Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog (Orange) is considered the supreme example from the highly acclaimed Celebration series of paintings and sculptures that Koons instigated in the early 1990s. The series evolved from his desire to recreate the ecstatic experiences of a child's enjoyment of the world through universal signifiers representing birthday parties and festive events. It is one of five unique Balloon Dog sculptures made from precision engineered, mirror-polished stainless steel and finished with a translucent coating of either blue, magenta, orange, red, or yellow. Balloon Dog (Orange)'s radiantly beautiful color and pristine finish embodies a contemporary vision of fin-de-siécle opulence. With its giant swollen body and highly reflective surface, this ten-foot, one-ton metal balloon animal conveys a miraculous illusion of weightlessness. The sheer beauty of its materiality is designed to ensnare and captivate, while its form is endowed with the joyful associations of childhood, hope and innocence. Balloon Dog (Orange) uses sentimentality and hyperbolic scale as a tool of insight-one that speaks directly to and about a collective humanity. Its high-impact size, form, and subject encapsulates Koons' egalitarian approach to art; and his masterful ability to create intellectually and sensuously exciting objects from the banal and familiar. Content aside, in formal terms Balloon Dog (Orange) marked a new pinnacle of sculpture as an entire medium, discipline and tradition. It is a bold, forceful and imposing monument that radiates powerfully with an almost epic sense of vitality-qualities that have firmly secured its status as one of the defining artworks of the 20th century.
Despite its immense size, no detail has been spared in the rendering of the Balloon Dog's form: note the exactingly shaped knot that serves as its nose, the twists and crimps at the base of the robust limbs, and the erect, yet rubbery looking tail. The artist's exacting standards are one of the most captivating aspects of Koons' work and this trait reached its apogee with the fabrication of the Celebration sculptures, which includes balloon flowers, hanging hearts, eggs, and diamonds, among other subjects. Koons had intended to premier the series at New York's Guggenheim Museum in the mid-1990s, but it involved so much labor that he was forced to gradually complete it over more than ten years. Part of the challenge was creating the flawlessly smooth contours on sculptures like Balloon Dog (Orange) where 60 parts are welded together to produce the simple, but very suggestive shapes. Koons worked closely with a specialist foundry in California to achieve his desired result, which involved years spent perfecting the meticulous color coating that appears to hover above the stainless-steel surface.
The thousands of hours spent modeling and constructing this sculpture was not caused by obsessiveness on Koons' part, but rather an uncompromising will to create something faultless for his audience, something that would instill absolute confidence in the object and its purpose. Describing his exceedingly high expectations for the Celebration series, Koons has stated: "I believe in art morally. When I make an artwork, I try to use my craft as a way, hopefully, to give the viewer a sense of trust. I never want anybody to look at a painting, or to look at a sculpture, and to lose trust in it somewhere" (J. Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 390). The investment has certainly paid off-Balloon Dog (Orange) has become a Koons masterpiece. The end result is an exceptionally beautiful object with an astonishing visual impression induced by the combination of its immaculate sheen, the flawless, flowing curves and the intricate, navel-like crannies.
For renowned art collector Peter Brant, the chance to add Balloon Dog (Orange) to the collection was an unmissable opportunity, despite the incredibly long wait time he faced before the final work was actualized: ". . .When I first saw the Balloon Dog, I instantly thought, this is so obvious, and so beautiful. I'd known [Koons'] work very well by that time, but it hit you like the perfect sculpture. It's just so aerodynamic and so Pop and so wonderful. That was early in the 1990s, and I wanted to acquire the piece. But, Jeff hadn't really come to grips with how to execute the work because when I first saw it, it was in the clay form. It took him eight to ten years to really resolve a lot of the technical logistics" (P. Brant, interviewed by Christie's, New York, 2013). Each example of the Balloon Dog has a similarly outstanding pedigree; they all belong to an illustrious group of private collectors who have taken an avid interest in the evolution of Koons' career. Of the other versions, Steven A. Cohen owns Balloon Dog (Yellow); The Broad Art Foundation has Balloon Dog (Blue); Franois Pinault owns Balloon Dog (Magenta); and Dakis Joannou's DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art has Balloon Dog (Red).
When the Celebration works eventually started to be shown in museums around the world in 2000, Koons' reputation as one of the world's greatest sculptors was immediately renewed and deepened. Over the years, he has explored a whole gamut of sculptural materials, including readymade objects, bronze, porcelain, wood, stainless steel, Murano glass, and even live flowers. It is these three-dimensional forms that find the most enthusiasm as their tangible qualities posses an ability to engage sensual experience in a way that is almost impossible in any other medium. Balloon Dog (Orange) is themed and scaled for collective enjoyment. Its size acknowledges the needs of large audiences as opposed to intimate trophies or ornaments.
The magic attraction of Balloon Dog (Orange) lies in its ability to convey cuteness, power and material perfection. Its alert, four-legged form makes it reminiscent of the heroic equestrian statuary that populates public spaces across the globe. Koons himself has called this piece the "Trojan horse" of the Celebration series: "It's a very optimistic piece, it's a balloon that a clown would maybe twist for you at a birthday party. But at the same time it's a Trojan horse. There are other things here that are inside: maybe the sexuality of the piece" (J. Koons, quoted in F. Bonami (ed.), Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois, 2008, p. 81). The sculpture taps into the mythic not only through its equine appearance and gargantuan proportions then, but also through the somewhat mischievous intent that hides behind its fetishistic exterior. Like the fabled subterfuge that the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy, Balloon Dog (Orange) seems innocent but is in fact loaded with aesthetic and existential challenges. Koons sees sexual connotations in the shiny sculpture as a metaphor for desire. Its super-saturated orange glow is used as a seduction technique to draw us towards its gleaming surface and, as we approach, we cannot avoid seeing the thrill it elicits reflected back at us. It constantly reminds viewers of their existence by returning their gaze and their movements; people activate it, it needs them. Perhaps in establishing this psychological mirror Koons is proposing that it is our emotional and intellectual responses that are the true the concealed soldiers of this Trojan horse. From early on in his career, Jeff Koons has preferred to create his works in discrete, conceptually self-contained series that are grouped under their own titles. Since 1979 when he developed the Inflatables ready-made combines, he has produced at least 20 series, including The New (exhibited in 1980), which integrated references to Minimalism and Pop with their stacked vacuum cleaners and fluorescent tube lighting; Equilibrium, 1985, best known for its sculptures of basketballs floating in tanks; the Statuary series of stainless steel figurines that featured Rabbit, 1986, one of his most celebrated artworks; and Banality, 1988, an ultra-kitsch grouping that includes a life-sized, white and gold porcelain depiction of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, Bubbles. With each series produced during the 1980s, Koons' hotly debated art drew ever-increasing audiences, reaching a crescendo of provocation and controversy when he exhibited Made in Heaven, 1989-1991, a suite that openly explored attitudes towards sexuality through its explicit, if romanticized, imagery. Koons has eschewed standards of "good taste" in art at every turn, introducing unexpected objects and images that acknowledge the goods, colors, emblems and experiences that constitute the normal existence of working and middle class citizens. Koons insists there is no irony in what he does, but his embrace of the quotidian is a calculated effort to undermine hierarchies of culture, and to validate popular taste. Like Andy Warhol's avowal that Pop art was about "liking things," Koons says his art is about the liberation and power that comes from embracing the mainstream.
Koons' work invites us to experience pleasure without guilt, and nowhere is this more obvious than the Celebration series. Where Made in Heaven sought to remove shame from sex, the Celebration works that followed directly after were made to conjure the wonderment, blissful naivety and freedom of childhood. What was originally conceived as a small project has since developed into Koons' most elaborate series to date, comprising twenty monumental sculptures and sixteen large-format oil paintings. Celebration continued Koon's interest in notions of the cycle of life. He started the series with the concept to make a calendar featuring various festive images, some of them made from balloons, many of them linked to times of the year such as Valentine's, Easter, birthdays and the coming of spring-events that he was experiencing anew after the birth of his son in 1992. He began creating simple photo studies of handmade balloon forms and store-bought items that would end up summoning an abundance of new ideas for immaculate, glistening sculptures and hyper-real paintings. "I took my camera and prepared these set-ups," Koons explained. "I shot some balloon tulips on a reflective background, and I made a balloon dog, again on a reflective background. I bought a hanging heart with some gold ribbon from a shop window I saw on Lexington Avenue, and I photographed a bread with an egg. I shot these different images and soon realized that this was too good, that I had more than a calendar here. 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).
Through his intensely bright paintings of a party hat, or a slice of heavily-iced cake, to the brilliantly shiny Balloon Dog or heart-shaped ornaments, Koons hopes to awaken the child that exists inside all of us. The transcendent sense of joy expressed in the Celebration works make them highly idealistic as they deal with "hope, the future and with respect for humanity" (J. Koons, quoted in, Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2001, p. 25). This social aspect to art is all-important to Koons. By depicting the world of the child with all the sophistication and technical craftsmanship available to the adult, he appeals to what is good in people. He asks us to recapture that time in our lives before we were indoctrinated into the expectations and value judgments of society, when heaven could be found in a piece of foil-wrapped candy or a cereal-box toy. His goal is to return us to those associations, to that openhearted delightedness, and the vehicles he chooses are simply archetypes of our shared experience. As the pinnacle achievement of the Celebration series, Balloon Dog (Orange) represents one man's heartfelt conviction that art can offer succor to the masses. Koons wants his work to be as accessible as possible, to break down the segregation between high and low culture so no one is made to feel inferior. This inclusivity, he believes, will ultimately free us from self-imposed constraints: "My work is a support system for people to feel good about themselves and have confidence in themselves-to enjoy life, to have their life be as enriching as possible, to make them feel secure-a confidence in their own past history, so that they can move on to achieve whatever they want" (J. Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 456).
As Koons has indicated, Balloon Dog was a key image in the early development of the Celebration series. What else could suggest the jollity of children's parties more eloquently than a colorful balloon, twisted into the instantly recognizable form of a dog. But immediate recognition does not necessarily imply instant comprehension. There is an ambiguity at play in the conjunction between the expected lightness, vulnerability and elastic quality suggested by the original subject and the palpable rigidity and extraordinary weight of the enlarged facsimile. Like Koons' early Inflatable and Equilibrium works, Balloon Dog is a symbolic vessel of air, filled with the intangible stuff of life. "I've always liked inflatables because they remind me of us. We breathe and we fill up with air and it seems like a commitment of some type. At the same time it's not a commitment because we exhale right away," he has said (J. Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth, op. cit., p. 11). Koons is a brilliant manipulator of materials and his union of an ephemeral object with an immutable metal is not just a way of creating a lasting dazzle of freshness. It is also about the fact of mortality. Balloon Dog (Orange) is a permanent monument to the fleeting and momentary. It will never wither with time, fall victim to a pin-prick, or an overzealous squeeze. The sculpture's imperviousness to decay provides comfort in a world of perpetual change, while also becoming a sort of mass culture momento mori. Koon's romantic notion of conveying humanity through the vaguely absurd playthings of our past takes on an even greater poignancy when we consider that Balloon Dog, and the Celebration series in general, was made as a deeply personal tribute to the artist's young son, whose celebrations and annual milestones he was, for a time, unable to share. As Koons explained, "I was trying to make art that my son could look on in the future and would realize I was thinking about him very much during these times.... that he can look and see my dad's thinking about me, but to also embed in these things something that is bigger than all of us" (J. Koons, quoted in J. Jones, "Jeff Koons: Not just the king of kitsch," The Guardian, 30 June 2009, accessed via www.theguardian.com). Balloon Dog (Orange), therefore, speaks of love and of life. Its canine imagery also taps into world's most ancient emblem of fidelity and unconditional affection. With his interest in all that is commonly perceived as good, it is unsurprising that dogs have been recurring motifs within Koons' oeuvre. These include porcelain puppies in the Banality series, carved wooden dog figures in the Made in Heaven series, and the vast flower-covered Puppy. Of all these pooches, Balloon Dog achieves the greatest tension between representation and abstraction. It embodies Koons' aspiration to bring big meanings to simple, easily recognized symbols.
While Koons' work is sometimes perceived as kitsch, to him, everyday objects embrace aspects of transcendence. He has made Balloon Dog (Orange) as a beacon of benignity in a world of pessimism, confusion and strife. Its high-shine structure is intended to usher in the transition from the banal to the sacred. Our received wisdom tells us that polished metals represent wealth and spiritual enlightenment and Koons knowingly uses stainless steel as a fake reflection of those values. He has often compared his work's unashamed over-the-topness to lavishly decorated church interiors that communicate to the public that they are in the presence of the divine. "The church uses the Baroque to manipulate and seduce, but in return, it does give the public a spiritual experience" (J. Koons, quoted in A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 158). The golden luster of Balloon Dog (Orange) is similarly designed to manipulate its viewers and it has an immaculacy that verges on the spiritual, as is only appropriate for an artist so concerned with almost religious subjects such as innocence, procreation, and the heavenly. The sculpture's gloriously warm hue may belong to the secular domain of art history, for instance Warhol's revered Orange Marilyn of 1964, but it can additionally be linked to faiths across the world, from Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance, to the robes worn by monks and holy men across Asia.
This is a sculpture firmly bound to the emotive Romantic tradition in art, but with a very contemporary twist. The grandeur of its size, the mesmerizing color and majestic surface of Balloon Dog (Orange) all draw on the concept of the sublime. Koons has transfigured the real and familiar into something extraordinary and otherworldly, creating a kind of Platonic ideal of a balloon dog-a manifestation of the holy. André Breton once said that when one releases things from their original contexts, latent or additional meaning rise up to the surface of consciousness. This work of art has chameleon-like qualities; its reflective surface is capable of physically changing with its surroundings and its many-layered meanings make it conceptually change in the mind of each viewer. While Koons' tactics may recall the Surrealists' methods of transforming the commonplace into the strange and exotic via the metamorphosis of scale and materials, he does not seek to disturb the viewer or make his subject uncanny. Instead he accommodates people's desires and offers them security and comfort, avoiding, or at least masking, the darker sides of the subconscious with bright and playful imagery. Koons' Balloon Dog uses humorous means for serious ends, affirming viewers' faith in themselves and the profound beauty of life itself through an overriding message of optimism.