‘One of the most influential works in the history of contemporary art’

Jeff Koons and curator Jeffrey Deitch discuss One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, an ‘instantly iconic’ work that broke all the rules of its time — offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s New York

Defying the rules of gravity, a lone basketball hovers at the absolute centre of a tank filled with water. It is a work that mesmerises its audience and holds them enthralled through a combination of the ordinary, the familiar and the seemingly impossible.

Metaphysical and mystical implications abound, as the image brings to mind the orange orb of the sun hanging low in the sky, or an embryo in the womb. ‘There’s a mystery, a magic to the work,’ the curator Jeffrey Deitch says of Jeff Koons’ One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series), executed in 1985. Simultaneously, the familiar object — a spherical embodiment of many childhood memories — asserts its sheer ordinariness; it is, in fact, a simple ball floating in a tank.

Jeff Koons (b. 1955), One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series), 1985. Glass, steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water and basketball. 64 3/4 x 32 3/4 x 15 1/2 in. (164.6 x 83.1 x 39.3 cm.) This work is number one from an edition of two. Estimate: Upon request. This work is offered in Bound to Fail on 8 May at Christie’s New York

It was in 1983 that Jeff 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 hovering perpetually in an ‘ultimate’ state of equilibrium at its centre.

Envisaging such a work was one thing; however, realising it was another. With the guidance of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman, Koons was able to attain a state of equilibrium for several months, although the ‘permanent equilibrium’ he originally envisaged remained beyond reach.

Created in 1985, at a time when the contemporary art world was dominated by the wild and emotive splashes of Neo-Expressionist painting and the raw energy of graffiti art, this deceptively simple, readymade-like 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 epitomised an entirely new direction in art — one that directly acknowledged and addressed the socio-economic realities of 1980s, late-capitalist consumer culture.

‘Basketball was a means for people to rise up to a different level in society,’ Koons says, referring to the role that the sport took on in lower-class communities. By using this ‘symbol of optimism’, Koons references socio-economics, American capitalism’s enduring promise of social mobility and the power of the advertising industry that manipulates this dream, exemplified in the popular Nike posters of the 1980s.

One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank also encapsulates one of Koons’s recurring subjects as an artist. ‘Jeff is an astute student of sociology,’ Deitch explains. ‘A number of his bodies of work study levels of aspiration.’ Koons says his work is also ‘about enjoying life, enjoying the possibilities we have to reach our potential.’

Groundbreaking for its time, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank is ultimately a work of timeless and universal appeal — a work that embodies the spirit of human aspiration, ‘creation itself’ and everything in between.


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