This is one of a series of tanks Koons made in 1985 for his first solo exhibition, entitled Equilibrium, at the New York gallery, International With Monuments. The tanks, glass vitrines supported on black steel stands, were made in three sizes, holding one, two or three professional basketballs. The Total Equilibrium Tanks are completely filled with distilled water and a small amount of sodium chloride reagent, to assist the hollow balls in remaining suspended in the centre of the liquid. In a second version, the 50/50 Tanks, only half the tank is filled with distilled water, with the result that the balls float half in and half out of the water. A group of objects cast in bronze, including a lifeboat and an aqualung (see Vest with Aqualung, Tate L02184), were exhibited at the same time. To complement the tanks, Koons framed a series of advertising posters created by the sportswear company Nike and hung them on the walls. These depict American basketball heroes wearing Nike trainers and other sportswear, holding and surrounded by basketballs. For Koons,
the tanks were an ultimate state of being ... 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 were the tools for Equilibrium that would kill you if you used them. So the underlying theme, really, was that death is the ultimate state of being. What was paralleling this message was that white middle-class kids have been using art the same way that other ethnic groups have been using basketball – for social mobility. You could take one of those basketball stars, Dr. Dunkelstein, or the Secretary of Defense, and one could have been me, or Baselitz, or whoever.
(Quoted in Muthesius, p.19.)
Koons began using ready-made household objects in an earlier group of works, entitled The New. This consists of a series of vacuum-cleaners, often selected for brand names which appealed to the artist, such as ‘The New Shelton Wet/Dry’, which he had mounted in Perspex boxes. Their names are part of the titles, as in Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off), in which the names of types of Spalding brand basketballs are referred to. The artist consulted several physicists before he found the solution for the correct equilibrium in his tanks. Although he had wanted the balls to be in permanent equilibrium in the water, he discovered that this was not possible without immiscible additives. He commented: ‘I wanted to keep it a very womb-like situation with water. I like the purity of water. So I arrived at an equilibrium which is not permanent but very pure.’ (Quoted in Muthesius, p.18.) Over a period of six months the balls gradually sink to the bottom of the tank and have to be reset. Because of this, they may be seen as representing transience, human frailty and vulnerability to change in fortune.
In order to finance his art-making independently of the art market, for several years during the early 80s Koons worked as a commodities broker on Wall Street. The Equilibrium works were all funded in this way. Koons’ awareness of the commodity-nature of the art object and the market forces which set a value to an artwork may be seen as underpinning this body of work. Enclosed in the watery vitrines, the basketballs become idealised objects which may refer to nostalgia or ambition – either way they are unattainable. The artist’s framing of the common object within a vitrine, suggestive of preservation, developed the tradition of the Duchampian ready-made to a further level. This was to herald his subsequent bodies of work in which cast kitsch objects were cast in steel or remade in porcelain, and thus elevated beyond the banal to become objects of aesthetic and commercial value.
The three ball equilibrium tanks were made in two versions, the versions being differentiated by the make of basketball. The edition size of each version was two. There are three further three-ball tanks in existence.
Angelika Muthesius ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992, pp.8-9, 18-19, 52-65 and 165, reproduced p.59 in colour
Jeff Koons, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 1992, pp.20-1 and 51-63
The Jeff Koons Handbook, London 1992, pp.19 and 53-61