Everyone recognizes the iconic works of Jeff Koons – from Balloon Dog to the Pink Panther – but how many can claim to know an early Koons from a recent work? Or can even name the artist’s most important series, let alone explain the evolution of his work? These are the lessons that can be learnt at a major new Koons retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel.

Working directly with the artist, the renowned Swiss art institution has divided Jeff Koons into three central series – The New, Banality and Celebration – which it says, “represent crucial stages in Koons’s development and lead to the nucleus of his thinking and creative activity.” Koons himself selected the series, which show how the ready-made-like objects of The New (1980-1987) morphed into the handcrafted sculptures that reference pop culture of Banality (1988). "In Banality, I was trying to tell people to have a sense of security in their own past, to embrace their own past,” says Koons. “This was the most direct way that I started to speak about people not letting art be a segregator."

The most elaborate – and recognizable – series is Celebration, the still growing oeuvre of monumental stainless steel sculptures and paintings that Koons has been creating since 1994. These works are closely related to events in Koons’s family life, particularly the birth of his son Ludwig Maximilian in 1992. As such, in Celebration the artist celebrates children and childhood with pieces that often borrow motifs from children’s birthday parties (see Balloon Dog).

Of course, throughout the show, there are common themes – the signature Koons kitsch, references to art history and yet more of those pop culture motifs. But even for the Koons connoisseur, the groupings of his work shed new light on an artist that many think they know well already. Read on for our showcase of the essential Koons works at the Fondation Beyeler.

Jeff Koons at Fondation Beyeler, Basel
May 13 – September 2, 2012



THE NEW SERIES

New Hoover Convertible, 1980
The series entitled The New is dominated by brand new cleaning appliances which are displayed lying or standing on fluorescent lights in cube-shaped Plexiglas showcases. The showcases, which are presented singly or stacked on top of another, vary in size according to the number, type and positioning of the vacuum cleaners and/or shampoo polishers. Through the severity of their presentation and the use of neon tubes, these works evoke the reductive clarity of Minimal Art. As objects, Koons’s explicitly unused and therefore immaculate cleaning appliances embody "ideal newness", standing for eternity and purity, like the portrait of the young artist in The New Jeff Koons.

New Shelton Wet/Drys Tripledecker, 1981
Although his cleaning appliances were originally created as functional commercial objects, Koons does not simply present them as lifeless goods in coffin-like showcases. Instead he endows them with a kind of biological, living quality, seeing them as "breathing machines". Inspired by the forms of the tubes and apertures, Koons also highlights the bisexual characteristics of the cleaning appliances, through which they in turn become a metaphor for original intactness. In Koons’s work, the cleaning appliances also symbolise the ideal of the reconciliation of opposites, as is emphasised by the model description "Wet/Dry" that features on some appliances’ casing and that is also included in the title of certain works.

BANALITY SERIES

Ushering in Banality, 1988
The key idea of the Banality series – that apparent banality can induce self-acceptance in viewers – finds particularly clear expression in the seminal polychrome wooden sculpture Ushering in Banality. As the work’s title indicates, a pig is being "ushered" into banality by two cherubs and a small boy, while itself becoming a symbol for the "banality" into which the observer is ushered. In his work, Koons not only gives the concept of banality a positive twist, but even elevates it to a fundamental artistic ideal. It is far from coincidental that the artist has identified himself with the red-clad boy behind the pig, who stands for the complicity between men and animals that typifies many of the works in the Banality series. With Ushering in Banality, as with the The New Jeff Koons, it is the artist as a child who points the way.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988
Jeff Koons’ legendary porcelain work Michael Jackson and Bubbles, described by him as a contemporary Pietà, has today itself become a post-modern icon. The superstar who has been exalted to a monument is shown posing in the work, surrounded by golden roses, heroically like a modern Orpheus. His chimpanzee Bubbles is resting on his lap, looking as artificial as its human counterpart. In his ambivalence, Michael Jackson stands for the elimination of sexual, ethnic, aesthetic and social distinctions in one person, thereby corresponding to Koons’s ideal of an “anti-discriminatory” art reconciling all opposites, through which he attempts to reach the largest possible audience.

Pink Panther, 1988
The porcelain figure Pink Panther, which is reminiscent of a pin-up girl, belongs to those works which Koons, as he himself has put it, based on the motif of "masturbation as a metaphor for cultural guilt and shame". The artist tries to liberate viewers from such feelings of guilt and shame by challenging them to stand up for their suppressed aesthetic preferences. Pink Panther is also a particularly vivid expression of the formal and compositional interest of Koons’s approach to sculpture. With its charged erotic relationship between woman and animal, Pink Panther is particularly striking because of the multiple viewpoints from which we can see its dynamically twisted figure, a feature derived from the Mannerist tradition of the figura serpentinata.

CELEBRATION SERIES

Balloon Dog (Red), 1994–2000
Air-filled objects have interested Koons from the beginning of his career, as is demonstrated by his use of vacuum cleaners in his early works. Numerous works in the Celebration series are inspired by the balloon figures modelled by street clowns. In Balloon Dog (Red), for example, Koons transforms a delicate, transient balloon dog into a huge archetypal dog made of durable stainless steel that Koons himself describes as a "Trojan horse". In its perfect execution, Balloon Dog (Red) is remarkable for the illusionism of its material – the sculpture looks soft and lightweight but is actually hard and weighs several tons.

Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), 1994–2006
The works in the Celebration series emphasise familiar decorative items that, through material transformation and rescaling, are elevated to monumental sculptures made of high chromium stainless steel. These items include gift articles for Christmas and St. Valentine’s Day, such as that which inspired the extremely symbolic work Hanging Heart. Other subjects in this series can be linked with different highpoints in the holiday calendar, for example Cracked Egg with Easter. In their symbolism, these motifs often evoke timeless themes like love, life and transience.

Play-Doh, 1995–2007
With the Celebration series, Koons accomplishes the actual transition to painting, which is placed on an equal footing with sculpture for the first time in his career. Most of the large-format Celebration paintings, including the masterly Play-Doh, are based on the same basic compositional principle: the central pictorial subject is displayed in front of draped glossy foil, in which individual parts of the object, generally distorted, are seductively reflected many times over. The Celebration paintings are inspired by actual arrangements of objects assembled by the artist himself. These motifs are subsequently photographed and reworked before being carefully transferred to the canvas in a significantly enlarged format. Aesthetically, the paintings catch the eye due to their "objective" or even hyper-realistic impact, although the canvas, following the principle of "painting by numbers", is divided into colour fields that are rigorously separated from each other. In Play-Doh, Koons transforms a motif taken from childhood into a powerful, sensuous spectacle in which the repeatedly reflected figure seems to dissolve into an almost abstract colour composition.

Balloon Flower (Blue), 1995–2000
Flowers are a leitmotiv in Koons’s art – a traditional symbol of beauty, life and transience. The artist adds an erotic dimension that is typical of him.
This is true of the virtuoso stainless steel sculpture Balloon Flower (Blue). The simple but ambivalent forms of the flowers contain both male and female characteristics. An idea already thematised by the vacuum cleaners in The New and by a number of the Banality figures is therefore once again expressed here. The surrounding space and the viewer are reflected in the impeccable, seductively shiny surfaces of Tulips and Balloon Flower (Blue), thus entering into a direct relationship with the work of art. Balloon Flower (Blue) seems to be swimming on the surface of the water, achieving a wonderfully weightless effect in the setting of the pond.