The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, claims in its introduction, to be the world’s oldest purpose built public museum; founded in the world’s oldest University (in the English speaking world.) The initial collection was based on the curios assembled by the Tradescant dynasty in Lambeth, in the seventeenth century. It was opened by Elias Ashmole in 1683. Under its roof is a world class display of art and archeology spanning several millennia. So how did seventeen pieces of very modern sculpture by Jeff Koons sit alongside its historic art and artefacts.
Koons is a very modern, modern artist. He is challenging, commercial, innovative and popular (and of course with all modern celebrity equally unpopular). The show opens with an interview between the artist and Ashmolean Director, Xa Sturgis. Sturgis is, of course, interested in Koons’s response to curating an exhibition in Oxford. Koons obliges saying ‘he couldn’t think of a better place to have a dialogue about art today.” And it is Jeff Koon’s understanding of art today that makes him such an attraction – Kindergarten mouldings, comic book colours, overt voyeurism and brilliant use of new materials, often laid over or appropriating very traditional images.
The Ashmolean exhibition is set out in three rooms. The highlight of the first for me is his iconic floating baseball. This is typical Koons employing a familiar object and using technology for the transformation into art. In this case combinations of distilled water in the ball and salt water in the tank render the ball weightless. Quite why this needs Nobel prize winning quantum physicist, Richard P. Feynman to work out only the artist knows.
The second piece is Rabbit from 1986. This, for all the world, looks like one of those twisty balloon sculptures you get at the fairground but unbelievable is made from the stainless steel. The plastic-like creases are so real you cannot believe it is steel – quite stunning.
Rabbit anticipates the second room which features some of the best exhibits, in what the artist calls the antiquity series. I think the Ballerinas is the star of the show. Here he transforms what looks like a delicate pottery table top porcelain figurine into an immense, larger than life size sculpture in steel with subtle colours. The images echo the Venus and Satyr, which features in many of the works in this series alongside.
The Gazing Ball series fills the final room. Here the artist employs gazing balls, similar to the types sold in American Garden Centres attached to the front of, or on top of studio reproduced works from the canon of western art, such as Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ or Géricault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’. I suffered two sensations in this room which started with the admiration for the originality (seeing yourself inside these great paintings, but quickly developed into some level of annoyance, as if these balls were really interlopers.
All in all though a great success for Oxford and a chance to see some of the iconic work of Jeff Koons, the great celebrity, at close hand. The exhibition is on until the 9th June and I am looking forward to visiting it again before it closes.
Images © Jeff Koons