Jeff Koons's Science Projects

A floating basketball, a giant mound of Play-Doh, an exact replica of the Liberty Bell: His works result from artistic vision, yes, but also some physics and chemistry wizardry.
The secret behind Jeff Koons' enigmatic One Ball Equilibrium Tank is sodium chloride reagent. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Today, H&M will release a special-edition leather handbag featuring the likeness of Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Yellow) in some stores and on its website. To celebrate (and, really, further publicize) the occasion, Koons will decorate the six-story facade of the Swedish retailer’s Fifth Avenue flagship store in New York City with images of his iconic sculpture.

The most expensive living artist as of a November 2013 auction, Koons is routinely noted for his shrewd, and sometimes unusual, business practices. But the former Wall Street commodities broker also has a knack for science and technology.

In fact, his works are often so cutting edge that some of the world’s leading museums have found themselves ill-equipped to handle them. (Asked why the Guggenheim never went through with its 1996 plan for a major Koons exhibition, former director Lisa Dennison admitted to the New York Times that “finding the technology to match Jeff’s vision became impossible.”)

The inherent challenge of presenting his work is one reason that Koons, now 59, hadn’t had a comprehensive stateside show until three weeks ago. Spanning his entire career from 1978 to the present, “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” is the largest and most expensive show the Whitney Museum of American Art has ever devoted to a single artist. It is also the last the Whitney will present before moving to a buzzy new location in 2015. The show travels to the Centre Pompidou in Paris this November and to the Guggenheim Bilbao next June.

Out of the nearly 150 works on view, here are five of the most technologically complex and the science behind them:

One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series), 1985 

Glass, steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water, basketball

Collection of B. Z. and Michael Schwartz. © Jeff Koons

This piece relies on the laws of chemistry and physics. Koons carefully adjusted the composition of the water to keep the basketball suspended in the center of the tank, rather than letting it float to the surface as it would normally do. “I wanted just to have water, something very, very pure,” Koons explains in an audio guide for the exhibition. “But to achieve equilibrium within the confines of an aquarium really became impossible.” Under the guidance of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman, Koons added a highly pure reagent grade sodium to the tank. Once he layered the water (the heavier saltwater sat at the bottom of the tank, while the lighter freshwater rested on top), the basketball would stay where he wanted. But the technical challenge of this piece didn’t end with its initial fabrication. Because the water eventually becomes homogenous, causing the basketball to float, the tank needs to be refilled each time the piece is installed. Environmental factors such as climate control and light—each of which alter the water’s temperature—and even the vibration of viewers’ feet as they move past the piece can affect the ball’s equilibrium. Even after the tank has been refilled, its solution must be continually readjusted.

Cat on a Clothesline, 1994-2001 

Polyethylene and plastic

Markus Schreibe/AP Photo

This playful piece is made entirely of polyethylene, a material frequently used in children’s toys. According to curator Scott Rothkopf, Koons likes the stuff largely because it compromises the “play kitchens and houses in which children often have their first adult fantasies.” But using the material wasn’t all fun: “To make such a large object out of polyethylene with the kind of detail Jeff requires—the detail in the sock, the fur of the cat, the flowers—was a challenge because this precise kind of plastic doesn’t usually have an application at that scale,” Rothkopf says.

Balloon Venus (Orange), 2008–2012

Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

A reference to the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf statue, this sculpture owes its especially reflective surface to a custom stainless steel alloy Koons developed in collaboration with German fabrication firm Arnold. The structure itself is perhaps even more technologically impressive. Koons began the piece by working with a balloon designer to create an original model of the stone Venus from a single balloon. “Any normal person would have made the hair out of one balloon and the body out of another,” says Rothkopf, alluding to the artist’s near-religious commitment to realism. “But by using a single balloon Jeff could get the sense of continuous pressure and air throughout.” To generate the computer rendering necessary for fabricating the larger, final version, Koons relied on 3D imaging. But the light scanning method he used in his 1994-2000 Balloon Dog (Yellow) was insufficient for capturing the balloon’s minute folds in the level of detail he was after. Instead he turned to CT scanning, a technology powerful enough to detect a brain tumor and not often used outside the medical field. The end result is a sculpture cast in such a way that the interior volumes echo the twists and curves of the balloon with hyper-realistic precision.

Play-Doh, 1994–2014

Presented by

Nina Stoller-Lindsey is a New York City based writer with a focus on arts and culture.

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