Jeff Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania; as a teenager he revered Salvador Dalì, to the extent of visiting him in the Plaza Hotel. Koons attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and studied painting. After college he worked as a Wall Street commodities broker, whilst establishing himself as an artist. He gained recognition in the 1980s, and subsequently set up a factory-like studio in a Soho loft on the corner of Houston and Broadway in New York. This had over 30 staff, each assigned to a different aspect of producing his work—in a similar mode to Andy Warhol's Factory (and manyRenaissance artists).
Koons' early work was in the form of conceptual sculpture, one of the best-known being Two Ball 50/50 Tank, 1985, consisting of two basket balls floating in water, which half-fills a glass tank. (The influence on Damien Hirst's later work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—a shark suspended in formaldehyde in a glass tank—is unmistakable.)
Koons then moved on to "Statuary", the large stainless-steel blowups of toys, and then a series "Banality", which culminated in 1988 with Michael Jackson and Bubbles—stated to be the world's largest ceramic—a life-size gold-leaf plated statue of the sitting singer cuddling Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee. (Three years later it sold at Sotheby's New York as Lot 7655 for $5,600,000, trebling Koons' previous sale record.)
In 1991 he married Hungarian-born naturalized-Italian porn star La Cicciolina, aka Ilona Staller, who for five years (1987-92) pursued an alternate career as a member of the Italian parliament. His "Made in Heaven" series of paintings, photos and sculptures portrayed the couple in explicit sexual positions and created even more controversy than he had before.
In 1992 they had a son Ludwig; the marriage ended soon after. They agreed joint custody but Staller absconded from New York to Rome with the child, where mother and son remain, despite the award in 1998 of sole custody to Koons by the US courts, which had dissolved the marriage. In the aftermath he stated: "That experience really gave me a sense of responsibility to the public. I was losing my sense of humanity. Now, every day, I feel more and more responsible in the act of communicating and sharing and really trying to be as generous as possible as an artist."
In 1992, to create a piece for an art exhibition in Bad Arolsen, Germany. The result was Puppy, a forty-three feet (thirteen meter) tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland White Terrier puppy executed in a variety of flowers on a steel substructure. In 1995 the sculpture was dismantled and re-erected in Sydney Harbor on a new, more permanent, stainless steel armature with an internal irrigation system.
In 1997 the piece was purchased by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and installed on the terrace outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Before the dedication at the museum, a trio disguised as gardeners attempted to plant explosive-filled flowerpots near the sculpture , but were foiled by Bilbao police. Since its installation, Puppy has become a noted icon for the city of Bilbao. In the summer of 2000 it travelled to New York City for a temporary exhibition at Rockefeller Center.
In 1999 he commissioned a song about himself, on Momus' album Stars Forever.
In 2001 he concentrated on painting in a series "Easyfun--Ethereal", a collage approach incorporating bikinis (with the bodies wearing them removed), food and landscape - painted under his perfectionist supervision by assistants.
In 2005 he was elected as a Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Koons' work is classified as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop, as part of an 80s movement in reaction to the pared-down art of Minimalism and Conceptualism in the previous decade. Although the use of commercial imagery is a starting point, some also see the incorporation of some of the Conceptual approach which implies an irony. Koons denies this: "A viewer might at first see irony in my work... but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation," (which in turn might well be perceived as an ironic double bluff).
He caused controversy by the elevation of unashamed kitsch into the high art arena, exploiting more throwaway subjects than ever, for example, Warhol's soup cans. His work Balloon Dog (1994-2000) is based on balloons twisted into shape to make a toy dog. Koons' sculpture differs in two major respects to the original: 1) it is made of metal (painted bright red to give the appearance of balloons), 2) it is more than ten feet (three metres) tall.
Koons has received extreme reactions to his work. Supporters claim (for Balloon Dog) "an awesome presence... a massive durable monument" (Amy Dempsey, ed. Styles, Schools and Movements, 2002, Thames & Hudson), and for other work that they are "wowed by the technical virtuosity and eye-popping visual blast" (Jerry Saltz, art critic for the Village Voice).
However, Mark Stevens of The New Republic dismissed him as a "decadent artist [who] lacks the imaginative will to do more than trivialize and italicise his themes and the tradition in which he works... He is another of those who serve the tacky rich." Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times saw "one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the 1980s" and threw in for good measure "artificial," "cheap" and "unabashedly cynical".
Whether Koons will be seen in time as a critical commentator in the tradition of the Dadaists and a genuine leader in the controversial tradition of the avant-garde, or merely as a fashionable purveyor of meaninglessness and banality, remains to be seen. However, this judgement cannot be made in isolation from the evaluation of the wider contemporary art scene. He has had an undoubted influence on noted younger artists: his extreme enlargement of mundane objects has been copied by Damien Hirst (e.g. in Hirst's Hymn, an eighteen-foot version of a fourteen-inch anatomical toy) and Mona Hatoum amongst others.
Even a cursory study of history shows that contemporary institutional acceptance (his work has been exhibited in London's Royal Academy) is no reliable guide to the judgement of posterity. What can be said is that at the moment Koons attracts extremes of enthusiasm and vitriol, and that his work is amongst the most expensive in the world.