Jeff Koons is among the most prominent and controversial figures in the contemporary art world—and his fame hardly ends there. He’s also influenced the worlds of fashion and music through collaborations with Louis Vuitton, Lady Gaga, and others. Works by Koons, who is known worldwide for his lustrous sculptures often focused on themes from popular culture and notions of artifice, routinely sell for millions of dollars, and they can be found at the world’s top museums.
Since last year, when his stainless steel sculpture Rabbit for $91.1 million at Christie’s in New York, Koons has been the world’s most expensive living artist. How did he get to that milestone? To trace his rise to becoming an art star, below is a guide to some key moments in his career.
He trained at two renowned American art schools.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955, Koons studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1975 to 1976. While in the Windy City, the artist was mentored by famed Chicago Imagists like Ed Paschke and Karl Wirsum, and he received his B.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1976. Just a few years after graduating, Koons received his first solo exhibition in New York.
Koons’s first big break was a window installation.
For some, it may come as a surprise that the artist’s first solo show featured not a single gleaming sculpture. Rather, his big debut was much more smaller-scale and lo-fi, with vacuum cleaners and other appliances illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights. Staged at New York’s New Museum—then located near Union Square—in 1980, the presentation, titled “The New,” was shown in plexiglass cases facing Fifth venue. It serves as an early example of Koons’s enduring fascination with consumer culture, and the works included have since become iconic—some featured in the recent Museum of Modern Art rehang.
He spent the 1980s showing with important galleries.
Over the following 12 years, Koons had solo exhibitions with outfits like the since-closed Feature Gallery in Chicago, Daniel Weinberg Gallery in Los Angeles, and a Cologne outpost of Galerie Max Hetzler. (Galerie Max Hetzler now maintains spaces in Berlin, Paris, and London.) The 1988 exhibition “Banality,” which was presented at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, the now-defunct Donald Young Gallery in Chicago, and Galerie Max Hetzler, featured an edition of the porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). That same year, Koons had a mid-career survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; included in that outing was an edition of the 1986 stainless steel sculpture Rabbit, which would later set an auction record for the artist.
Sexually explicit artworks draw attention at the 1990 Venice Biennale.
Koons stopped Venice Biennale visitors in their tracks in 1990 with his “Made in Heaven” paintings and sculptures, which depict erotic scenes featuring the artist and his then-new wife Ilona Staller in lavish Baroque and Rococo settings. (The couple has since divorced.) The works received a fair amount of criticism at the time, but they were exhibited in subsequent years at Galerie Max Hetzler, Sonnabend Gallery (where the series generated lengthy lines), and elsewhere. As recently as 2010, the gallery Luxembourg & Dayan staged a show of the “Made in Heaven” paintings at its New York space.
A traveling retrospective accelerated Koons’s rise to fame.
Between 1992 and 1993, a retrospective of Koons’s work was shown at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in Germany, and the Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark. Along with Rabbit and other sculptures, the show included pieces from the artist’s series of objects and appliances encased in perspex.
The Guggenheim Bilbao acquired an iconic, large-scale Koons creation.
A few years later, in 1997, the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain added Koons’s 43-foot-tall Puppy (1992) sculpture to its permanent collection. Displayed outside the museum in Aguirre Plaza, the topiary work takes the form of a stainless steel West Highland terrier with plant life blooming across its surface. The artist has said that the sculpture, originally commissioned and displayed publicly in the German town of Bad Arolsen, is intended to make viewers feel a sense of “confidence and security.” In 1999, Koons hit a new auction record in the sale of the third edition of the porcelain sculpture Pink Panther (1988) for $1.8 million at Christie’s in New York.
Koons’s market grows dramatically in the early millennium.
The artist got his first solo exhibition with Gagosian gallery in 2001 when he showed eight new paintings from the “Easyfun” series at the gallery’s Beverly Hills space. That year an edition of Michael Jackson and Bubbles sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $5.6 million. Koons continued to stage solo outings, at institutions like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Chosun-Ilbo Museum in Seoul, Mnuchin Gallery in New York, the Helsinki City Art Museum in Finland, and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and he also exhibited his monumental works with greater frequency.
In 2000, at the start of the decade, Rockefeller Center in New York showed Puppy in all its botanical glory, and Koons’s presentation on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rooftop came in 2008. For that showing, the artist put on view three large-scale pieces: Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994–2000, Sacred Heart (Red/Gold), 1994–2007, and Coloring Book (1997–2005). That show still ranks among the Met’s most-attended exhibitions ever. Also in 2008, Koons achieved a new auction record at the time with the sale of Balloon Flower (Magenta), 1995–2000, at Christie’s in London for $25.7 million.
A star ascends in the 2010s.
Over the course of the last decade, Koons’s auction numbers soared, with highlights at Christie’s in New York including the 2012 sale of Tulips (1995–2004) for $33.6 million, the 2013 sale of Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994–2000, for $58.4 million, and, of course, the record-setting Rabbit, which achieved a whopping $91.1 million. In 2013, the year he joined David Zwirner gallery’s roster, Koons worked with Lady Gaga to design the cover art for her album Artpop. Koons’s footprint in the worlds of popular culture and fashion also extends to collaborations with Louis Vuitton, H&M, BMW, and Dom Pérignon. The year 2014 brought another retrospective for Koons, this time traveling from the Whitney Museum in New York to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Now a household name in the art world, the artist made an appearance in the 2018 HBO documentary The Price of Everything, which offers an inside look at the art market.
Not everyone has been on board with Koons mania, though. French artists and arts professionals spoke out against Koons’s proposal for a Parisian monument to the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks in the French capital. After years of controversy, the public work, titled Bouquet of Tulips, was installed near the Petit-Palais in 2019. The artist’s work was also the subject of two separate lawsuits by collectors Joel Silver and Steven A. Tananbaum that were settled in 2019 and 2020, respectively.