The iconic Balloon Swan (Yellow), rendered in a bright, joyful yellow on a truly monumental, nearly twelve-foot scale, is an exemplary sculpture from one of today’s most important and influential artists globally, Jeff Koons. A flawless gleaming replica—enlarged, enhanced, engorged, and mirror-polished—of a swan balloon animal that an overjoyed child might receive at a party, Balloon Swan (Yellow) is a twisted totem of joy that marks a spectacular new chapter of Jeff Koons’s oeuvre, coming before Balloon Monkey and Balloon Rabbit. Koons characteristically takes a swan—an elegant, exalted creature, much like the beast of art history in which the bird so frequently features—and shapes it into a playful and accessible form: a universal visual delight structured by the artist’s unparalleled vision and distinctive optimistic ideology. The figure of the swan had much personal resonance for Koons; one of the first sculptures he made as a youth of about nine years old was a swan in ceramic. Back then, the artist worked hard on getting the neck just right; in Balloon Swan, he spent about a year and a half trying to shape the neck of the swan on the computer. A hyperbolic totem to contemporaneity, this sleek 21st century monument to ephemeral joys evolved from Koons’s acclaimed Celebration series of painting and sculpture, where the artist’s towering stainless steel balloon sculptures made their first appearance. Begun by the artist in the 1990s, this body of work celebrates the festive events that serve as milestones of the calendar year by exaggeratedly rendering these events’ virtually universal signifiers: hearts for Valentine’s Day and balloon tulips for spring. Koons’s balloon animals (Balloon Monkey (2006-2013), Balloon Rabbit (2005-2010), and Balloon Swan (2004-2011)), related to but distinct from the Celebration series, embody Koons’s aspiration to bring big meanings to simple, easily recognizable symbols and encompass all of his enduring artistic concerns in their pared-back elegance. Balloon Swan is one of five unique stainless steel sculptures finished in a translucent color coating of either magenta, red, violet, blue, or the present yellow. Balloon Swan is the artist’s elegant, even sensual, iteration of the balloon animal. Balloon Swan (Yellow) is presented here on the heels of the artist’s foremost retrospective, which traveled in 2014 and 2015 from the Whitney Museum in New York to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and then Guggenheim Bilbao.
Balloon Swan (Yellow) is a visually striking sculpture of a swan balloon animal—a representation of an abstracted representation, as it were. A feat of artistic vision and precision engineering, the vibrant sculpture towers over the viewer. Its ballooning take on a classical form, weighing in at over three tons, conveys the sensation of a miraculous, impossible lightness, as if the stainless steel sculpture were indeed pumped taut with air. The work’s seductively smooth surface, which has been mirror-polished and finished with a bright yellow translucent coating, reflects the viewer. This reflective surface compresses critical distance as it presents a distorted image of the viewer’s form warped across the piece’s highly realistic knots, creases, and twists. Balloon Swan (Yellow)’s luxurious surface is evocative of wealth and spiritual enlightenment, yet the sculpture is made of democratizing stainless steel. Eschewing outmoded divisions between “high” and “low,” the sculpture embodies an emotional richness that is ostensibly accessible to everyone. Koons has sagely said, “I am trying to capture the individual’s desire in the object, and to fix his or her aspirations in the surface, in a condition of immortality” (J. Koons, quoted in S. Coles & R. Violette (eds.), The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 34). Koons, whose works are exhibited in major museum collections and as public sculpture around the world, prides himself on the approachability of his fine art forms. He has said: “One of the things that I’m most proud of is making work that lets viewers not feel intimidated by art, but feel that they can emotionally participate in it through their senses and their intellect and be fully engaged. And feel that they can get a foothold in it, to push themselves off and lift themselves up on” (J. Koons, quoted in I. Sischy, “Jeff Koons is Back!”, Vanity Fair, July 2014, p. 115).
Koons’s exacting process for making sculptures like Balloon Swan (Yellow) is evident in the work itself, which is impeccably contoured and spares no detail in spite of its monumentality. The artist developed and honed the idea for the sculpture over years of research, modeling, computer rendering, polishing, lacquering, and polishing again. To ensure that the sculpture perfectly reproduced a balloon swan, Koons took computed tomography (CT) scans of the real-life balloon. In the process, Koons demonstrates a level of investment in the quality of his work that sets him apart from his peers. His enlargements of each form pursue identicality as a matter of ethics; the artist said, “I feel a responsibility to the viewer, and I want the viewer to have a sense of trust. Art is communication, it’s dialogue—to have this exchange of respect for each other…When information is nonspecific or something seems slightly skewed, then it’s harder for that trust to be maintained” (J. Koons quoted in B. Gopnik, “How Jeff Koons Keeps It Real,” The Daily Beast, 21 June 2012, www.thedailybeast.com). To maintain the viewer’s trust, Koons made the graceful neck of Balloon Swan (Yellow) slightly more elongated on one side than the other. “When you bend the neck of a balloon swan, you take your fingers, and you have to rub it, and you pull the top down. And so one side will be slightly asymmetrical,” Koons explained (J. Koons quoted in B. Gopnik, “How Jeff Koons Keeps It Real,” The Daily Beast, 21 June 2012, www.thedailybeast.com).
Balloon Swan (Yellow) evolved from the Celebration series, a group of sculptures and paintings portraying enhanced, fantastical, saturated versions of festive items like Easter eggs, Valentine’s hearts, balloon animals, and party hats. Celebration came at a pivotal point in Koons’s artistic trajectory, and the cycle’s wild success was integral to the artist’s canonization. Koons initially came to the project in 1993, when gallerist Anthony D’Offay invited him to make an illustrated calendar. The artist set up and photographed festive and seasonal items—balloon tulips, a balloon dog, a heart hanging from a golden ribbon—against reflective backgrounds. “I shot these different images and soon realized that this was too good, that I had more than a calendar here,” Koons said. “I had a whole body of work” (J. Koons, quoted in T. Vischer, “Dialogues on Self-Acceptance: Jeff Koons about Himself and his Work From Conversations with the Artist, New York, Early February 2012, Part I,” in S. Keller and Vischer (eds.), Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Riehen, 2012, p. 34). The seed for the monuments to joy that compose the Celebration series was planted. Because Koons adheres to the highest standards of artistic rigor in executing his labor-intensive concepts, major works from the Celebration series took years to complete. The balloon sculptures in and connected with the series expand upon the significant, recurring themes of air and breath explored in Koons’s earlier Inflatable and Equilibrium works. Koons, who has worked in myriad sculptural materials from bronze and glass to porcelain and live flowers, views air-filled forms as metaphors for the human condition. “I’ve always liked inflatables because they remind me of us. We breathe and we fill up with air,” Koons has said (J. Koons quoted in Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 11). While his seemingly inflated sculptures are anthropomorphic in that they appear to contain breath, they are impervious to exhalations and pinpricks. Eternal breath contained in playful forms of eternal youth, the balloon sculptures are inflected with immortality. Beyond their physical beauty—we are biologically predisposed to be attracted to such smooth, shiny objects—these sculptures appeal for their seeming imperviousness to the regular constraints of time and space.
Balloon Swan (Yellow)’s reflective, optimistically-colored surface is playful, but it is also slippery, shifting under the viewer’s eye in a reflection of life’s flux. The symbolism of the swan is similarly complex. Koons considers even the simplest objects to be highly symbolic of immortality, sexuality, and man’s potential for transcendence; when contemplating these objects, the artist explores the wonderment of childhood while also embracing more adult pleasures. Popular across cultures, swans are associated with beauty, love, and fidelity due to their elegant appearance and predilection toward coupling in life-long monogamous relationships. However, swans can also be aggressive with a dark streak, both in reality and culturally: for example, in the ancient Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, so frequently pictured in art history’s masterpieces, Zeus came down disguised in the form of a swan to rape Leda, Queen of Sparta, who consequently gave birth to Helen of Troy. Sexuality and aggression underlie a popular and beloved symbol of romantic love. Koons, who relishes in the complexity of symbols, certainly had the swan’s richly heterogeneous symbology in mind when he selected it for Balloon Swan.
Jeff Koons’s ambitious, high-impact work, particularly Balloon Swan (Yellow), has had a pronounced impact on the contemporary art world. Artists, both of Koons’s generation and younger, have been profoundly inspired by his pioneering oeuvre; critics, seeing that his art acutely captures our cultural moment, have scrambled to expand and update the art historical discourse to speak to his work; and the public have been delighted by his iconography, which has entered and taken hold of popular imagination. As Adam D. Weinberg, Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, pronounced succinctly on the occasion of the major 2014 Koons retrospective at the Whitney: “It is now hard to imagine a pre-Koonsian age” (A. Weinberg, “Foreword,” S. Rothkopf (ed.), Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum, New York, 2014, p. 7). As one gazes upon the joyous bright yellow Balloon Swan (Yellow), delighting in the sculpture’s blithe departure from the conventions of traditional monuments with every fabulous knot and twist, this statement of Koons’s importance rings profoundly true.