So what is it about Jeff Koons that has so captured art world’s imagination as Balloon Dog sells for record $58m?

His early heroes were Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol

It was a crowning moment in Jeff Koons’s long and extraordinary career. While Francis Bacon’s $142m triptych depicting Lucian Freud was grabbing the headlines, at the same Christie’s sale in New York, the man who has turned banality into high art was this week enjoying his own triumph. He did it with one of his celebrated series of toy balloon dog sculptures – 10ft tall and constructed of stainless steel but faithfully reproducing the contours and shiny plastic colours of a party balloon toy. It went for a staggering $58m (£36m) – the highest sum ever paid for a work by a living artist.

So what is it about Koons that has so captured the art world’s imagination over the past three decades? He was avidly ambitious from a young age; his early heroes were Salvador Dali, whom he met once while the Spanish surrealist was in residence in New York, and Andy Warhol. From Warhol he borrowed the idea that, in a godless world saturated by media, art itself was just another commodity, albeit one with extraordinary added value. And while Warhol made silk screen prints in his “factory”, Koons took the industrial metaphor much further, employing dozens of skilled artisans to manufacture works such as the balloon dogs without any hands-on input from the artist himself.

Nearly three years ago, Koons threatened legal action against a bookshop in San Francisco selling bookends with a balloon dog motif. But as a lawyer for the bookshop pointed out: “As virtually any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog.” Originality of inspiration is not part of the Koons recipe: most of his work has its origins in pre-existing works of art or kitsch. But although critics often use the words “arid” and “sterile” to describe his art, pieces such as the balloon dog have enduring fascination, and not only for the collectors who watch their value rise and rise. The one exhibited for years outside Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, overlooking the Grand Canal, became one of the watery city’s more endearing monuments. The artist himself claims to find emotional release through his work. “I think art takes you outside yourself, takes you past yourself,” he has said. “I believe that my journey has really been to remove my own anxiety.”

Born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955, Jeff Koons studied art at Maryland School of Art and in Chicago, idolised the Pop artist Ed Paschke and became his studio assistant, then moved to New York where he worked on the membership desk of the Museum of Modern Art.

But then his career took a different turn. Instead of starving in a garret or waiting on restaurant tables while his talent flowered, he became a Wall Street commodities trader. In contrast to the artist of popular imagination, the world of commerce was his natural home. Here was an artist who felt no shame about making money but on the contrary made a profound study of what the contemporary artist needs to do to become rich. And then he did it.

Since the Romantics, we have been in the habit of seeing the artist as a rebel, a distillation of popular resistance to the dreary rules of trade, a prophet who sees and allows us all to see a reality that is greater and deeper. Koons’s hero Dali was perhaps the last, wildly camp embodiment of that model. Even Andy Warhol, his other hero, retained some shreds of the Romantic mystique, with his mysterious and reclusive persona, his white hair and gnomic utterances. But with Jeff Koons we have entered a new, hard-headed age.

Koons’s work has travelled through many phases. The fascination with industrial production was present from the outset: an early show contained vacuum cleaners fresh from the store, exhibited in brightly lit Plexiglass cases. Soon after that he hit the rich lode which he has been exploring ever since, launching his mission to rehabilitate kitsch for the delectation of the art-buying classes, and beginning his fascination with the painstakingly accurate re-creation of existing artefacts in unlikely materials. These included classic corny ceramic statuettes – Bob Hope, Louis XIV, the German pedlar figure known as Kiepenkerl – refashioned in stainless steel, twice or five times the size of the originals: instantly understandable, indestructible, eminently collectable.

Later he extended the theme by inventing kitsch objects of his own, most famously the ceramic Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. Koons has always been content to batten on images which are already of mass fame and mass appeal. His dalliance with the Hungarian-Italian porn star Ilona Staller is typical of this unabashedly parasitic approach.

La Cicciolina, as she was better known, was already famous in Italy when he discovered her, having moved on from a scandalously high-profile career as a porn star to become the country’s most improbable MP. He persuaded her to pose with him for a long series of tableaux, Made in Heaven, executed as elaborately staged and lit photos, as oil paintings and as glass statuary, of the pair of them having sex. They also got married. Whether Koons saw that as part of the artistic performance or whether it was merely a rare, human aberration is unclear, but the marriage ended soon and in bitter tears, with a fight over custody and maintenance that went on for many years. La Cicciolina had dreamed of settling down with her wealthy and wholesome American and becoming a respectable housewife. What Koons had in mind in the longer term is unclear.

Whatever the emotional fallout from that messy affair, its effect on Koons’s career was – as he doubtless intended – to cement him in the public imagination as a scandalous character quite as securely as Warhol or Dali before him. And this firm foundation of notoriety has enabled him to launch his siege on the citadel of the contemporary art market, which achieved its most remarkable success this week.

When creativity in the classic sense is not an issue, where does inspiration come from? As any good commodity trader could tell you, it comes from close analysis of the market. Amy Cappellazzo, the former curator from New York who has transformed Christie’s, wrote in Artforum some years back that contemporary art is “an asset one can borrow against, or trade on and defer capital gains taxes on”. She went on: “Art’s recent financial appeal stems from the idea that high-quality works of art were undervalued and that … their worth would increase in value as a result of a) heightened demand for scarce objects; b) an enormous roll-up of private wealth that remains unprecedented; and c) the market necessity for a new asset class that could trade among individuals globally.”

But how is an artist to get his work into this “new asset class”? The key, according to art market expert Olav Velthuis, is the needy condition of the mega-rich buyers, who have “a tremendous surplus of economic capital” but “an equally large deficit of social and cultural capital”. Vastly rich but painfully insecure, they want art that will, without a shadow of a doubt, win them the prestige they crave, without challenging their critical faculties.

A shiny toy balloon dog, 10 times life size and made of stainless steel? What could be more desirable?

A Life In Brief

Born: Jeffrey Koons, 21 January 1955, York, Pennsylvania

Family: Son of furniture dealer Henry Koons, and Gloria Koons, a seamstress. In 1991, he married porn star La Cicciolina (Ilona Staller) with whom he has one son. Now married to Justine Wheeler, an artist. They have six children

Education: Received BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore; studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Career: Worked as a Wall Street commodities broker when his early works were not enough for him to make a living. This week his sculpture Balloon Dog sold at auction for $58m, the most ever paid for a work by a living artist

He says: “All that matters in life and in art is human interaction”

They say: “There is something nightmarish about Jeff Koons,” Peter Schjeldahl, critic

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn