"...these tanks are beautiful things...They have the quality of a perfectly realized theory, one demonstrated even as it’s articulated, like the philosopher C. S. Pierce’s claim that the end purpose of the universe is to grow something that knows it." James Lewis
Jeff Koons’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank is one of the defining artworks of the late twentieth century. A lone basketball hovering impossibly in the middle of a tank filled with water, it is a work that mesmerizes its audience and holds them enthralled through a sublime combination of the ordinary, the familiar and the seemingly impossible. A basketball, which should float and bob about in water, is seemingly, magically suspended in an uncanny state of stillness at the absolute center of a tank filled with water. Reminiscent of the orange orb of the sun hanging low in the sky, there is something planetary and also mystical about this seeming apparition of a sphere suspended without any visible support. At the same time, the overt familiarity of the object, of the basketball itself —a spherical embodiment of so many childhood memories of playing in the backyard —asserts the apparent ordinariness and tangible, existential reality of this, in fact, very simple ball floating in a tank.
Created in 1985, at a time when the contemporary art-world was dominated by the vast, anguished splashes of Neo-Expressionist painting and the raw energy and color of graffiti art, this startlingly simple, almost minimal, matter-of-fact, readymade-type-work is one that ran directly counter to the prevailing tendency of its time. But, like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain before it, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank is a work that can now be seen to have single-handedly announced and epitomized an entirely new direction in art—one that directly acknowledged and addressed the socio-economic realities of 1980s, late Capitalist consumer-culture. An encapsulation—in one simple, unforgettable image—of the key theme upon which Jeff Koons’s first major exhibition in an established gallery was built, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank is the first and finest masterpiece of the new and distinctly post-modernist generation of young artists that emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s. This generation was the first media-savvy, commercially-aware, MTV-watching generation of artists who, both cognizant of and undaunted by the newly commercialized art-world of the junk-bond era, were the first to make art that directly addressed, mimicked and mocked the mechanisms of the marketplace.
One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank is also one of Jeff Koons’s most brilliantly understated creations. Embodying something of the readymade aesthetic of Duchamp, the reductive elegance of Brancusi and Donald Judd’s concept of the existential power of the “specific object,” this simple basketball in a tank is both elegant in its simplicity and also startling in its matter-of-factness. And it is for these reasons that it is ultimately a work of timeless and universal appeal—a work that encapsulates something elemental about the spirit of human aspiration by appearing to articulate an elegant marriage between a dream of the impossible and the more-or-less universal appeal of sports.
“Art can define an individual’s aspirations and goals just as other systems—economics, for instance—are defining them now,” Koons has said. “Art can define ultimate states of being in a more responsible way than economics because art is concerned with philosophy as well as the marketplace” (Jeff Koons quoted in The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, pp. 36-37). It was in 1983 that Koons first conceived of the idea of a water-filled tank in which a solitary basketball would articulate an uncanny balance between aspirational dreams and existential reality by neither floating to its top nor sinking to its bottom but perpetually hovering in an “ultimate” state of “equilibrium” at its center. Envisaging such a work was one thing, however, making it into a reality was another. “I really wanted permanent equilibrium,” Koons remembers. “I really wanted one of these balls to just hover there forever. I went to all different libraries reading about equilibrium, density gradients and so on, but the physics said it could not be done in such a small tank. But then I read an article in Time Magazine about the Nobel Prize winner for quantum electrodynamics, Dr. Richard P. Feynman…He was a really brilliant guy...the one who found out why the space shuttle blew up in 1986...So I called him up and he would tell me that I could do it...but that it was impossible to keep it in permanent equilibrium. So the tanks I made are in equilibrium for about three months, although it depends—maybe if you can remove all the vibrations they could go for six months” (Jeff Koons quoted in Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, London, 2014, p. 116).
The solution to Koons’s two-year quest was to fill the basketball with distilled water and place it in a tank filled about two-thirds full with a solution of distilled water mixed with sodium chloride reagent (pure salt). The remaining third of the tank is then filled with distilled water siphoned very slowly into the tank. In this way, the water-filled ball effectively sits (invisibly) on the saline water supporting it. As, over time, the two water-mixtures begin to intermingle, this apparent state of equilibrium will ultimately fail and after a few months the basketball will eventually sink to the bottom of the tank. Nevertheless, for an extended period of time, an apparently impossible state of being—a basketball magically floating without any visible means of support—was attained.
This apparently unachievable, unmaintainable but “ultimate” state of being formed the central concept of Koons’s first one-man show, entitled Equilibrium held at the gallery International with Monument on East Seventh Street in the Lower East Side of New York in 1985. This exhibition, which in many ways effectively launched Koons’s career, was the artist’s first one-man show in a major gallery and brought him swiftly to international attention. The various Equilibrium works that Koons put on display at this show represented his next major body of work, after the brand new vacuum cleaners illuminated by neon that had composed the body of work he called The New made five years before.
“Like The New,” Koons told Alan McCollum in 1986, the Equilibrium works were also “about unachievable states” (Jeff Koons, “Interview with Alan McCollum” in Flash Art, Dec 1986, Jan 1987). They invoke a womb-like, utopian state of being—an impossible ideal that can be aspired to but never really attained. What he was trying to do, Koons has said, is to “capture an individual’s desire in the object, and to fix his or her aspirations in the surface, in a condition of immortality” (Jeff Koons quoted in The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 34). With regards to his Equilibrium tanks, the apparent magic of these floating basketballs represents a sense of this condition of immortality and of attaining of the impossible. As Koons has recently said, “I think of them again as ultimate states of being, but this time it’s different. The New is about after being born, and then never being used, displaying integrity from that moment on. Equilibrium is before birth, it’s in the womb, it’s about what is prior to life and after death. It’s this ultimate state of the eternal that is reflected in this moment. I wanted everything to be truthful. But in the tanks there is water, so equilibrium cannot be maintained forever” (Jeff Koons, “Dialogues of Self Acceptance,” in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Basel, 2012, p. 18).
A variety of Equilibrium tanks formed the centerpiece of Koons’s exhibition at International with Monument. Koons’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank stood in the center of the main space—a clear and elegant symbol of this ultimate state. Other tanks with two and three fully immersed balls and one with two balls balancing exactly half-way in and out of the water were placed along the walls of the exhibition. The meaning of these tanks with their display of an impossible state of being was then juxtaposed in different ways by two other groups of works in the show. These comprised a series of life-saving devices—an inflatable life-boat, an aqualung and a snorkel—that were all cast in the traditional sculptural material of bronze and thereby rendered both useless and potentially deadly if used for their original function. The other group of works was a series of framed Nike advertising posters of famous basketball stars holding basketballs and presented in various positions of power and celebrity. These were intended to function in the show like the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey. “I tried to create a kind of a trinity with the show.” Koons said, “The tanks were an ultimate state of being—more biological than The New, which was alienated. The Nike posters were the Sirens—the great deceivers, saying Go for it! I have achieved it. You can achieve it too! And the bronzes, of course, were the tools for Equilibrium that would kill you if you used them. So the underlying theme, really, was that death is the fundamental state of being” (Jeff Koons quoted in Jeff Koons, Angelika Muthesius, Cologne 1992, p. 20).
Koons’s idea of equilibrium related not just to an existential theme of life and death, however, but also to the concept of socio-economics and American capitalism’s enduring promise of social mobility and the way in which the advertising industry manipulates and lies about this dream. The Nike posters aligning the walls of the Equilibrium exhibition acted as “Sirens that could take you under,” Koons has said. They were the “great deceivers, telling people ‘Come, come, you can achieve equilibrium.’ They were like weak middle-class artists today who say, ‘I’m an art star’ and puff themselves up, but actually are they really doing anything at all? Are they really achieving anything?” (Jeff Koons quoted in Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, op. cit, p. 117). At the time, Koons said that he “looked at the athletes in those posters as representing the artists of the moment, and the idea that we were using art for social mobility the way other ethnic groups have used sports. We were middle-class white kids using art to move up into another social class” (Jeff Koons quoted in Hans Hoplzwarth ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 142). These posters also helped therefore to “emphasize that these tanks were not just individual states of being, but that each functioned also in a social state of being. The basketball in that piece refers to its traditional role in lower class communities of being a vehicle for upward mobility” (Jeff Koons, “Interview with D. Robbins, Art of the Late 1980s,” reproduced at www.msu.edu/course/ha/452/ koonssteinbach).
As with The New, where the anthropomorphic nature of Koons’s vacuum cleaners had served as a metaphor for the human condition in a consumerist age, Koons’s Equilibrium exhibition also addressed the new socio-economic realities of Reagan-era America. “I was really trying to have a dialogue with philosophy—with Kierkegaard, with Sartre and existentialism. It’s about being human,” he explained. (Jeff Koons quoted in Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, op. cit., p. 116). The reason he “used a basketball over another object is really probably for the purity of it,” he said, “that it’s an inflatable, it relates to our human experience of to be alive we also have to breathe. If the ball would be deflated, it would be a symbol of death, but inflated, it’s a symbol of life” (Jeff Koons, 1985, quoted in an online audio transcript, Contemporary Galleries: 1980-Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011).
One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank is as much an image of hope and possibility from this exhibition about the potential to sink or swim in modern society as it is about a pre- or post-life condition of equilibrium. One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank had a major impact on the YBA generation of British artists when it was first exhibited in Britain at the Saatchi Gallery’s 1987 exhibition NY Art Now. A direct line between this work and Damien Hirst’s celebrated shark made in 1991, for instance, can easily be traced. Koons himself has evidently recognized the singular qualities of One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank too. In 2010, he chose it as the only one of his works to include in the exhibition he curated at the New Museum of Dakis Joannou’s collection entitled Skin Fruit. Here, at this show and as Michael Archer has written in his book written solely about this extraordinary work, Koons lent “further dimensions to the sense of its being originative, embryonic and, at the other end of the scale all-encompassing,” by placing it “immediately in front of the lift on the third floor, so that as the doors opened and visitors stepped into the gallery, the show before them was, as it were, viewable through its prism” (Michael Archer, Jeff Koons One Ball Equilibrium Tank, London, 2011, p. 91).
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One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series)
Jeff Koons (B. 1955)
London, Saatchi Gallery, NY Art Now, September 1987-January 1988, p. 132 and 237 (illustrated in color).
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeff Koons, July-August 1988, pp. 17, 39, 40, no. 9 (another example exhibited, illustrated and illustrated in color on the cover).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Denmark, Aarhus Kunstmuseum and Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Jeff Koons: Retrospective, November 1992-April 1993, pp. 18-19 and 98 (Amsterdam, incorrectly illustrated) and pp. 29 and 111 (Denmark, illustrated in color).
New York, Skarstedt Fine Art, Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, April-May 1996.
New York, C & M Arts, Jeff Koons: Highlights of 25 Years, April-June 2004, n.p., pl. 12 (illustrated in color).
Greenwich, Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Remembering Henry's Show, May 2009-January 2010, pp. 91 and 174 (illustrated in color).
New York, New Museum, Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection, March-June 2010, pp. 78-79 and 202 (another example exhibited and illustrated in color).
New York, Skarstedt Fine Art, 1980's Revisited, March-April 2013.
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s, September 2014-January 2015, pp. 93 and 198 (another example exhibited and illustrated in color).
M. A. Staniszewski, “Hot Commodities,” Manhattan, Inc., June 1986, p. 159 (another example illustrated in color).
A. Jones, “Jeff Koons,” Galleries Magazine, October 1986, pp. 94-97 (another example illustrated in color).
F. Owen, “Neo-Geo,” I.D., February 1987, pp. 90-91 (another example illustrated in color).
P. Taylor, “My Art Belongs to Dada,” Observer, 6 September 1987, pp. 36-41 (another example illustrated in color).
Collins and Milazzo, “Radical Consumption,” New Observations, 1 October 1987, pp. 2-23 (another example illustrated in color).
A. Schwartzman, “Corporate Culture,” Manhattan, Inc., 1 December 1987, pp. 137-141 (another example illustrated in color).
R. Smith, “Rituals of Consumption,” Art in America, vol. 76, no. 5, May 1988, p. 165 (another example illustrated in color).
D. Kuspit, “The Opera is Over: A Critique of Eighties Sensibility,” Artscribe, September/October 1988, pp. 44-49 (another example illustrated in color).
R. Lacayo, “Artist Jeff Koons Makes, and Earns, Giant Figures,” People Weekly, New York, 8 May 1989, pp. 127-132 (another example illustrated in color).
D. Kazanjian, “Koons Crazy,” Vogue, August 1990, pp. 338-343 (another example illustrated in color).
J. Koons and R. Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 154.
A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, pp. 52-53 (another example illustrated).
T. Crow, “Marx to Sharks,” Artforum, April 2003, p. 48 (another example illustrated in color).
D. V. Agostinis, “Jeff Koons,” Arte Magazine, November/December 2004, no. 5, pp. 64-72 (another example illustrated in color and on the cover).
C. Long, “Loony Koons,” Tatler, vol. 3, no. 5, May 2007, pp. 11, 116-122.
H.W. Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2008, pp. 144, 146 and 585 (another example illustrated in color).
M. Sollins, ed., Art:21 - Art in the Twenty-First Century 5, Dalton, 2009, p. 90 (another example illustrated in color).
S. Sutcliffe, The Art of The Vintage, London, 2009, p. 331 (another example illustrated in color).
M. Archer, Jeff Koons: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, London, 2011, pp. 15, 18-19 (another example illustrated in color and on the front cover).
K. Johnson, Are You Experienced?: How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 194 (another example illustrated in color).
E. Booth-Clibborn, ed., The History of the Saatchi Gallery, London, 2011, p. 150 (illustrated in color).
L. Blissett, “Sept moments-clefs dans une vie d’artiste,” Beaux Arts editions, December 2014, pp. 8-9.
International With Monument Gallery, New York
Saatchi Collection, London
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner