Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean
Welcome to the world of balloon rabbits and Venuses, floating basketballs, and enormous glossy ballerinas. Welcome to the wonderful world of Jeff Koons. What’s more, welcome to the world of Jeff Koons at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum
Yes, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford - said to be the world’s oldest public museum - the world’s first university museum - where collections range from prehistory to the present, where visitors might normally be expected to seek out ancient Greek or Minoan pottery, treasures from ancient Egypt or China, or paintings by Uccello, Titian, Turner, Pissarro, Samuel Palmer...
Now though, this spring the museum’s visitors will also be seeking out the work of the American artist who has been called “the world’s most famous, controversial and subversive living artist.”
Koons (b. 1955) is widely known for his iconic sculptures grouped under titles like Equilibrium, Banality, Antiquity and Gazing Ball, his latest series of paintings and sculptures. The exhibition curated by Koons himself, together with guest curator Norman Rosenthal, features 17 works, 14 of which have not before been exhibited in the UK. So, although not a huge show in numbers, most of the artworks are enormous.
In the opening room, you’re greeted by a ball suspended in a tank of water and a shiny rabbit. Beyond them, a pig is being shepherded along by three cute little kiddies, Ushering in Banality, we learn, and beyond that a vivid blue glass ball sits in a giant bird bath (one of his Gazing Ball works, more of which later).
This first room offers a kind of mini retrospective. Rabbit is a signature piece, a stainless-steel copy of an inflatable toy, made in 1986. One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank - an archetypal American basketball suspended in carefully calibrated salt water - was made a year earlier. Much of Koons's work is about air and breath.
The Banality sculptures (the piggy in the middle, for example) have a different raison d'être. Based on ordinary commercial trinkets and reproduced on an enormous scale, Koons’s intention in making them, he says, is to give people permission to love their own cultural past, make “everybody feel that their history was perfect just the way it was.” Ideally, he’d like to scotch the difference between ‘low’ and ‘high’ art.
Appropriately for the museum setting, ‘Antiquity’ is the theme of the second gallery. A gargantuan magenta mirror-polished stainless-steel Venus commands the room. Balloon Venus (2008-12) is based on the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, the 11.1 cm high limestone figurine found in Lower Austria in 1908, and the first thing you see. She is unmissable. She is mammoth. Weighing in at nearly 1.5 tons, standing 2.5 metres tall, she is “a symbol of life energy” for Koons, with “the energy of a cult figure, an ancient tribal goddess - but conceived in materials that place her firmly in the present.”
Further down in the centre of the brightly lit gallery, huge shiny colourful ballerinas pose prettily, and on either side the walls are lined with vast collages of classical imagery covered with graffiti-like doodles: sexual desire the theme evidently, along with the blurring of distinctions between ‘low’ and ‘high’ art, connections between present and past and so on.
The final room is lined with scenes of a different kind, the Old Masters, from Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa to Rubens’ Tiger Hunt to Titian’s Diana and Actaeon. Each is a meticulous reproduction (even down to copying the craquelure, cracks in the varnish) and forms the backdrop to a Gazing Ball painting. Plaster casts of ancient Greek sculptures look on, each balancing on a shoulder a highly-reflective pure blue glass sphere, a Gazing Ball.
Koons talks a lot of universality, of art, of experience, and spirituality. The Gazing Balls were inspired by the globes in suburban American yards or gardens: gazing eyes, play with the idea of reflection, the placements acting like mirrors to draw in viewers as much as reflect them back.
This exhibition asks a lot of questions, and answers aren’t necessarily forthcoming. Maybe that’s the point. Open-mindedness is what Koons seeks. As Koons said at the opening, “I want people to forget about judgement, forget about criticism, to be open...”
The museum surely has a hit on its hands. Visitors will flock to the Ashmolean to see these famous works. And they have a certain charisma. Whatever you may think, they are much better to see for real in a gallery, than in photographs.
Extraordinarily, the exhibition came about as a result of a student initiative, not the museum directly, and the excitement, not least among the students, is practically palpable.
JEFF KOONS at the Ashmolean
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Showing until 9 June 2019
For more information CLICK HERE