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

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'