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Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons

Born January 21, 1955 in York, Pennsylvania, Jeffrey Koons was the son of furniture dealer and interior decorator Henry Koons, and his wife, Gloria, a seamstress. He displayed an artistic talent at an early age by painting copies of artwork by the Old Masters, as well as a streak of the chutzpah that marked his professional career by signing these reproductions "Jeffrey Koons" and selling them at his father's store. In 1972, Koons attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore before participating in a yearlong exchange program with the Art Institute of Chicago. While there, he met the painter Ed Paschke, whose work had enormous influence over Koons' own art. After earning his BFA in 1976, Koons relocated to New York, where he landed a job at the membership desk of the Museum of Modern Art. He immediately attracted attention with his appearance - dyed red hair and a pencil mustache styled after another idol, Salvador Dali - and his early sculptures, which combined inflatable rabbits and flowers with plastic and Plexiglass. To finance these efforts, Koons became licensed to sell stocks and mutual funds, and worked as a commodities broker at several investment firms. These day jobs would fund his earliest series: "The New" (1980-83) which featured brand name vacuum cleaners mounted in illuminated boxes and exhibited in the window of the New Museum as if for sale in a showroom. It was followed in 1985 by "The Equilibrium Series" (1985), which featured basketballs suspended in tanks filled with distilled water and a small amount of salt that kept the balls floating in the center of the tanks. Now established as a talent on the rise in the New York art community, Koons unveiled one of his most famous works, "Rabbit" (1986), a stainless steel cast of the inflatable rabbits featured in his first efforts. He further addressed issues of consumerism and the merging of the commercial and the avant-garde with the "Luxury and Degradation" series, which was showcased at galleries in New York and Los Angeles in 1986. The series featured items and iconography associated with alcohol, from a crystal decanter and framed ads for various beverages to a stainless-steel cast of a Jim Beam bottle shaped like a locomotive. Critical response to these works was sharply polarized: while many considered him an exciting new figure in contemporary art, others dismissed his creations as vulgar kitsch that celebrated the most disposable aspects of popular culture. The debate over his artistic merit only enhanced his status within the art world from up-and-comer to bona fide celebrity. Koons' next series spoke directly to the accusations of commercialism and crassness levied against his work, as well as his own image as a huckster. A quartet of advertisements in the major trade publications, all depicting Koons as a crude, manipulative figure, announced the debut of "Banality" (1986), a series of large porcelain sculptures inspired by Hummel figurines and depicting celebrities, children and animals in brightly colorful, cartoonish poses. Among the series' best-known works is "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" (1988), which depicted the musician and his chimpanzee companion in gold military suit that fetched $5.6 million from an anonymous buyer. Two of the sculptures, "String of Puppies" and "Wild Boy and Puppy," resulted in lawsuits from photographer Art Rogers and United Features Syndicate, Inc which charged Koons with breaching copyright laws by copying a photograph taken by Rogers and the cartoon dog Odie from the "Garfield" comic strip, respectively. Though Koons lost both cases, the negative press only further underscored the artist's bad boy reputation - a status he would subsequently take to dizzying extremes in both his personal life and art. A photograph of European pornographic film actress Ilona Staller, who had made international news with a quixotic run for Italian Parliament, inspired one of the sculptures in "Banality." Koons eventually met Staller and suggested that they collaborate on a project that was initially intended as a movie. They commenced on a series of photo sessions that would serve as the basis for the "Made in Heaven" (1989) series, a collection of paintings, sculptures and photographs depicting Koons and Staller in sexually explicit poses. While the series generated international controversy, Koons and Staller's professional relationship blossomed into romance that, despite their inability to communicate without an interpreter, resulted in a 1991 marriage and the birth of a son, Ludwig, in 1992. The union, which had generated widespread skepticism and even disgust in the press, soon collapsed under allegations that Koons had physically abused Staller, though it was also known that the performer wanted to return to her adult film career. As divorce proceedings began in New York, Staller fled the country with the couple's son, forcing Koons to spend the next decade and millions of dollars in legal fees to gain custody of their child. While Koons' personal life underwent considerable turmoil, his art career continued to flourish. In 1992, he presented one of his most popular works, a 43-foot-tall topiary sculpture called "Puppy," in Bad Arolsen, Germany to coincide with the Documenta 9 exhibit occurring at the same time in Kassel. Its follow-up, "Celebration" (1994), was intended as a series of 20 sculptures and paintings of balloon dogs and Easter eggs to celebrate the return of his son from Europe. After completing several pieces, Koons ran out of funds to finish the entire collection and asked his wealthiest collectors to essentially pay for the remaining pieces before they were actually finished. New York mega-dealer Larry Gagosian eventually financed the entire run, which remained unfinished, in exchange for the rights to sell them. In the late '90s, Koons' personal life appeared to regain a sense of stability: he married artist and former employee Justine Wheeler in 1995, and gained sole custody of his son three years later. His work during this period seemed to reflect a newfound sense of childlike playfulness: his second floral sculpture, "Split-Rocker" (2000), was a 37-foot-tall, 150-ton reproduction of two of his son's toys, while the "Popeye" (2002) and "Hulk" (2004-2012) series featured depictions of the iconic comic book characters in paintings, stainless steel and bronze. He had also provided inspiration to a new generation of artists who courted controversy with their work, most notably Damien Hurst, whose recreations of mundane and anatomical structures echoed Koons' own fascination with shape and construct. During the new millennium, Koons also divided his time with a variety of other projects, including curator of a 2009 Ed Paschke exhibition in New York and participating in BMW's "Art Cars" series, which applied his work to an E92 BMW M3 that competed in 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2010. Two years later, Koons produced commissioned label artwork for Chateau Mouton Rothschild's 2010 vintage label, and then did the same for Dom Perignon's 2004 vintage in 2013. That same year, Koons created a nude sculpture of singer Lady Gaga to grace the cover of her third album, ARTPOP, and received the U.S. State Department's Medal of Arts. Koons' entire body of work was the subject of a 2014 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, which found critics reflecting positively on his eclectic collected efforts.