Last May, “Rabbit” by contemporary artist Jeff Koons made history at Christie’s New York. Reminiscent of a balloon animal, the three-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture holding a small carrot broke the record for the most expensive set piece ever at an auction, selling for $91.1 million. The sculptor was reportedly sold to the father of the US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin.
More on art and controversy:
“Rabbit” manages to convey a similar message to most of his artwork, while simultaneously being a culmination of everything he has created before. The almost child-like structure of the rabbit depicts innocence and, dare we say, cuteness, yet its expressionless features render it inscrutable.
Unfortunately, “Rabbit” is also mired by the same controversy that clouds Koons’ whole career. Over the years, the artist has been labelled as juvenile in his attempts at self-promotion, with “Rabbit” being no exception. At its unveiling, some believe it to be a lazy joke, or a visual con. However, rather than ignore it, Koons decided to embrace the negative press, releasing the tagline: “Own the Controversy.”
Born on January 21, 1955 in York, Pennsylvania, Koons attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore after high school, and later the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. After college, he moved to New York in 1977. While establishing himself as an artist, he worked as a Wall Street commodities broker as a way to fund his craft, but also to be independent of the art market if needed.
Koons would finally burst onto the art scene in the 1980s. He specialized in using everyday objects for his pieces and would explore themes of consumerism and human experience. The 64-year-old has vehemently maintained that his work as a whole has no meaning, and is often criticized by the nature of his art. Yet, his continued success over the last 30 years allows him to be one of the most influential American artists of his generation.
The artist’s “balloon animals” are produced in mirror-finished stainless steel, and in a variety of colors. His pieces reflect an element of child’s play, but also show themes of disposable culture, as balloons are often tossed away after a short amount of time.
Despite claiming that his works have no meaning, Koons does seem to have thoughts of symbolism when it comes to the balloon animals. In an interview for DailyArtMagazine, he cryptically referred to these balloons as symbols of life. “I’ve always enjoyed balloon animals because they’re like us,” he says. “We’re balloons. You take a breath and you inhale, it’s an optimism. You exhale, and it’s kind of a symbol of death.” He would also compare them to the Trojan horse, as if it was empty, yet full of symbolism.
His balloon animal works have managed to sell for substantial amounts over the years, including a world record for an auction price in 2013. Koon’s “Balloon Dog” (Orange), was auctioned for $58.4 million, becoming the most expensive work sold by a living artist at an auction.
While “Balloon Dog” is perhaps the most popular of his works, Koons has worked with other animals. In a limited-edition collaboration with French porcelain company Bernardaud, Koons has released the “Balloon Swan” (Magenta), the “Balloon Rabbit” (Violet), and the “Balloon Monkey” (Orange).
In his magenta piece, Koons manages to transform a twisted balloon swan into reflective porcelain. The swan was one of Koons’ first sculptures made at nine years old, as he worked diligently to create the perfect angle for its graceful neck. “The 'Balloon Swan’ harmonizes sexual energy. If you look at it from the front, it’s totem-like and male. If you go to the side it becomes female,” he says.
Meanwhile, the 2019 version of Koons’ “Balloon Rabbit” (Violet) comes directly from his upbringing, wherein people would decorate their lawns with inflatable animals during special occasions. The rabbit, in this case, refers to Easter. “I was always very struck by the generosity of the neighbors in doing that, giving pleasure to other people in that way,” the American recounts. The rabbit is prominently featured in Koons’ work, appearing in his 1979 Inflatable Flower and Bunny, as well as the stainless steel rabbit. Finally, the limited edition “Balloon Monkey” (Orange) refers to humanity’s close relationship with primates, as well as the unorthodox nature of his art pieces, and his cultural impact on modern art.
While Koons has currently announced himself as retired from art, his largely successful career all but ensures that there is more to be seen from the York-based artist, with the world eagerly awaiting his next masterpiece.
Bernardaud is available in Rustan’s Makati, Rustan’s Shangri-La and Rustan’s Cebu. For more information, visit their Facebook page.