Jeff Koons on Reimagining His Famed ‘Balloon Dog’ in Porcelain: ‘We Are Balloons Ourselves’

For better and for worse, Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Dog” sculptures are now the stuff of art history, with a 1994–2000 orange version auctioned for $58.4 million at Christie’s in 2013, at the time time setting a record for the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold. But it wasn’t always that way. When Koons first conceived of the sculptures, in 1994, as part of his “Celebration” series, the project nearly bankrupted Koons, who nearly didn’t execute the oversized work at all. He ended up completing five 12-foot-tall, stainless steel “Balloon Dogs”–in shades of blue, magenta, orange, red and yellow–six years later with the help of his friends, collectors, and some complex financing.

The gamble paid off, and Koons is still making “Balloon Dog” works. His latest iterations of them are made in porcelain and done on a small scale. Working with Michel Bernardaud, whose family runs a 160-year-old porcelain atelier, Koons has produced a miniature version of the work available for $30,000. There are 799 objects in the limited edition, which is titled Balloon Dog (Blue). ARTnews spoke with with Koons and Bernardaud to discuss the challenges—and joys—of rendering this iconic work anew.

ARTnews: How did you and Michel Bernardaud begin working together?

Jeff Koons: I started working on Balloon Dog in the mid-1990s as a plate. The design is different than what I’d end up doing for the “Celebration” series. I made these plates to sell for a charity some friends had set up for inner-city kids in L.A., and I needed to find someone to produce them. I really wanted to work with someone I was assured could provide high-quality ceramic work, and that’s how I met Michel. We’ve been working together ever since.

Why did you decide to embark on this new porcelain project?

Koons: As my “Balloon Dog” became more and more iconic, there were all these “Balloon Dog” editions everywhere. I had nothing to do with them. The quality on these “Balloon Dog” editions—it’s rough. But I think a lot of people believe that that’s my artwork or something that I’ve been involved with, when the opposite is true. I told Michael, “It’s really important to me that I make an official ‘Balloon Dog’ edition and to be able to make this official balloon dog in porcelain.” I wanted it to exactly represent my stainless steel creation, with the same angles and proportions. I also wanted them 40 centimeters in size. For porcelain, that’s a substantial scale, but that’s how I thought that these “Balloon Dogs” could distinguish themselves. But it was challenging—there’s this moment when you’re heating up the ceramics in the oven and the form can just go loose, so there’s all this engineering that has to go into it.

How did you face those obstacles, Michel?

Michel Bernardaud: To make Balloon Dog, we had to create two items, the Balloon Dog itself and the supporting porcelain underneath. To make sure it wouldn’t fall apart, we had to make all kinds of adjustments, but you change one thing, and now the other part has to change too. The fact that we started working together so long ago certainly helped us understand what Jeff’s expectations were, in terms of quality and sharpness, but it was a challenge. We basically had to reinvent our entire process. We had to change how we fire the piece and find new techniques of decoration.

Is Ballon Dog made through slip casting, or are they individually formed? What is the process?

Bernardaud: We slip cast parts of Balloon Dog, and then it is assembled. There are four firings involved. It takes about 45 artisans to make these pieces.

Jeff, when did you first become interested in ceramics?

Koons: When I was young, my grandparents had a porcelain ashtray. It was made right after the war, and it came from Japan. The shape of the ashtray was a reclining woman and the legs of the woman would move from the heat of the cigarette. I was so captivated by the color, the material. So in the ’70s, I started working with ceramics. These works weren’t even ever really shown, just in small group exhibitions when I was young, but I kept at it. Woman in Tub [1989] and Woman Reclining [2010] were inspired by this ashtray. I love working with ceramics—they have this sensual quality.

Porcelain in particular has this beautifully smooth, even reflective surface. I even have a set of porcelain cups that are in the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts. More broadly speaking, ceramics have had such a huge presence in our history. You’ll find them at every archaeological site. They’re so long-lasting, and they have this mythic, symbolic quality.

Did that quality of ceramics prompt you to make your “Balloon Dogs” in this medium?

Koons: Yes, for sure. When I created Balloon Dog, I wanted to create something that had a mythic quality like the Venus of Willendorf sculpture. Balloon Dog captures this anthropomorphic quality in a sense that we are balloons ourselves. We take a deep breath, that’s life’s energy. If you look at the nose, the nose is almost like our navel, our belly button, our umbilical cord. The Dog also looks like the intestine. It’s really this beautiful celebration of the moment. Through clay, there’s this second quality to it, because clay is so alive, too, the way it expands and contracts in the kiln.

What does Balloon Dog mean, Michel?

Bernardaud: This is a family business. I am the fifth generation; my son and nephew, who have learned so much from working with Jeff, are the sixth. To have the company associated with such an iconic piece is something I’m extremely proud of. A family business is like a building, and each generation adds one or two stories. Through this collaboration, I have added a story to the company. So the Balloon Dog is a major, major achievement for us.