Jeff Koons at The Ashmolean, Oxford
The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology is Britain’s first public museum and the world’s first university museum. Now housed in a late 19th century golden stone building with an impressive colonnade, the interior was transformed 10-years ago by Rick Mather Architects. A top lit atrium floods the galleries and the temporary top floor galleries, and the roof top restaurant and terrace are reached by climbing glass sided staircases. Jeff Koons, who the museum describes as ‘the most famous, controversial and subversive living artist’ is showing here until 9th June.
This exhibition moves away from the more classical academic exhibitions such as Claude Lorrain and William Blake; last year ‘America’s Cool Modernism’ presented 20th century inter-war modern art. And now the work of the biggest showman of the contemporary 21st century art scene is on display. At the exhibition entrance there is a video of the New York artist chatting to the Ashmolean Director Xa Sturgis about his art. This studio features in the recent film ‘The Price of Everything‘ (2018). Young painters are working on large canvases reproducing classical works such as Rubens ‘Tiger Hunt’. These paintings fill a gallery here. They are pastiches with the addition of shiny blue metallic gazing balls, intended to draw the viewer into the experience. Larger earlier shiny steel sculptures such as ‘Bunny’, one of the most expensive pieces fetching an auction price of fifty million dollars is also here.
The last time I saw sculptures and paintings by Jeff Koons they were on display at the Serpentine Gallery, London about 10 years ago. This was after his ‘porn star’ phase, there were brash canvases with the cartoon figure of Popeye and kitschy shiny sculptures resembling inflatable pool toys, including a lobster. These had been transformed from plastic into the shiniest of steel. The chateau at Versailles had displayed these in their gilded rooms and grounds, such is the renown of Koons. The newest and most successful transformation from a four inch primitive stone fertile figure is the Venus of Willendorf into a gigantic bulbous shiny shocking pink ‘Balloon Venus (Magenta)’ here in the Antiquity room, along with shiny blown up ballerina figures. The magenta Venus works well because the surface areas are so large and shiny that the viewer is reflected back all over its surface. It’s ugly but like nothing you’ve has ever seen before. A natural for selfies and snaps. Everyone was doing so, myself included. Koons’ art borrows usually from kitsch artefacts or blown-up balloon toys but transforms them beyond pop art into something unique and droll. And of high value. Clearly his appropriations have cultural cachet.
There are many splendid collections to see in the Museum away from the crowds and without paying any admission charge. My favourite corners are the second floor Asian galleries especially the Chinese and Japanese ceramics and Western art tucked away on a top floor. Not to mention the Greek and Minoan treasures housed here. Coming out in the forecourt be sure to look at the two stainless steel sculptures by Lynn Chadwick. He came to prominence in the 50s, the Beasts here were made in 1990 and are part of an ongoing series featuring leading British sculptors.
The day I was there the galleries were packed with the usual grey-haired visitors alongside teenage students. This is one of the reasons to add contemporary art to the more traditional on show. To lower the age of people attending, and at the same time enhance the media profile and coffers of what is a free museum. Waldemar Januszczak, of the Sunday Times, is fairly dismissive of Koons here: ‘He gets an intellectual promotion, the Ashmolean gets to be down with the kids.’ Yes and no, in my opinion. I chatted with a group of schoolgirls buying postcards in the gift shop and asked them what they liked most. Giggling they replied the shiny pink sculpture Venus because it was pink. I’m in agreement that it’s the most successful work on display. Seeing some of his back catalogue as well as the most recent works is worthwhile.