Love or hate the pop-art output of American artist Jeff Koons (and there seems to be no other reaction), the polarizing work of the so-called “King of Kitsch” is everywhere at the moment.
Just a few years after his 2014 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (the largest survey the institution has devoted to a single artist), Koons’ giant inflatable ballerina can be found dressing up Rockefeller Center, his Louis Vuitton bag collaboration is adorning the shoulders of well-dressed women, and, now, his iconic balloon animals are appearing in the windows and glass vitrines of Neiman Marcus downtown.
Part of a limited-edition collaboration with the 154-year-old porcelain house Bernardaud, Koons’ new range of balloon dogs on mirrored plates, as well as his balloon monkey, rabbit, and swan sculptures, are available exclusively through June 30 as table-sized versions of his amped-up aluminum originals.
Totems of his ready-made approach to art, Koons’ oversized originals have already broken auction records — a 12-foot-tall Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58.4 million at Christie’s in 2013, at the time the highest auction price for a work by a living artist.
The pieces from Bernardaud are (slightly) more affordable at $9,000 per plate and $9,500 per sculpture, with the the 9- to 11.5-inch smaller works allowing collectors to take home a candy-colored Koons made precisely to his specifications. Which is saying a lot, considering he’s one of the most particular talents in the contemporary art world.
Having formerly collaborated with Bernardaud on a series of porcelain plates and cups inspired by his “Banality” series, as well as a vase in the style of his Split-Rocker sculpture, Koons was aware that the Limoges, France-based company had the technology to bring his work to life at the level he required.
“I made a plate and they did a great job,” recalls the artist, who was recently in town to promote his work. “I wanted to remake my balloon dog plates [originally created for the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles], and I realized Bernardaud [would be] able to respect the form and the details.
“I wanted to make something that would be more accessible to people because the stainless pieces weigh two-and-a-half tons, so it’s difficult for the average person to have space for them. I wanted to maintain the relevance and the profoundness of the idea and to put it in a form that would communicate its reason for being.”
Although in the past, works like the 1988 sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles may have led the viewer to think the artist was pulling his or her leg, the opposite is true. There could be no one more sincere in his embrace of the banal or more willing to find the emotionality in seemingly ordinary figures and objects than Koons. He feels deeply for what each of his creations stand for, and the themes that inspire each work are headier than one might suspect.
Comparing his crimson rabbit, a symbol of childhood, to “Nefertiti in an animal kind of form,” Koons also cites painter Francis Picabia as an inspiration for his bold blue monkey.
“It’s kind of a chaotic aspect of Picabia. He made a piece called the Portrait of Cezanne and it references that all artists are a little bit like monkeys, not living up to their potential,” he laughs.
Perhaps the pièce de résistance of the collection, his acid-yellow swan, was the work he labored over the longest. Inspired by his failed attempt to sculpt a swan as a child — he couldn’t get the neck quite right — it possesses both masculine and feminine qualities, from the phallic head and beak to the feminine base of its body.
For the artisans at Bernardaud, creating these pieces to Koons’ specifications broke their creative mold.
“Porcelain is perhaps one of the oldest activities of human beings in terms of crafting objects and manufacturing, but we have to treat it as something that is living,” says the company’s CEO, Michel Bernardaud, who has also collaborated with the likes of Marina Abramović, David Lynch, and Kara Walker.
“This collaboration would be an opportunity to bring it even more in the standard of our time, plus the challenge was a major one. We could have done the same objects using our traditional techniques and that would probably been okay, but not okay for Jeff.”
Koons, who was able to spot that one sample was a millimeter too high simply with his naked eye, says the idea of scale is the most crucial aspect to all of his works, no matter how large or small.
“Plato would say it was the most important thing, as it all starts from there, and that has to do with the relation of the body. I think these pieces do have that idea at their base, and at the same time they have biology. If you look at the tip of the balloon rabbit’s nose or the monkey or the end of the bladder inside the swan, they relate to what it means to be human and how we kind of define ourselves in art history.”
Limited to editions of 2,300 for the dog plates and 999 for the sculptures, the works will no doubt make their own historical mark for collectors, but for Koons, they’re metaphysical totems to an unbridled imagination that extends throughout every aspect of creation, from managing his 100-plus-strong artist studio to raising his eight children.
“I’m always trying to be the best artist, the best human being, the best father and husband,” he says. “It’s a joy to wake up every day and to try and continue to become.”