There’s a frustrating quote from Jeff Koons in the catalogue accompaniment to a new exhibition of his artwork at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. “I’ve tried to make work,” it says, “that any viewer, no matter where they came from […] would have to say that on some level “Yes, I like it.” If they couldn’t do that, it would only be because they had been told they were not supposed to.” Reflecting on my time among the seventeen pieces on display, it’s interesting to think that the artwork’s failure to elicit the response, which Koons’s is confident I should have had, had been entirely my own, or at least the fault of years of negative bias that have come to influence the reception of his work.
It’s not a revelation that controversy is saleable. There’s plenty of talk about “provoking conversations” in the marketing material surrounding the exhibition. Towards the end of an interview in the catalogue, however, the Director of the Ashmolean, Alexander Sturgis, rounds his conversation with Koons to an important question about the public response to his art. “Thinking about viewers,” he says, “it’s clear that they all bring their own preconceptions, knowledge, ideas and baggage to any work of art that they come to […] Do you think it’s inevitable that when people are looking at a work by Jeff Koons they also have some idea of you as an individual, or maybe as a myth, in their minds?”
Koons doesn’t give a hugely satisfactory answer to this question, largely deflecting it with his familiar own-brand blend of softly spoken earnestness. But he also leans again on his conviction that, if anyone has anything negative to say, the problem isn’t with the work: “I learned right away to just accept such comments, and to recognise that a lot of people don’t open themselves up to art.” I don’t really know what this means, or what Koons has in mind, but I do think Sturgis is on to something. Whatever you may think – or whatever you may think you think – about the art, Koons has become something of an easy target, in part because it’s difficult to separate his artwork from the mythologies surrounding him.
Koons bears the brunt of responsibility himself. In the 1980s he publicised ‘Banality’, a series of new work, with a suite of eccentrically staged photographs (‘Art Magazine Ads’ (1988-89)) in which the product on offer wasn’t artwork but the clean-cut figure of Koons himself. In the follow-up series, ‘Made in Heaven’ (1990-91), he cast himself in the starring role, vividly depicting his sexual relationship with the Hungarian-Italian porn-star (later politician, Koons’s wife, and mother to the first two of his eight children) Ilona Staller in an explicit and controversial blurring of his public art and private life.
By now, the artwork is less obviously to do with him. Instead, it’s no longer an idea of Koons that we bring before the work (Koons-as-Warhol, Koons-as-pervert, Koons-as-practical-joker, etc.) but an awareness of its price. Couched somewhere in Sturgis’s comment about our preconceived opinions is a question about the competing systems of aesthetic and economic value, and the difficulties of reconciling one with the other. The great problem, it seems to me, is that Sturgis is completely right: it’s just plain, old, hard to put what we think about Koons, the extravagant production methods, the media controversies and, perhaps above all, the colossal market value of the artworks to one side, to get a good look at them without the excess baggage.
This isn’t to say that all of Koons’s work in the Ashmolean is beyond hope, just that the pieces have their work cut out to get us firmly back on side. It would be hard to deny the weird allure of the polished surfaces, for instance, if only from a manufacturing perspective – how did they get them so darned shiny? There’s even something satisfyingly uncomplicated about the floating basketballs of the early ‘Equilibrium’ series (c.1985), of which there is regrettably only one displayed. And yet, the exhibition is simply missing the most interesting work, from the early ready-mades (especially the hoovers) to the ‘Hulk Elvis’ series (2014), which seems to best exemplify the replica inflatables. Also absent is ‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’ (1988): an eerie harbinger of Jackson’s future skin whitening, replete with Christian iconography, that is arguably Koons’s finest sculpture. There are no balloon dogs to be seen until you reach the exhibition shop where there are several limited edition miniatures for sale, coming in just shy of £10,000.
To hear Koons speak about his work, it’s genuinely difficult to align his sincerity with the comic, absurd and even asinine content of the art itself. Even so, for all his outward earnestness, I can’t quite shake the feeling that Koons simply remains a committed prankster with an exceptional poker face.