His works have sold for substantial sums, including at least one world record auction price for a work by a living artist. On November 12, 2013, Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York City for US$58.4 million, above its high US$55 million estimate, becoming the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction. The price topped Koons's previous record of US$33.7 million and the record for the most expensive living artist, held by Gerhard Richter, whose 1968 painting, Domplatz, Mailand, sold for US$37.1 million at Sotheby's on May 14, 2013. Balloon Dog (Orange) was one of the first of the Balloon Dogs to be fabricated, and had been acquired by Greenwich collector Peter Brant in the late 1990s.
Critics are sharply divided in their views of Koons. Some view his work as pioneering and of major art-historical importance. Others dismiss his work as kitsch, crass, and based on cynical self-merchandising. Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques.
Jeff Koons rose to prominence in the mid-1980s as part of a generation of artists who explored the meaning of art in a media-saturated era. He gained recognition in the 1980s and subsequently set up a factory-like studio in a SoHo loft on the corner of Houston Street and Broadway in New York. It was staffed with over 30 assistants, each assigned to a different aspect of producing his work—in a similar mode as Andy Warhol's Factory (notable because all of his work is produced using a method known as art fabrication). Today, he has a 1,500 m2 (16,000 sq ft) factory near the old Hudson rail yards in Chelsea, working with 90 to 120 regular assistants. Koons developed a color-by-numbers system, so that each of his assistants could execute his canvases and sculptures as if they had been done "by a single hand". "I think art takes you outside yourself, takes you past yourself. I believe that my journey has really been to remove my own anxiety. That's the key. The more anxiety you can remove, the more free you are to make that gesture, whatever the gesture is. The dialogue is first with the artist, but then it goes outward, and is shared with other people. And if the anxiety is removed everything is so close, everything is available, and it's just this little bit of confidence, or trust, that people have to delve into."
The Pre-New, The New, and Equilibrium series
Since 1979 Koons has produced work within series. His early work was in the form of conceptual sculpture, an example of which is The Pre-New, a series of domestic objects attached to light fixtures, resulting in strange new configurations. Another example is The New, a series of vacuum-cleaners, often selected for brand names that appealed to the artist, which he had mounted in illuminated Perspex boxes. Koons first exhibited these pieces in the window of the New Museum in New York in 1980. He chose a limited combination of vacuum cleaners and arranged them in cabinets accordingly, juxtaposing the verticality of the upright cleaners with the squat cylinders of the "Shelton Wet/Dry drum" cleaners. At the museum, the machines were displayed as if in a showroom, and oriented around a central red fluorescent lightbox with just the words "The New" written on it as if it were announcing some new concept or marketing brand.
Another example for Koon's early work is The Equilibrium Series (1985), consisting of one to three basketballs floating in distilled water, a project the artist had researched with the help of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. The Total Equilibrium Tanks are completely filled with distilled water and a small amount of ordinary salt, to assist the hollow balls in remaining suspended in the centre of the liquid. In a second version, the 50/50 Tanks, only half the tank is filled with distilled water, with the result that the balls float half in and half out of the water. In addition, Koons conceived and fabricated five unique works for the Encased series (1983–1993/98), sculptures consisting of stacked sporting balls with their original cardboard packaging in glass display case.
Koons started creating sculptures using inflatable toys in the 1970s. Taking a readymade inflatable rabbit Koons cast the object in highly polished stainless steel, resulting in Rabbit (1986), one of his most famous artworks. Originally part of the private collection of Ileana Sonnabend, Rabbit is today owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. A proof of the sculpture is owned by Eli Broad.
The Rabbit has since returned to its original soft form, and, many times larger at more than 50 feet high, taken to the air. On October 13, 2009, the giant metallic monochrome color rabbit used during the 2007 Macy's Thanksgiving day parade was put on display for Nuit Blanche in the Eaton Centre in Toronto.
Luxury and Degradation series
First shown in Koons' eponymous exhibitions at the short-lived International With Monument Gallery, New York, and at Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1986, the Luxury and Degradation series is a group of works thematically centered on alcohol. This group included a stainless steel travel cocktail cabinet, a Baccarat crystal decanter and other hand-made renderings of alcohol-related paraphernalia, as well as reprinted and framed ads for drinks such as Gordon's Gin ("I Could Go for Something Gordon's"), Hennessy ("Hennessy, The Civilized Way to Lay Down the Law"), Bacardi ("Aquí... el gran sabor del ron Bacardi"), Dewars ("The Empire State of Scotch"), Martell ("I Assume You Drink Martell") and Frangelico ("Stay in Tonight" and "Find a Quiet Table") in seductively intensified colors on canvas Koons appropriated these advertisements and revalued them by recontextualizing them into artworks. They "deliver a critique of traditional advertising that supports Baudrillard's censorious view of the obscene promiscuity of consumer signs".Another work, Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine (1986) is based on a commemorative, collectible in bottle in the form of a locomotive that was created by Jim Beam; however, Koons appropriated this model and had it cast in gleaming stainless-steel. The train model cast in steel titled Jim Beam - Baggage Car (1986) even contains Jim Beam bourbon. With the Luxury and Degradation series Koons interfered into the realms of the social. He created an artificial and gleaming surface which represented a proletarian luxury. It was interpreted as seduction by simulation because it was faked luxury. Being the producer of this deception brought him to a kind of leadership, as he commented himself.
Koons then moved on to the Banality series. For this project he engaged workshops in Germany and Italy that had a long tradition of working in ceramic, porcelain, and wood. The series culminated in 1988 with Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a series of three life-size gold-leaf plated porcelain statues of the sitting singer cuddling Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee. Three years later, one of these sold at Sotheby's New York for US$5.6 million. Two of these sculptures are now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) in downtown Los Angeles. The statue was included in a 2004 retrospective at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo which traveled a year later to the Helsinki City Art Museum. It also featured in his second retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 2008. The statue is currently back at the newly opened Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art at Tjuvholmen in Oslo.
Anticipating a less than generous critical response to his 1988 Banality series exhibition, with all of his new objects made in an edition of three, allowing for simultaneous, identical shows at galleries in New York, Cologne, and Chicago, Koons devised the Art Magazine Ads series (1988–89). Placed in Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, and Art News, the ads were designed as promotions for his own gallery exhibitions. Koons also issued Signature Plate, an edition for Parkett magazine, with a photographic decal in colors on a porcelain plate with gold-plated rim. Arts journalist Arifa Akbar reported for The Independent that in "an era when artists were not regarded as 'stars', Koons went to great lengths to cultivate his public persona by employing an image consultant". Featuring photographs by Matt Chedgey, Koons placed "advertisements in international art magazines of himself surrounded by the trappings of success" and gave interviews "referring to himself in the third person".
Made in Heaven series
In 1989 the Whitney Museum and its guest curator Marvin Heiferman asked Koons to make an artwork about the media on a billboard for the show "Image World: Art and Media Culture". Koons employed his then wife Ilona Staller ("Cicciolina") as a model in the shoot that formed the basis of the resulting work for the Whitney, Made in Heaven (1990–91). Including works with such titles as Dirty Ejaculation and Ilonaʼs Asshole, the series of enormous grainy photographs printed on canvas, glassworks, and sculptures portrayed Koons and Staller in highly explicit sexual positions and created considerable controversy. The paintings of the series reference art from the Baroque and Rococo periods—among others, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher—and also draw upon the breakthroughs of early modern painters as Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet.
The series was first shown at the 1990 Venice Biennale. Koons reportedly destroyed much of the work when Staller took their son Ludwig with her to Italy. In celebration of Made in Heaven's 20th anniversary, Luxembourg & Dayan chose to present a redux edition of the series. The Whitney Museum also exhibited several of the photographs on canvas in their 2014 retrospective.
Koons was not among the 44 American artists selected to exhibit his work in Documenta 9 in 1992, but was commissioned by three art dealers to create a piece for nearby Arolsen Castle in Bad Arolsen, Germany. The result was Puppy, a 43 ft (13 m) tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland White Terrier puppy, executed in a variety of flowers (including Marigolds, Begonias, Impatiens, Petunias, and Lobelias) on a transparent color-coated chrome stainless steel substructure. In 1995, in a co-venture between Museum of Contemporary Art, Kaldor Public Art Projects and Sydney Festival, the sculpture was dismantled and re-erected at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Sydney Harbour on a new, more permanent, stainless steel armature with an internal irrigation system. While the Arolsen Puppy had 20,000 plants, the Sydney version held around 60,000.
The piece was purchased in 1997 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and installed on the terrace outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Before the dedication at the museum, an Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) trio disguised as gardeners attempted to plant explosive-filled flowerpots near the sculpture, but was foiled by Basque police officer Jose María Aguirre, who then was shot dead by ETA members. Currently the square in which the statue is placed bears the name of Aguirre. In the summer of 2000, the statue traveled to New York City for a temporary exhibition at Rockefeller Center.
Media mogul Peter Brant and his wife, model Stephanie Seymour, commissioned Koons to create a duplicate of the Bilbao statue Puppy (1993) for their Connecticut estate, the Brant Foundation Art Study Center. In 1998, a miniature version of Puppy was released as a white glazed porcelain vase, in an edition of 3000.
[Balloon Dog sculpture Magenta color by Jef Koons at the Palazzo Grassi]
Balloon Dog (Magenta), 1994–2000, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 121 × 143 × 45 in. (307.3 × 363.2 × 114.3 cm), François Pinault Foundation. One of five unique versions (Blue, Magenta, Orange, Red, Yellow). The Orange version was sold in 2013 for a record price for a living sculptor.
Koons entitled Celebration, to honor the ardently hoped-for return of Ludwig from Rome. Consists of a series of large-scale sculptures and paintings of, among others balloon dogs, Valentine hearts, diamonds, and Easter eggs, was conceived in 1994. Some of the pieces are still being fabricated. Each of the 20 different sculptures in the series comes in five differently colored "unique versions", including the artist's cracked Egg (Blue) won the 2008 Charles Wollaston Award for the most distinguished work in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. The Diamond pieces were created between 1994 and 2005, made of shiny stainless steel seven-feet wide. Created in an edition of five versions, his later work Tulips (1995–2004) consists of a bouquet of multicolor balloon flowers blown up to gargantuan proportions (more than 2 m (6.6 ft) tall and 5 m (16 ft) across). Koons finally started to work on Balloon Flower in 1995.
Koons was pushing to finish the series in time for a 1996 exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, but the show was ultimately canceled because of production delays and cost overruns. When "Celebration" funding ran out, the staff was laid off, leaving a skeleton crew of two: Gary McCraw, Koons's studio manager, who had been with him since 1990, and Justine Wheeler, an artist from South Africa, who had arrived in 1995 and eventually took charge of the sculpture operation. The artist convinced his primary collectors Dakis Joannou, Peter Brant, and Eli Broad, along with dealers Jeffrey Deitch, Anthony d'Offay, and Max Hetzler, to invest heavily in the costly fabrication of the Celebration series at Arnold, a Frankfurt-based company. The dealers funded the project in part by selling works to collectors before they were fabricated. In 1999, his 1988 "Pink Panther" sculpture sold at auction for US$1.8 million, and he returned to the Sonnabend gallery. Well aware of Koons's bottomless needs and demands, Ileana Sonnabend and Antonio Homem, her gallery director and adopted son, nevertheless welcomed him back; in all likelihood they sensed (correctly, it turned out) that he was poised for a glorious second act—something that only he, among his generation of overpublicized artists, has so far managed to pull off. Koons, however, no longer confines himself to a single gallery. Larry Gagosian, the colossus of New York dealers, agreed to finance the completion of all the unfinished "Celebration" work, in exchange for exclusive rights to sell it.
In 2006, Koons presented Hanging Heart, a 9-foot-tall highly polished, steel heart, one of a series of five differently colored examples, part of his Celebration series. Large sculptures from that series were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2008. Later additions to the series include Balloon Swan (2004–2011), an 11.5-foot (3.5-meter), stainless-steel bird, Balloon Rabbit (2005–2010), and Balloon Monkey, all for which children's party favors are reconceived as mesmerizing monumental forms.
The series also includes, in addition to sculptures, sixteen oil paintings.
In 2000, Koons designed Split-Rocker, his second floral sculpture made of stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, and an internal irrigation system, which was first shown at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France. Like Puppy, it is covered with around 27,000 live flowers, including petunias, begonias, impatiens, geraniums and marigolds. Weighing 150 tons and soaring over 37 feet high, Split-Rocker is composed of two halves: one based on a toy pony of one of Koons's sons, the other based on a toy dinosaur. Together, they form the head of a giant child's rocker. Koons produced just two editions of the sculpture. As of 2014, he owns one of them; the other is in the collection of Mitchell Rales. In summer 2014 Split-Rocker was installed at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City for several months in coincidence with the opening of Koons's retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.