Walking through the Ashmolean to get to the exhibition, I passed works of art and historic artefacts dating back almost 5000 years. Amidst this, the basketball suspended in a tank of water and shiny rabbit sculpture that greet you upon entrance to the exhibition seem, at first, slightly out of place. Perhaps the fact that the exhibition occurred at the initiative of Oxford undergraduates goes some way in explaining this. It isn’t the first time that Koons’ work has been featured in an historic venue among far older works of art; in 2008 he had an exhibition at Versailles. The works aren’t really out of place, instead they highlight the continuity of art, Koons drawing inspiration from works of antiquity and even paleolithic times.
The transformation of the exhibition space from Spellbound to Jeff Koons is astounding. In Spellbound the walls seemed to close in on you, reflecting the atmosphere of tension and fear created by witchcraft. Today the space opens up to you, a bright and unrestricting plane of possibility featuring seventeen of his works. This conjures up what the exhibition hopes to present – art as a medium of limitless potential in which people can try to understand themselves.
For Koons, art should be in effect a blank canvas on which people can place themselves. The art is made through an individual’s interpretation of what Koons presents. He describes his art as a philosophy that helps people engage with their desires and experiences. The mirrored surfaces he creates are supposed to allow for people to reflect upon themselves. “Only when you accept yourself can you accept others” is a platitude Koons offers as he opens the exhibition. It is a banal comment, but intentionally so, in the same way that his art is, for he believes the more clichéd something is, the more it is going to speak to something in you.
Koons stresses the universality of his art. He believes he creates works that are universally appealing and that anyone can ascribe meaning to. The sentiment is nice, but there is something slightly condescending in what he assumes to be relatable. He describes his steel statues as making use of a ‘proletarian material’, also saying that ‘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.’ So strength is masculine and to observe one’s own reflection is feminine. It’s a troubling interpretation of the piece, but Koons has an out, his work has no inherent meaning, merely what one ascribes to it. This works in his favour. I still admired his steel rabbit balloon animal because the puckers and seams in the metal looked so much like a real balloon I had a Proustian moment in which I was eight years old and at a birthday party. Each viewer makes the work their own.
Some of the works are less successfully universal. His gazing ball series depicts a feature of suburban American gardens, a yard globe, in hand-blown glass and placed in a birdbath, on a re-creation of ancient Greek sculpture and on copies of Old Masters. For Koons, this ‘represents the vastness of the universe and at the same time the intimacy of right here, right now’. The full impact of this is perhaps lost to those unfamiliar with suburban America, though a sense of beauty and possibility remain.
Universality is also rendered masculine for Koons. This is most obvious in his re-creation of the Venus of Willendorf as a magenta balloon. Some people have supposed that the original was made by a woman, as the shapes created to form the figure look more like they are from the perspective of a woman observing herself than of a man observing her. ‘Balloon Venus’ is placed back in the hands of a man. When Koons recreates Old Masters he is careful to also recreate all the imperfections that have developed over time, the cracks in the paintings, the angle of the brush-strokes, the dog that doesn’t quite look like a dog. Yet his reinterpretation of the Venus of Willendorf does the exact opposite, it takes something that is beautiful in its imperfection and makes it glossy and symmetrical. His aim is, of course, different here, but it remains that femininity in his eyes should be perfection. This sentiment is also apparent in his ballerina statues and the work featuring pin-up Betty Page riding a dolphin against a background of statues of classical women.
Koons has an out again. I can’t really criticise his work because it has no meaning other than what I ascribe to it, and despite the negative associations I form, I still find beauty in the works. This is the ultimate strength of Koons’ output, and he knows it. It is impossible to deny that Koons is successful in creating art that everyone can at least find a few pieces that will resonate with them and that they will admire, perhaps even despite their best intentions. As the exhibition was at the request of Oxford undergraduates, we should inspect the delivery. Oxford is sometimes seen as being a bit provincial, but on this occasion its reach has extended in a most unlikely direction. It’s as alien to Oxford as Spellbound was at home amid the medieval gloom, and certainly something to lift the spirits.
Jeff Koons is on at the Ashmolean from 7th February to 9th June 2019
Image credit: The Ashmolean