Early Tuesday morning, mega-artist Jeff Koons announced that he would be launching his first-ever NFT collection, titled “Moon Phases.” For anyone with a passing knowledge of his work, there was little surprise.
The NFTs will be linked to sculptures landed on the moon in a fully automized mission orchestrated by the private aero-space company Intuitive Machines. While we don’t yet know the design of either, Koons’ style would seem to lend itself easily to NFTs.
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After all, Koons was a pioneer of creating work that blurs the line between art piece and collectible. Consider Koons’ toy balloon sculptures. They are, more or less, the same form repeated in different colorways and sizes, which he, of course, sells for eye-popping sums of money
In some ways, NFTs as they exist today wouldn’t be possible without Koons and artists like him, whose artistic practices have come to be defined by easily replicated, disseminated, and understood avatars. Koons is automatically associated with his iconic balloon animal figures like Rabbit (1986) and Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994). Damien Hirst has made a career of bejewling Mickey Mouse and Goofy sculptures with crystals, when he isn’t encasing dead animals in formaldehyde. KAWS is another whose interpretation of Mickey Mouse has gotten him far. His collectable figures, along with their much larger versions in museums, have become an inescapable ploy for street-style cool. Meanwhile, Takashi Murakami’s iconic smiling, rainbow petaled flower is set to become an NFT series themselves.
Avatars dominate the NFT scene, whether it is the Bored Ape Yacht Club, CryptoPunks, or any other of the thousands of other PFP, or profile pic, NFT projects that have been hyped over the last year.
Without Koons, the NFT’s mass produced avatar could’ve never been legitimized. He belongs to a generation of artists who, after Andy Warhol, were interested in not just exploring market mechanisms through their art, but replicating them.
Koons has been exploring branding and advertising since early in his career, like the 1986 series Luxury and Degradation in which he reprinted and framed alcohol advertisements. Two years later, he would create his own ads for his Banality series show Art Magazine Ads, which he then had placed in art magazines around the country.
But his avatar-like works came even earlier. By the 1970s, Koons was already making toy balloon sculptures with his Statuary series. Though he would stray from his own iconography to do representations of popular cartoons and celebrities, he would always return to his balloon figures.
The balloon figures, just as those sculptures and images by Hirst, Murakami, and KAWS, revel in a kind of infantilization, and there comes a point where it is unclear what is commentary and what is perpetuation of the form. These artists take their work to be a mirror held up to the face of the market, but the line between ironic performance and actually becoming the thing you once criticized is thin.
I would argue that line is destroyed when it becomes your livelihood. If your business is in factory-made toys, maybe you’re just a toy maker.
Koons has spent his career blurring, if not outright destroying, the line between the market and art. And it was the destruction of this line that has allowed certain NFT projects to be seriously considered as potential art objects. A Bored Ape doesn’t have to mean anything, and neither does a balloon dog. They’re just pure asset, that’s their art.
It only makes sense that now, living in the art world he has wrought, Koons would start making NFTs. After all, Koons may be the highest selling living artist, but digital artist Beeple, who sold an NFT last year for $69.3 million, isn’t far behind.