But That Isn’t Art!  Jeff Koons Triumphs

By Shlomo  Maital   

Koons balloon dog

Jeff Koons’ ‘balloon dog’

American artist Jeff Koons, who is 59, has at last been accorded a full-career survey show in a U.S. art museum (the Whitney Museum of American Art, which has had to empty most of its exhibits to accommodate Koons’ work). 

  Who is Jeff Koons and what can we learn from him about innovation?  First, think different.  Koons makes art out of ordinary objects.  One of his sculptures is a set of four Hoover vacuum cleaners, in a plastic case.  But that’s not art, many will say.  Well, it is, if you’re willing to open your mind to rule-breaking art. 

  You may not believe this, but last November Koons achieved a record auction price for a living artist when someone paid $58.4 million at a Christie’s auction in Manhattan for Balloon Dog (Orange)  (see photo).   It’s 10 feet high (over 3 meters), made of stainless steel.    When the press mentions the $58.4 million price, Koons says (according to TIME magazine):  “as a young artist I wanted to be engaged in the excitement of making art and sharing ideas.  And that hasn’t changed – that’s what the art world represents to me.”

   It is what innovation and creativity represent as well – the excitement of making art and sharing ideas.  Creativity in any field is (or should be)  “autotelic”, a word meaning,  self-generating,  self-causing,  from “telos”, Greek for cause, and auto,  self. 

   Koons father owned a furniture store in York, Pa., an industrial city that lost its industry.  There, Koons learned about the power of ordinary objects to become art.  One of his famous sculptures is a basketball,  in a blue-glass aquarium; the ball floats precisely in the middle of the tank, because Koons found just the right combination of distilled water and salt water to make that happen.  In general, he is a stickler for detail. He has a team of 130 people in his art studio who produce works of art according to Koons’ specification. His studio even invented its own steel alloy. 

   As you can imagine, Koons was ridiculed early in his career.  He stuck to his guns.  He went broke several times, to pay for the huge cost of preparing his sculptures precisely as he wished.  Koons says he has had very few exhibitions in the United States, although he is known and popular abroad.  Perhaps, as he turns 60, his own country will at last recognize his work and creativity.