Koons' Classical work at the Ashmolean

A major exhibition of the work of Jeff Koons (b. 1955) is currently on show at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Curated by Koons himself together with guest curator Sir Norman Rosenthal, it features 17 important works, 14 of which have never been exhibited in the UK before. They span the artist's entire career and include his best-known series Equilibrium, Statuary, Banality, Antiquity and his recent Gazing Ball sculptures and paintings.

Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1955. He studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and now lives and works in New York City. Since his first solo exhibition in 1980, his work has been shown in major galleries and institutions throughout the world.

Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, says: 'In showing Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean, the world's oldest public museum, where the collections range from prehistory to the present, this exhibition will provoke a conversation between his work and the history of art and ideas with which his work engages. I am sure it will also provoke conversations among those who see it.'

Koons is surrounded by superlatives – since he burst onto the contemporary art scene in the 1980s he has been described as the most famous, important, subversive, controversial and expensive artist in the world. From his earliest works, he has explored the 'readymade' and appropriated images – using unadulterated found objects, and creating painstaking replicas of ancient sculptures and Old Master paintings, which almost defy belief in their craftsmanship and precision. Throughout his career he has pushed at the boundaries of contemporary art practice, stretching the limits of what is possible.

The exhibition includes important works from the 1980s with which Koons made his name through the use of the 'readymade' and the appropriation of popular imagery. It will also explore his more recent focus on the art of antiquity and the western art canon where layered images of ancient and modern art meet in Koons' singular vision.

Among the highlights in the show are the spectacular Balloon Venus (Magenta), 2008–12 (top). It is meant to evoke the tiny Ice Age Venus of Willendorf, one of the world's oldest works of art from around 30,000 BC, and it is made with Koons' signature motifs: monumental scale; the inflated balloon with its intimations of transience and mortality; and the flawless mirror-polished surface, which positions the viewer in the work.

In his Antiquity paintings of 2009–12, such as Antiquity 1 (above), Koons creates layered collages in which photo-realist reproductions of Classical sculptures (of Venus, Pan and Priapus) are set against broken collages of other artworks or abstract backgrounds, overlaid with graffiti-like marks.

In more recent works, Koons has explored what he calls his 'cultural DNA', using sculptures and paintings from world-famous collections that have personal meaning for him.

In the Gazing Ball series of 2012 onwards, perfectly blown reflective glass spheres are placed on casts of ancient sculptures, meticulously painted replicas of European masterpieces, and also museum-style plastercasts of mundane objects, such as mailboxes and birdbaths. They continue Koons' experiments with the remade 'readymades', the meeting of high art and the vernacular, while engaging in a new way with the art of the past.

Shown in the UK for the first time at the Ashmolean will be seven works from the series including Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso), 2013 (above), Gazing Ball (Gericault Raft of the Medusa) 2014–15, and Gazing Ball (Titian Diana and Actaeon) 2014–15.

Of the Ashmolean, Koons says: 'I couldn't think of a better place to have a dialogue about art today and what it
can be.' While Sir Norman Rosenthal comments: 'Jeff Koons' work plays with our memories of childhood and our "educated" cultural experiences as he blends high and low culture, inviting us to challenge the distinction as we gaze at art and at ourselves. Putting his work in the Ashmolean – the first museum in the very heart of academia, Oxford University, we can take his experiment a step further. For those of us willing to share in his visions, Jeff Koons makes art a magical transformation.'

• Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean is on show at the Ashmolean (www.ashmolean.org) until 9 June 2019. The fully illustrated catalogue costs £20.

Lindsay Fulcher