We are fortunate to have some of the UK’s finest museums in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1683, is not just the UK’s oldest public museum, but also the oldest university museum in the world. It is currently hosting an exhibition by art star Jeff Koons.
Koons attended the opening ceremony. He held court, stylishly dressed and surrounded by photographers. There is something undeniably glamorous about this square-jawed American, as there is about his art.
A few years ago Koons provided a 40-foot Balloon Dog sculpture as the backdrop for a series of performances by the rap artist Jay-Z. Koons has also collaborated with Louis Vuitton, blurring the line between high and popular culture.
Koons gave a speech from the grand staircase of the Ashmolean's atrium, reflecting on how he wanted his art to be accessible yet also transcendent. He argues that he uses his celebrity to explore “what it means to be human”.
Koons’ art has often been described as brash, trashy and kitsch, a reputation he revels in. With his Gazing Balls series, where a polished steel globe is placed in front of replicas of art works by Titian, Rubens and other canonical artists, you could almost describe him as iconoclastic. It is actually a variation on a device employed by the Old Masters. Jan van Eyck and Velásquez depicted mirrors in their pictures, with the viewer, perhaps the artist himself, gazing back. The aim is to draw the viewer into the painting. Koons approach is refreshing, pulling us across the centuries and asking us to re-think the contemporary relevance of these pieces.
Due to their scale, only 17 art works by Koons are exhibited. These have been carefully selected. There are examples from most phases of his development, including the famous basketball suspended in a vitrine. This was one of Koons’ earlier hits, from the 1980s. It has clear pop art references and you can understand why he was perceived as the heir to Andy Warhol.
We cannot imagine what the 17th century antiquarian and collector Elias Ashmole, who donated the founding collection, would think of Koons’ work, but I am sure he would be pleased to see the museum continuing to thrive and enhancing its reputation.
I encourage you to visit the exhibition. Koons’ art, in all its neon and stainless steel beauty, seems even more exciting placed in one of our most venerable institutions.
The exhibition runs until 9 June.