Lady Gaga promised that she was going to rope in some serious art world heavyweights for her ARTPOP project. And the proof is right there on the just-revealed iconic cover of the album : a sculpture of the singer by artist Jeff Koons. The controversial sculptor best known for his oversized, shiny balloon animals and flowers has been confounding critics for decades, as well as breaking the bank at art auctions.
That combo makes his sculpture the perfect fit for Gaga, a singer unafraid to toss techno, rock, industrial, rap and pop into one artfully messy mix on ARTPOP in a bid for mass sales and maximum exposure.
But who is Koons and why was Gaga so drawn to him that he earned a shout-out in the lyrics to "Applause?"
Breaking The Bank
More than 30 years into his career, Koons set a record in November 2012 for one of the highest prices ever paid for a work by a living artist when an unknown buyer spent more than $33.6 million on his "Tulips" sculpture, which depicts a series of shiny, colorful flowers.
"Not only is he not apologetic, he's proud of [the high prices paid for his art]," said Pepe Karmel, a professor in the department of art history at New York University. "Artists today often take day jobs while trying to support themselves... but you could take his whole career as a brilliant, extended performance piece taking our national and global obsession with marketing and selling and turning a mirror on it."
After receiving a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1976, the 58-year-old Pennsylvania-born painter moved to New York and worked at the membership desk of the Museum of Modern Art, which would later display several of his works as part of their permanent collection.
In fact, Karmel said that legend has it that Koons sold more memberships than anyone before or since while at the MOMA, another sign that he's totally committed to and totally believes in selling. (Not for nothing, but he also did a brief stint as a commodities broker on Wall Street before turning his full attention to art.)
Stop And Smell The (Aluminum) Roses
Koons emerged as part of a media-obsessed group of artists in the early 1980s (including Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat) whose work was often focused on the deluge of commercial images all around them.
"Instead of creating new images, [Koons and others] though they should make us conscious of and critical of the images surrounding us," said Karmel, noting that Koons had a very deadpan take on this style, famously copying ad images and taking everyday objects like basketballs and suspending them in water tanks.
Koons also took very familiar objects, like the cheesy blow up bunny rabbits you might find at a dollar store and blew them up into shiny stainless steel works of art that had an iconic, hypnotic effect. "His idea was that if you just take reality seriously it's pretty amazing," said Karmel. "It's not about a higher sphere than everyday left. Art is about recognizing the complexity and beauty of everyday life."
While many saw his work as pointing out the irony of making high art out of low objects, Karmel, who said he's met Koons several times, described the artist as "the least ironic or cynical person I've ever met. He's totally sincere, however weird that might be."
The Path To Gaga
Koons married former Italian porn star Cicciolina in 1991, which led to the "Made in Heaven" series, highlighted by explicit paintings, photos and sculptures of the couple having sex in creative positions. "They were totally X-rated in some cases, but also highly mannered and brightly colored in a way that clearly made them art," said Karmel. From there he moved into his "Banality" series, which included the famous porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with his chimp, Bubbles and later series of large, shiny sculptures of balloons, dogs and flowers that are among his best known works.
"The Gaga cover is like a combination of all these different things," Karmel said. "The image with the cut-up collage pieces is something you see in a lot of his paintings from 20 years ago, but the [gazing] ball is like a miniature version of the balloon sculptures. And the fact that it's between her legs ... you can't help thinking about what's behind it, which brings to mind the 'Made in Heaven' series. It seems pretty brilliant to me."
Love Him, Hate Him
The art world has long been split over Koons' work, with an extreme divide between those that think he's a genius and ones who think he's the phony king of kitsch. "My sense is a fair number of critics and curators think he's a complete fraud and that his art is utterly valueless but that he's got a weird marketing phenomenon that has made him successful," said Karmel. "Others think he's a genius and one of the most important artists of our time."
What about Karmel? "I'm somewhere in between," he said.