image-search tag, accompany every work and are totally on-brand when it comes to public perception of Koons, as one who operates in a highly rarified zone and has always believed his own hype. Or, maybe he’s just messing with us, having fun being ashram man with a curatorial plan.

The iconic, if now a little scuffed, ‘Rabbit’ (1986) follows in this classical sculptural line-up vertically dividing gallery 1, which also includes a polychromed wood work from the ‘Banality’ series, depicting sugary kinder from yesteryear and what looks like the Karate Kid playing with a pig. The famous bunny, though, still sits in perfect associative balance between the Playboy mansion and the christening. Talking of which, there’s a bleached-tooth-white font at the end of the room, supporting a blue sphere that belongs, all at once, to the Christmas tree, the bowling alley and the psychic’s tent.

Gallery 2: ‘Antiquity’ is a toned-down – but still acknowledging the muckier end of Koons’ output – ode to women and sexuality that gives a slight nod (in keeping with the museological context) to the history of the female body in representation. ‘Balloon Venus (Magenta)’ (2008-12) trumps mirror-polished ballerinas and sexy classical women trapped in the history of painting to become the dominant bitch in the room, her metal cerise curves twisted into yogic shapes that defy description and material expectation. A man clutching pink Tupperware seems to be having a difficult dad-versation with his young son in front of the painting of Gretchen Moll, the statue with the third leg and the monkey. But possibly not that different to one he might have in any of the museum’s other rooms, as they encounter all manner of imagery, objects and accoutrements relating to sex and survival.

“The surface of my stainless-steel pieces is pure sex and gives an object both a masculine and a feminine side: the weight of the steel engages with the femininity of the reflective surface,” he explains. I’m not sure if he is ahead of the curve on gender fluidity, or saying boys are strong and girls are pretty.

Koons has never been short of money, or sheer brass balls, and there are many big shiny blue ones on display, mostly attached to knock-off renaissance paintings and plaster portions of classical-sculpture body parts in gallery 3. Maybe it’s the price of increasingly experiencing art onscreen, in hi-res or HD, but none of the stainless-steel works seem quite shiny enough, and the possibility of anything less than Gattaca-level perfection when it comes to the condition of these mirrored surfaces is troubling. The success of Koons’ work is entirely dependent on his given mode of elevating the object in play, rendering it something entirely out of the ordinary. To contaminate this is to pop the pop bubble, and suck us straight back out of Oz. Rather than get lost here in the endless reflected repetitions of ourselves caught in the act of consuming, over and again I am alerted – as if they have been dusted for evidence – to the fact of these works as mere objects, things of the everyday with visible edges and surfaces prone to smearing; things that can be owned and handled by Joe Public**.

This may not be the most radical or comprehensive Koons retrospective, but it does showcase the incredible production values and meta maze he creates out of pop-cultural ingredients, and quite possibly to new audiences. There is definitely a bit of a ‘World’s Best’ competition being played out here between the most successful living artist/oldest museum/seat of learning, but one that seems to work well for all parties. Then again, there is also a wry sense of the rude boy being taken down a peg or two about witnessing these works in the context of a much bigger time map, seeing them as just one more (possibly a little bit dusty) collection of things in a hallowed house of remarkable things.

* This is of course relative to the context of his in-yer-face back catalogue, as we still have Bettie Page rendered in oil and riding an inflatable dolphin, presided over by a fertility god with a giant erect penis in room 2

**It’s actually possible to buy replicas of the school-water-jug-gold balloon dog and the super-cerise Venus in the museum gift shop. It’s also possible to want them, despite yourself, and the price tag.

All images writer's own.


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