#RespectYourElders: Jeff Koons, 65, is one of the most successful living American sculptors, illustrators and painters in the art world. He is recognized for his work addressing popular culture and consumerism.
Koons was born in 1955, in York, Pennsylvania. His father was an interior designer and decorator and his mother was a seamstress. At the age of eight, he was already creating and selling replicas of Old Master paintings — a term used to describe European artists popular from the Early Renaissance to the Romantic movement.
One of his early role models was Salvador Dalí. As an older teenager, he contacted Dalí by calling the hotel he was staying at. Dalí agreed to meet him and the two attended an exhibition of Dalí’s work.
Upon graduating high school, Koons attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. However, it was an art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that changed the trajectory of his art career. The exhibition was hosted by Jim Nutt, a member of the 60s Chicago Surrealist movement, the Chicago Imagists. Koons credits Nutt’s show as the reason he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1977, after graduating from school, Koons moved to Manhattan. He sold museum memberships to the Museum of Modern Art while trying to establish a reputation as an artist. He became influenced by the East Village art scene, who dismissed the mainstream art world and embraced counter-culture. Selling museum memberships may not have been as lucrative as Koons would have hoped because he took a job selling stocks and mutual funds while working on art in his free time. This allowed him to finance an exhibition called “The New,” which included wall-mounted Vacuum cleaners encased in plexiglass. This exhibit put his work on the map.
Koons’ popularity continued to grow from there and he became known for taking on subjects such as sex, race, gender, fame and commercialism with his highly unusual works of art. This often took the form of a traditional object, such as a vacuum cleaner, transformed and reimagined into something extraordinary. Famous art critic Roberta Smith declared him one “of the strangest and most unique of contemporary artists.”
Koons created a large-studio factory where he hired dozens of employees to produce the work that he envisioned. This allowed him to create his art at a scale and scope that was previously unattainable. Koons sold his work “Balloon Dog” for $58.4 million and his work “Rabbit” in 2019 for $91.1 million — setting a record for the most expensive work of art sold by a living artist.
In 2014, the museum that had changed his career forever paid homage to him. The Whitney produced “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective,” which was also featured at the Centre Pompidou Paris and the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Koons has received countless awards during his life and even co-founded the Koons Family International Law and Policy Institute; an organization combating global issues of child abduction and exploitation and protecting the world’s children.
“Art to me is a humanitarian act and I believe that there is a responsibility that art should somehow be able to affect mankind, to make the world a better place,” Koons once said.