|Have you ever shot a commercial?I shot a print ad for Calvin Klein and for Prada. Sounds like that mimicked art rather than using advertising as a form.
It’s not the same vocabulary. I’ve never been hired by Coca Cola, where you use everything you understand about sociology and images for the benefit of Coca Cola.
How did you turn the 1986 stainless steel sculpture “Rabbit” into an icon that defies association?
Rabbit comes from a series called Statuary. Rabbit was art as fantasy. I was referencing indoor/outdoor sculpture; where I grew up in Pennsylvania, there were a lot of glass mercury bowls in people’s yards. The rabbit has tension and sexuality. I was going back and forth whether to make an inflatable rabbit or pig, and the rabbit won. My next body of work after Statuary was Banality.
Why the pig?
It’s an animal that’s looked down upon. The vocabulary of the Banality show was about accepting one’s cultural history. There’s a self-debasement using the pig. I’m trying to make works that people embrace for who they are – then they can start on a more objective path.
In a lot of your work, there’s a strange familiarity, like a lost relative who shows up and who’s actually not part of the family.
I want people to feel comfortable around the images. When they look at art, it’s very brief. I want to contribute to a communal life.
How did your early training as a broker help you in the art world?
Jeff Koons, Hair with Cheese, from the series ” Easyfun-Ethereal”, 2000
Deutsche Bank Collcetion, ©Jeff Koons
Long before I was a broker, when I was a child, I went door to door with my parents selling candy, gift-wrapping paper, and other products. My parents drove me around and parked the car in different communities and then picked me up. This taught me self-reliance and a sense of difference and acceptance. I never knew who would open the door or the quality of the living room.How old were you?Eight. I wanted to sell the product, but it was a way of meeting their needs.
If they didn’t believe you, they wouldn’t buy a thing. It was also the end of the door-to-door salesman.
How does amusement function in your work? I’m thinking about the 2000 painting “Bluepoles” that has been shown at the Deutsche Guggenheim. It depicts a state fair where happy, but distorted characters are on a roller coaster.
I just took my children to a state fair in Pennsylvania this weekend and they saw pig races and jelly bean contests… In Blue Poles, I thought of Jackson Pollock. That painting has a darker side.
Your work rides between pain and pleasure.
As in Caterpillar Chains . Caterpillar Ladder is in the back room. You don’t know if it’s a piece of furniture for the bedroom.
Or a swing set.
It’s predatory, but fun.
It’s more feminine, the ladder is like the Nude Descending the Staircase and the one with chains could just lay a million eggs.
You’ve said: “I love the gallery. It’s a commercial world, and morality is based generally around economics, and that’s taking place in the art gallery.” Morality and economics are completely tied together. As far as economics are concerned, morality is played out in our responsibility to each other.
Without morality, economics wouldn’t have an incentive. Economics work if I agree to your terms. I think about you going door to door, selling things – it wouldn’t work if they didn’t care enough to open the door. But Dali opened the door for you. When you met him at his hotel, what did he have to say?
When I was taking his photographs, he would say: “Hurry up kid, I can’t hold this position all day.” But he kept holding the position and waxed his moustache. I’ve always liked Dali. As a child, we had a coffee table book. My mother read that Salvador would stay at the St. Regis Hotel in New York every winter. I called him when I started art school in Baltimore. I came on a train and met him in the lobby.
| He had a big fur coat, a cane, and diamond pins. He invited me to his exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery. He posed for photographs. His generosity was fantastic, I was some young artist and Dali was someone I cared about a lot. I remembered thinking I can have my life based around art and give all my attention to this. I’ve always tried to be generous if somebody contacts me.In the 1985 “ Luxury and Degradation” exhibition at International With Monument, you said the “sculptures represented a range of economic levels.” Why has “degradation” both in its physical and social sense been important to your work? The first image for the Luxury and Degradation show was the Jim Bean – J.B. Turner Train, and it was a porcelain and plastic train made of liquor decanters and it sat on tracks. I transformed it into a fake luxury. I had no desire to use silver or platinum. Stainless steel is a proletarian material that keeps us alive, like pots and pans. That was the first time I worked with an everyday material. It was the only thing that would keep the alcohol; it’s what’s used in distilleries. It gave me a luxurious surface. Abstraction used in advertising depends on the economic income levels of target audiences. The lower the target level, the less visual abstraction is used. The higher the income level, the higher the abstraction, because they don’t want to debase you. They want to get as much economic and political power out of each individual as possible. Luxury is something they want people to strive after, and that’s what that work was about. I was telling people to embrace abstraction and luxury and be free of it.
- First Look: Jeff Koons Retrospective at Fondation Beyeler
- Posted 21 months ago by staff · Art & Design · 4745 Views
- Below is a close up look at some of the artworks included in the new Jeff Koons retrospective at Swiss art institute Fondation Beyeler. The exhibition is the first dedicated Koons exhibition in the country and focuses on three main collections of his – “The New”, “Banality” and “Celebration” – each of which have been formed over the course of the artist’s career, which began in the 80s. By doing this, the Fondation Beyeler give viewers a nice overview of the contrasting materials and aesthetics Koons has utilised over the years.If you’re in the area, the retrospective will be running through to 2 September, 2012.
CH-4125 Riehen / Basel
June 27, 2013
Pop Bottles: Jeff Koons Teams With Dom Pérignon
The first thing visitors this spring to the Gagosian Gallery, which is hosting one of the two Jeff Koons exhibitions currently on view in New York, have seen upon passing the front desk is the artist’s eight-plus-foot high chromium stainless steel riff on the “Venus of Willendorf.” Produced in the style of his “balloon” sculptures, the piece is a tribute to the 25,000-year-old fertility totem considered to be one of the earliest known depictions of the human form.
On Wednesday, Koons was in a private back room at the blue chip Chelsea gallery wearing a skinny-lapel Dior Homme suit and his perma-becalmed visage. A two-foot tall polyurethane resin version of his “Balloon Venus” lay in repose on the table beside the 58-year-old artist. A bottle of Dom Pérignon Rosé Vintage 2003 lay inside the sculpture’s bulbous belly to form an extravagant nesting doll.
“I don’t do very many product associations,” Koons said. “But you know Dom Pérignon is a fantastic brand, a wonderful Champagne. Champagne is used on many occasions for celebrating.”
It was early afternoon on a day of promotional duties pegged to the collaboration. Koons had come in that morning from his family getaway in York, Pa. Even during his final interview on the subject, he displayed the much-noted, soft-spoken and altogether earnest bearing that has made him American art’s greatest, or at least most financially successful, living cipher.
“The ‘Balloon Venus’ here in the gallery,” he said, referring to the oversize original, “even to manufacture, it’s a couple of million euros.
“So you have your Dom Pérignon, which has its own expenses in production, but this is just something more accessible to people,” Koons went on. “And even though it is still a luxury, there is greater accessibility and at the same time it’s a product that’s able to be made and to the highest standards.”
Accessible is a relative term. The Champagne and sculpture package, limited to an edition of a few hundred, will sell at retail for about $20,000. It is a staggering price tag to be sure, and one that slingshots past prior Dom Pérignon artist collaborations that have include Andy Warhol and David Lynch. (The winery will also offer two, presumably less costly, Koons gift boxes.) But in Koons’ superstrata of the art market, a place populated largely by billionaires and those well on their way there, it qualifies as a value play. (Christie’s sold one of Koons’ “Tulips” sculptures to Steve Wynn for $33.7 million last year.) It was easy to envision, as one of the half-dozen p.r. reps on hand suggested, the statuette displayed proudly in offices in certain aspirational banking circles come the holidays.
As for what the prospective Masters of the Universe will be imbibing, Dom Pérignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy seated in separate private Gagosian chamber, described the offering with an expressiveness nearly opposite Koons’.
“To be honest, this particular vintage, specific vintage rosé 2003, will remain historic. It sounds very solemn, but I’m telling you it’s that important,” he said. “It’s about as bold, as provocative…as full bodied, intense, sensuous as can be.”
Geoffroy said that the label first approached Koons with the idea two years ago, and gave the artist free rein on the end design of the package. Given the decade lead-time of the Champagne, it appears to be a happy accident for all involved the vintage will come to market in the midst of a Koons bonanza in New York. In addition to the Gagosian show closing next week, another display of new work will wrap Saturday at David Zwirner Gallery. Next year, The Whitney Museum of American Art will close out its current Upper East Side location with a massive retrospective for the artist. There will be need for spirits to toast.
“If I’m going to celebrate something then [I] have Champagne,” Koons said. “Most often we have Dom Pérignon, but I have a total of eight children and I have six young ones at home so I’m always on call, so it’s a little less frequent than it used to be.”
Just a few months ago, the art world watched in shock and awe as Damien Hirst skipped his gallery to hold a mammoth auction of his own work in one of the ballsiest and most successful displays of showmanship since Jeff Koons made life-size porcelain works of himself going at it with his then-wife Ilona Staller, a.k.a. La Cicciolina, back in 1989. Nearly 20 years later, long after that marriage went south and Staller fled the United States with their son Ludwig, Koons has moved on to a new plane entirely. A rare show of his “Celebration” sculptures opened in October in Berlin; one of his enormous “Balloon Flower” sculptures is the first piece of public art at Ground Zero; and his immense 161-foot-tall train-from-a-crane is on track, so to speak, to be built at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Most fascinating of all, this all-American artist enthralled (and roiled) la France this past fall when his first European retrospective went on display at none other than the Palace of Versailles, making him the first contemporary artist to be given such royal treatment. Sitting down in his amazingly colorful candy factory in West Chelsea, New York, Koons talks about how he hates the word kitsch, finds irony useless, and loves the films Bambi (1942) and Goldfinger (1964). And while the boy from the Rust Belt is as American as a Hershey’s Kiss, it turns out he has more in common with Louis XIV than with Henry Ford.
DAVID COLMAN: How did the Versailles show come about? Was it generated by you?
JEFF KOONS: No. Several years ago, a friend of mine, Jérôme de Noirmont, who’s a gallerist in Paris, said, “Wouldn’t it be great to make an exhibition at Versailles?” And I said, “That would be great.” Because when I made works like Puppy or Split-Rocker, those large floral sculptures, I always thought that they were the types of works where Louis XIV would wake up in the morning, look out his window, and fantasize about making something like that-you know, he’d want to come home that evening, and there it would be. So it turned out to be a treat to have that take place. We talked about it for years, but actually when Jean-Jacques Aillagon, who was the minister of culture and communication in France, became president of the Château de Versailles Museum, there was discussion about incorporating contemporary art into Versailles during the year. And so Jean-Jacques said, “Let’s invite Jeff.” But there’s been this underlying idea for the last couple of years among some friends in France that it would be great to show my work in Versailles.
DC: In some ways it seems so perfect for Versailles, and in some ways it seems so completely wrong. You know I say that with love. But it has this great monumentality and reflection and this over-the-top ornamentation that is so perfect for the environment, and yet at the same time it’s so American. Obviously these adjectives are open to discussion . . .
JK: I think that it worked kind of perfectly. I’m interested in sensuality. I’m interested in power. I’m interested in the kind of polarities and equilibriums that take place within sexuality and philosophy and sociology. So in Versailles, in this type of setting, you have a place that is about absolute control, where everything has been thought about.
DC: Which is very Koonsian, I must say.
JK: Well, certain aspects of it-I like to pay a lot of attention to things. There’s another aspect that then comes along, which recognizes that even when you exist with all of this control, there are certain areas where you do, in the end, have to give it up.
DC: I don’t believe you ever give up control.
JK: Well, in these sculptures, like Puppy or Split-Rocker, there is a point where you do. Whenever you finish an artwork and the viewer comes and views it, at that moment you’ve given up control.
DC: So what was the reaction? I heard there were some French people who thought, Oh, this American person shouldn’t be showing at Versailles, blah blah blah. They go off on that tangent pretty quickly.
JK: I heard about these things and didn’t get so involved in that dialogue other than to let people know that I just wanted to make something very positive at Versailles. But walking through the exhibition after it was installed, I noticed that some of the guards would be walking around huffing and puffing, you know, “How can this be here?” They were upset by it. But actually people say that in France it’s really having quite an impact. They’re getting very large crowds coming and that it’s somehow hit a nerve within French culture where they can have a dialogue about contemporary art and historical works and the decorative arts of the past.
I’m interested in sensuality. I’m interested in power. So in Versailles, in this type of setting, you have a place that is about absolute control, where everything has been thought about.—Jeff Koons
DC: Walking around your studio, the kind of creative genius that comes to mind isn’t Louis Quatorze but Willy Wonka. Do you remember that movie [Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, 1971]?
JK: You know, I did see Willy Wonka a couple of times, but it was never my favorite film.
DC: What was?
JK: It depends how young I was. I always liked Disney films. To this day I think Bambi is great. But Willy Wonka was one that I never liked so much.
DC: What didn’t you like about it? I mean, there’s just so much-especially the chocolate room. Just walking around there, it’s an incredible dream machine. All these various stages and rooms and people and things going on . . . It’s amazing.
JK: I don’t know, I guess there was some aspect of the movie that I didn’t connect to completely. I don’t know if I found it scary . . . I do like films that connect, that are positive . . . and I don’t really eat a lot of chocolate myself.
DC: It’s not necessarily a feel-good film.
JK: No. When I got a little older, I remember seeing my first Bond film with my father, and I enjoyed that. It was good, Goldfinger.
DC: Oh yeah, of course.
JK: I show that film to my kids today, and they talk about Goldfinger getting sucked out of the plane.
DC: Oh, right, right. What’s the crazy one, where somebody’s forced to swallow one of the exploding air pellets and he becomes inflatable?
JK: I didn’t see it. But that’s good. Appropriate.
DC: You love inflatable objects, that’s for sure. Do you still shop a lot for toys?
JK: No. When I was younger I used to. I would shop on 14th Street in New York and I’d be looking for a lot of visual information that was product-oriented. But over the years I became more involved in connecting to things that are archetypal and profound, things that connect you with human history. I spend much more time looking at art history and at different references to art than I do at actual objects.
DC: Let me ask you about the train-hanging-from-a-crane thingamajig planned for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. How’s that going?
JK: The train, the sculpture, a public piece, will be created for outside LACMA-for what they call the campus there. We finished our phase one and phase two engineering, which means we’re ready to build. All the designs for how to make something like that actually function and be able to be maintained and workable are finished, so it will hopefully be built in about three years. We’re very optimistic.
DC: It would be good to have something like that in the L.A. skyline because there’s nothing there.
JK: What I like about the piece is that it functions like a kind of European town center to rally people around. I think philosophically it brings people into contact with their own sense of mortality. It’s very visceral-a kind of sensual, sexualized performance that takes place with this powerful steam engine starting up and running and building momentum.
DC: So the wheels will turn?
JK: Well, everything that a real train does this train will do-but it’s hanging, you know, facing straight down to the ground. It’ll start heating up and steam will leak from one valve and then you’ll hear, like, a ca-chunk and it’ll go into a gear. And then when finally it gets close to performance time you’ll hear a ding, ding, ding, and all the patterns of a bell ringing that a real train would do before pulling out of a station. Then the wheels will slowly start turning, building a moment like an orgasmic plateau, woo, woo, woo-the same curve, acceleration, every second going faster than the moment before until it’s at full speed going 80 miles an hour, then it will decline until the last drippage of smoke comes out.
DC: Right. And then it asks for a cigarette?
JK: Yeah, well . . .
DC: It’s tempting to look at it as commentary on car culture, in the way that public transportation has been sidelined for the last 60 years in Los Angeles.
JK: I wasn’t really thinking about that, but . . . there are other powers that have replaced steam, but still it’s a magnificent machine. Very, very powerful.
DC: It’s also more dangerous and less playful than other things of yours. I know there’s a lot of playfulness associated with it, but there’s a visceral kind of dread to it, too-if you’re standing underneath it, for example. What is it being suspended from?
JK: A crane.
DC: No, I know, but like some sort of cable?
JK: Yeah. It’s suspended from cables, and it has the counterbalance, the weights. All these things are really very engineered. But there is that sense of awe and wonderment.
DC: I was just talking about you with a friend, about how you and Richard Serra seem on opposite ends of the spectrum sometimes, but you’re both kind of in that steelworkers union now.
JK: Well, I thought about Richard when I came up with the idea for the piece, especially looking at the balance in the back and how much weight we would need to have there. It seems like a nice dialogue with Richard’s work, considering mass and weight.
DC: I’m constantly having this discussion with people about your work because they always assume that you think it’s funny. People think your work is tongue-in-cheek and I’m always trying to explain to them that you don’t feel that way about it. Do you feel a constant battle to explain this to people?
JK: Sometimes I see irony in the pieces, but it’s not the intention. I’ve always loved surrealism and Dada and Pop, so I just follow my interests and focus on them. When you do that, things become very metaphysical. People have different definitions of irony. I always think of irony as basically something that’s kind of surprising, where you can maybe see an unforeseen connection to something.
DC: If you say you like something ironically, is it that you really like it ironically? Or do you like it and not want to admit it? Or do you not like it and not want to admit it?
JK: I agree that people have different ideas, emotional ideas, of what certain words mean, and they think of irony as something that’s more associated with being cynical-it’s kind of a put-down. I really believe that the end of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st century, where we are today, is about acceptance, and not about judgment. I don’t think irony is about judgment; I think irony is something like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” because it’s not something I think one starts off to achieve. I think it’s just something that presents itself. And if it does, I find it’s usually optimistic, not negative in its terms.
DC: People would be very at home grouping you with Richard Prince, for example.
JK: Well, Richard and I have known each other for years-I respect Richard’s work, and Richard himself, a lot. Richard’s work has developed more from the position of appropriation, and so appropriation has a little darker side to it, because it’s more about theft, where my work’s more associated to the ready-made, where it’s something that preexists.
DC: You’ve both been sued for copyright stuff.
JK: Oh, yeah. We come from a very similar tradition of working with things in the external world. We’ve known each other since the ’70s. But I would say that Richard’s work has always had a certain emotional feel to it and mine has always had its own certain emotional feel to it, but we’re both engaged in this dialogue about the external world.
It’s wonderful to make a lot of money, to be able to take care of my family, to have the facilities I have…but at the end of the day I’m quite simple as an artist-It’s really about the power of art.—Jeff Koons
DC: How do you define kitsch?
JK: I don’t feel close to it. I think that kitsch is a judgment and it’s using language-using the ability to classify something and to make things kind of unworthy of a certain level.
DC: I was surprised actually to see you described in ARTnews as the king of kitsch.
JK: That’s a misunderstanding. Sometimes the messenger gets confused with the message.
DC: You are finally showing the “Celebration” works in Berlin together?
JK: It’s an exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Mies van der Rohe building, with 11 “Celebration” sculptures.
DC: I always preferred the word celebration over acceptance, because it’s never enough to just accept something-to me it implies defeat. Whereas celebrating something really, in some perverse way, puts more of the power in your hands. Like you’re taking something slightly deflated and pumping it full of air and putting it back on a pedestal.
JK: “Celebration” involved my son Ludwig back in the early ’90s and the situation of him being taken away, and I used my art to hang on to my belief in humanity in a way. Because we had a sense of a lot of injustice during that time.
DC: Do you see your son at all?
JK: I can’t really see Ludwig, but I’m sure someday I will. I do have four really wonderful boys at home right now. And I have a wonderful daughter, Shannon. I’m sure at some point my situation with Ludwig will turn around.
DC: Do you collect art?
JK: I collect a wide range of things: old masters; I love French 19th-century work; I have some antiquities. But it’s an ongoing process. I have some contemporary works-I have a great Picasso-The Kiss. It’s a really fantastic painting.
DC: I can see that it’s very Koonsian, but what do you like about it?
JK: How profound it is. You look at it and see that Picasso is thinking about Titian, and at the same time there’s this sense of sexual conquest through thinking about Titian, and in a certain way there’s this sense of movement almost to Alexander the Great. But then it also makes reference to Donatello’s Madonna and Child.
DC: What about the art market? I mean, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith recently wrote something interesting, saying that Damien Hirst uses the art market the way you use popular culture. Do you feel engaged with the way that people invest meaning in art the same way they invest money in it? You’re an astute businessman but then sort of famously not, as well. [laughs]
JK: You know, I don’t like being naïve about the market, and I always try to make things as great as I can. Then I hope that there’s an audience that enjoys them, and that hopefully those things get protected. It’s wonderful to make a lot of money, to be able to take care of my family, to have the facilities I have and really support the people the studio’s involved with. But at the end of the day I’m quite simple as an artist-it’s really about the power of art.
DC: To what extent has having kids amplified or affected this feeling?
JK: Even before I had children I wanted the intensity of my life to get greater. I wanted to feel things more strongly. I wanted my intellectual parameters to expand. But it comes back to your own desire to be engaged and to live up to your parameters.
DC: Okay. So what is it about an inflatable pool toy that you love so much?
JK: That even though it’s printed on its side that it is not a life-saving device, actually it is. I do see it as life-saving. Do you think we’re almost done?
DC: Almost. I want to ask about impressionism.
JK: I love Manet.
DC: You do? What do you love about him?
JK: I love how he doesn’t have anger. He’s very ambitious and political, but you really don’t get a sense of anger. And there’s a sense of human warmth in Manet’s work. It’s very, very direct.
DC: But there’s a sense in Manet of the celebration of the female body, which is something you have a good appreciation of yourself.
JK: I believe in sensuality. I believe in sex. I believe in the survival of the species. I like aspects of things that are ethereal, but I like the reality of nature and embracing the way nature works, and aspects of interrelationships between male-female, aspects of the body, the way the body has changed over thousands of years . . . most of the morning I was looking at the Venus of Willendorf.
JK: This is a swan. [Koons holds up a small balloon-swan form] This swan is very totemic, very phallic. But if you look at the side view of the swan, it’s all a very sexual harmony and then the inside’s totally feminine and vaginal-and so it functions. Beauty is really sexualized. For me it was an epiphany, looking at this on the computer, two-dimensionally. I enjoy things that have a lot of layers to them and are connected. Anything that is connecting and that has a lot of different layers I become curious then . . .
DC: It’s funny because a lot of people would look at your work and think there aren’t layers.
JK: Did we speak enough about Versailles?
DC: Do you have anything else to say about Louis XIV?
JK: I was intrigued about its being a place where everything has been thought about aesthetically. Louis XIV and Louis XV, XVI, Marie-Antoinette-they lived in a world that was so fantastic. They could go to bed and their gardens would be blue. And all night long the gardeners would pick up these flower pots and put in new flowers. And they would wake up and the whole garden would be red. An amazing fantasy.
DC: Not a bad way to live. What do you live like?
JK: [laughs] I really live for my work here at the studio, so I’m not very extravagant in consumption or anything like that. I love to collect art so my extravagance is to try to collect beautiful things. But you know, I live on the Upper East Side and I have my studio down here on the West Side. And we have our weekend place in Pennsylvania because we wanted our children to be able to have an experience that’s different than just the New York Upper East Side experience. So I’m really not a person who consumes a lot. I don’t have a sports car
Jeff Koons Is the Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol. So What’s the Art World Got Against Him?
Honk Honk Honk! Honk!
Jeff Koons’s 5-year-old son, Eric, is blowing a yellow plastic toy horn in his face, and the preternaturally unruffled artist is, for a human second, irritated.
“Stop,” says Koons. “No blowing the horn.”
“It’s mine,” Eric says.
“It’s not yours,” Koons says. “It’s Dad’s.” Then he deftly takes it from Eric, handing it off to one of the children’s caretakers.
We are standing in the middle of Koons’s quarter-city-block West Chelsea studio complex with the six children he has with his wife, Justine, who worked here before she married him; their nannies; and his extremely nice assistants, who exude an almost midwestern courteousness.
I’m in the capital of the Koons empire, an earnest and well-capitalized toy-chest kingdom quite sheltered-seeming from the raucous galleryland that ends a few blocks south. The place is an industrial procession of hushed rooms, staffed by close to 130 mostly young people. Koons’s artwork is intensely labored, in order to look like no human hand was ever actually involved. There are guys at computers with 3-D-imaging programs, in front of a foam mock-up of a ballerina statue he plans on having carved in stone with lasers to get the delicate filigree of the tutu just so. There’s a tall fluorescent-lit painting hall with rolling wooden scaffolding, so Koons’s painters can reach the top of the paint-by-numbers canvases. There’s a room that looks like a robot infirmary from the far-off future where various parts of bronze-cast Hulk sculptures are being carefully attended to; there’s a storage room with containers marked for old inflatable toys that are Koons’s most well-known muses; and there’s a room behind an air-lock door in which people are dressed in protective suits like on Breaking Bad.
It is a large operation, and everyone makes way for Koons. The 58-year-old artist is polite, proprietary, aware of every tiny detail around him, his eye on a meticulous hunt for deviations from his vision. As he surveys the labor, he drinks from his Led Zeppelin coffee mug (he’s a huge fan) and tells me his other primary mug has a picture of the chubby totemic Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000-year-old carved figure found in present-day Austria, a longtime fascination of his and also the subject of an elaborate stainless-steel sculpture he’ll be showing this week in New York. “I believe that art has been a vehicle for me that’s been about enlightenment and expanding my own parameters, to give me courage to exercise the freedom that I have in life,” he tells me. “Every day I wake up and I really try to pinch myself to take advantage of today and to use that freedom of gesture to do what I really like to do.”
Three decades into a choppy but astonishingly high-profile career, Koons remains something of a boy wonder—a trim, soft-spoken, systematic, and tightly scheduled puppet master who speaks in a reassuring near singsong, his language all patient, bright-eyed affirmation, as if reciting from a well-worn, well-worked-out self-help text (“Removing judgments lets you feel, of course, freer, and you have acceptance of things, and everything’s in play, and it lets you go further”). He is unflappably kind, almost daydreamy, and speaks so unlike most artists, with their anxiously self-justifying obfuscatory academic jargon, that you wonder, as everyone always has, if you are encountering a sort of put-on—a Method performance of childlike mystic wonderment. (“I always have thought that kind of walking out of Plato’s cave is really the removal of anxiety and the removal of all judgments,” he says). “What he says about his work—it is an extension of his work,” says his friend and onetime dealer, Jeffrey Deitch, now the director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “For Jeff, the work does not stop with the object. It’s a whole vision of the world and a whole vision of art and life which is Jeff Koons.”
The effect is a bit frustrating but also soothing. You remember his voice more than what he says, and his pastor-and-naïf affect suffuses the entire vast, white-walled studio complex, which seems as happy and purposeful as any Internet startup. Office hours start at a Bushwick-unfriendly 8 a.m., and in these last weeks of preparation before his first New York gallery show in a decade, the painting studio is running in three calm shifts.
The work being done is actually not for one show but two, at probably the city’s most powerful galleries: Gagosian, which has represented Koons since 2001, after production costs derailed his partnership with Deitch (one person who knows him says, “His perfectionism basically bankrupts everyone who works with him”), and gallerist David Zwirner, the ambitious and prosperous younger rival to Larry Gagosian, who instigated an art-world gossip kerfuffle when he announced in the fall that Koons was doing a show with him. Both shows open this week, but what one curator a few months ago called an art-world “battle royale”—the two megadealers competing over the work of a super-profitable artist—has settled into something else, and just maybe what Koons wanted all along: the beginning of a Year of Koons, culminating in summer 2014’s full-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum—its last exhibition in its Madison Avenue headquarters before moving to the bottom of the High Line. At the park’s other end, Koons is hoping to suspend a full-size replica locomotive from a crane, nose down.
Koons is, by the measure of sales of new work, which is the money-mad art world’s only objective measure, the most successful living American artist, but he has never before had a museum retrospective in New York, his home base for 36 years. And it’s clear that, for him, one is not enough. “Even though the Whitney has given me the Breuer building, there still isn’t that much space,” he says, explaining why he’s staging these two simultaneous shows after such a long hiatus. “There’s a lot of work that unless people see it now, they may not see it then.”
The gallery shows will both be opening during Frieze week, when the bespoke London-bred art fair descends on New York and makes the city not just the center of the global art world but its entire circumference. And it says something of Koons’s celebrity and symbolism that artist Paul McCarthy is going to be displaying a huge joke about Koons there: his own 80-foot-tall inflatable balloon dog.
Koons has made his name manufacturing toys for rich old boys—exacting pagan monuments to mass-culture triviality, like his stainless-steel balloon animals or vibrantly colored metallic Popeye, which he calls a self-portrait—and along with Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, he is one of a small group of power-Pop impresarios who helped define the aughts as an era of large-scale spectacle. And displayed wealth. (His collectors include Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou, Steven Cohen, and the royal family of Qatar.) A brand-new work by Koons, like the human-size bronze Hulk sculptures he’s been producing of late, is said to run between $4 million to $6 million and is usually pre-bought by his collectors. (The last decades’ bull market in art means Koons is operating in a very different price climate than Warhol, Rothko, or Pollock ever did.) Older work, at auction, goes for even more; a few years back, Adam Lindemann sold his Hanging Heart—a stainless-steel sculpture based on something Koons saw in a shopwindow display and supersized—for $23.6 million at Sotheby’s reportedly without ever even unwrapping it and taking it home. (Gagosian bought it, probably for a client.) Last fall, a Tulips sculpture was sold (to casino magnate Steve Wynn) at Christie’s for $33.7 million. The circle of collectors and dealers is so small and so awash in cash that the process can seem to an outsider a bit like a rigged game, in which a bad deal can be considerably more valuable than a good one. If you buy a giant balloon toy for $30 million, you may have spent a few million more than you had to or even expected to; but you’ve set the value of that work and also elevated the value of all of the balloon toys in your collection. Which is especially good, since there aren’t very many people who can afford to spend $30 million on a giant balloon toy, and those who can tend to take pleasure in cornering a market.
Much has always been made of the fact that Koons is in league with the plutocrats and once worked on Wall Street, selling commodities. But he’s always been quick to refuse the art world’s carefully patrolled shibboleths—that work has personal meaning, that it must contain some social criticism, that it express ambivalence about the art market. Koons does not make ambivalent work, which is his way of giving people what they actually enjoy: a lavishly elevated version of mass-cultural charisma. Koons has long aspired to the ubiquitous pop stature of Michael Jackson, whom he once paid weird (and famous) tribute to with a large porcelain sculpture of the singer and his admiring pet chimp, Bubbles. But a closer model might be Andy Warhol, who was similarly circumspect in his talk about the importance of just liking things without judgment, though he smuggled enough camp sensibility into his work to make it seem slyly subversive. There is nothing subversive in the way Koons works or the way he talks. “Self-acceptance and acceptance of others” is one of many koanlike out-of-the-blue affirmations he recites to me. “Acceptance of everything.” As Zwirner tells me: “He says if you’re critical, you’re already out of the game. ” Deitch strikes a sweeter note: “I think Jeffrey’s love of children and family—that connects to his effort to retain that childlike inspiration, to understand how children perceive.”
The idea of boyhood is everything to Koons: He’s a bit like Norman Rockwell in that way. (Think enough about Koons and you start seeing just about everybody in him.) That might seem like an odd observation to make about someone who owes his fame beyond the art world to the work that was also his greatest professional and personal heartbreak—a much-derided-at-the-time series of photo-realistic paintings and sculptures of himself and his then-wife, Ilona Staller, an Italian porn star who went by La Cicciolina, copulating gauzily (and, in some cases, not so gauzily). But to hear him tell it, he really thought he was making work anybody could identify with, to help relieve us, he says, of “guilt and shame.” When he was still married to the porn star, who hardly spoke English and to whom he spoke either through a translator or Koons’s peculiar pidgin-Italian-accented English, he told Vanity Fair that “the sculpture that I am most interested in is our child. I don’t believe that marble bust I made is my way to enter the Realm of the Eternal. To me the only way to exist in the eternal is through biological sculptures.” Later, he said he dreamed of opening a museum to which children would drag their parents.
What’s new in the Gagosian and Zwirner shows is that he’s trying to place himself in art history—quite literally, by placing art history in his work—dragging classical statues onto the canvas or casting them in plaster. His references this time are Picasso and Praxiteles. There will be a mirror-polished classical Venus statue and one that takes his big cast-in-metal balloon-animal sculpture in a different direction: Balloon Venus. His balloon-twisting consultant, an L.A. balloon artist named Buster Balloon, told me it took him 85 versions using a 60-inch-long balloon to get that one right; Koons then cat-scanned the actual balloon sculpture, to make sure he got the measurements exactly.
“One of the main reasons that I work with inflatables is that the aspect of inside/outside—if you look at an inflatable and you think about it, it seems very empty inside,” Koons tells me. “Oh, it’s air in there, so it’s empty. But that moment that your exterior space around you feels denser, it gives you more of a sense of confidence in the world. You think about your own inside. It’s denser. It’s blood, it’s guts, it’s tissue. And so if you’re not around that concept of the inflatable, it’s more of a void out there. Okay? It’s denser inside here than outside. It’s vacuums. But when you’re experiencing an inflatable, for that time, it’s vacuous inside that object and it’s empty inside.” I ask if he always talked this way about his work. “In some manner,” he answers. “I’ve had time to think about these things.”
Walking around the studio, he shows me a checkerboard piece that alternates between Titian’s Venus and Adonis and Picasso’s black-and-white The Kiss from 1969. Koons has said the Titian painting is among his favorite of all time: She’s naked, wanting Adonis to hang out; he’s dressed and heading out with the dogs to go hunt. Koons owns The Kiss and says “it really helped change my life.” An aging Picasso is having this “whole dialogue with his own mortality,” he says, explicating more than the painting, it seems. (Several works are layered over a background by the turn-of-the-century painter Louis Eilshemius, “who screamed for 50 years for recognition in the face of an apathetic world,” according to his poetic 1941 Times obituary.) Superimposed on the checkerboard is the image of a Uli figure, a sacred wooden statue that comes from Papua New Guinea. They’re used in funerals and fertility rites and represent tribal leaders, “but they’re both masculine and feminine, because they can protect their community, they can defend the community, and at the same time they can nourish the community.”
As they do most every Friday afternoon, Koons, Justine, and their six children are gathering to drive the three and a half hours to their 650-acre farm near Koons’s childhood home in York, Pennsylvania. The oldest, Sean, is 11 and wearing neon Ray-Bans and a striped stocking cap; the youngest, Mick (“like Mick Jagger”), is just 8 months old. Koons is clearly uncomfortable having his family, and his private life, made available and public for me even for an afternoon—the anxiety of a perfectionist focused, for most of his recent career, on removing personal and subjective elements and delivering instead perfectly polished expressions of what he calls “objective” work. And to see him with the six children—screaming, scrambling, wanting his attention—is to see his lifelong experiment in maintaining himself in a state of childlike wonder challenged a bit by their feral reality. But then again, childlike wonder is a concept much more useful to adults than to children.
It is often said that an artist like Koons works at the top of the art world—a single piece could pass as barter for a glass-walled condo at One57. But it would probably be more accurate to say that he works above the art world, in a rarefied, barely occupied penthouse beyond the reach of critics, curators, other artists and other dealers who make up what is usually called the art Establishment. That Establishment doesn’t just ignore the work of the unknown artist but also, for the most part, that of the world-famous—especially Koons, Hirst, and Murakami, who have become so big and so rich it no longer seems important to have opinions of them. Instead, they are talked about as cultural phenomena about which one should have ideas—balloon dogs, reality television, Occupy Wall Street. Like Warhol, Koons is a Pop artist who is himself a Pop figure, one who gets to hang out with the world’s richest collectors, who can afford to fund his visions of the unsullied magical object. “The desire that Koons creates with people is very much about possession,” says Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. “It’s about owning it, ingesting it. It’s proto-sexual. The ability to have the physical proximity to this object.”
“He exists as a kind of fascinating artistic limit-case,” says Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the retrospective. “Of fabrication. Of the size of one’s audience or celebrity. Or of risk-taking and impassioned commitment to one’s work.” In an essay on the “Hulk Elvis” paintings, Rothkopf wrote, “What he is selling is not just a painting or an optimistic dream of youth and love, but the dream of a perfect object … an extremely arduous and expensive process, and his paintings are about that, too … they are also about the people who are willing to pay for them.”
Most self-made people consider themselves outsiders, no matter how at the center of things they find themselves. And part of Koons’s self-understanding is that he’s keeping his past with him. The farm to which Koons is retreating with his clan was originally his grandmother’s, which he bought back in another kind of nostalgic preservation of the idea of his childhood. During the week, he and his brood live uptown near the good private schools. But you get the idea their real home is in the countryside with their sheep and Icelandic horses. “The kids don’t even like to go to Central Park anymore,” Justine tells me as she corrals them. “Too many other people.”
Koons has had a very long career. When he began making headway in the early eighties, the city was giving itself over to the painterly swagger of the neo-Expressionists: David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, especially. Koons’s stuff was in another register, starting with ready-mades of junky plastic things he found in shops on 14th Street and in Chinatown. Later, he moved on to putting vacuums inside fluorescent-lit clear Plexi cases: This series was called “The New.”
Readymades like these can be seen as ironic critiques of commodity culture, domestic labor, generalized deep-pile-carpeted anomie. But Koons has always had an almost animistic interest in the ordinary, store-bought thing, and to him that work is and was a deeply earnest tribute to late-industrial perfection. He paid for production (vacuums are expensive) with the money he made on Wall Street. “I was good at selling,” he once told an interviewer about that gig. “A lot of my work is about sales. And it was about being independent from the art market. So I didn’t have to kiss anybody’s ass. And that I could make exactly what art I wanted to make.”
The art he wanted to make was peculiar. First, a sink-or-swim show called “Equilibrium”—basketballs floating in vitrines of water, drolly framed Nike basketball-culture posters, and bronze casts of a lifeboat and a flotation vest. Then one about the effects of advertising, class, and alcoholism, “Luxury and Degradation”—painted ads for booze, accompanied by steel models of things like a suitcase travel bar or an ice bucket and an old-fashioned train, each car a little bottle of Jim Beam. This was followed, later in 1986, by “Statuary” (his famous “inflatable” bunny, cast in stainless steel) and then 1988’s career-making “Banality.”
And then he met Ilona Staller and lost his equilibrium. He saw her in an issue of Stern magazine in 1988: She was wearing a see-through dress, and he used the photograph as the model for a sculpture called Fait d’Hiver, where a naked woman is lying in the snow, joined by a penguin and a pig. Staller was a member of the Italian Parliament as well as a porn star. The next year, he sent her a fax, and they met up. He once described meeting her backstage at a show she was performing in: “I enjoyed very much that she was standing there without any pants on.” She was “one of the greatest artists alive. She was able to present herself with absolutely no guilt and no shame.” He had the idea that they would make a porno film together, and they took lots of photos where they were having sex with each other, which Koons turned into paintings and sculptures called “Made in Heaven.” And which are, for all the ways they anticipated an age of celebrity narcissism and porn wallpaper, still shocking: horrifyingly unguarded, emotionally raw, and sexually explicit—especially hard to take at the peak of the aids crisis. “Jeff had confused fantasy with reality,” Deitch once told The New Yorker. “It was as though he felt the ‘Made in Heaven’ work wouldn’t be authentic unless they were married.”
When it came to New York from the Venice Biennial, the work generated a lot of attention but didn’t sell much. Museums weren’t interested; the art world was embarrassed by him. Koons was given only one more New York solo gallery show in the nineties. And on top of all that, he and Staller split up.
Then things got worse: He and Staller had a son, Ludwig, over whom they soon began an expensive and dispiriting custody battle. Koons split with his then-gallerist Ileana Sonnabend (who’d advised against the marriage). And in a fit of disappointment and self-loathing, he destroyed many of the “Made in Heaven” pieces. He had exposed himself, and been humiliated.
His comeback started with Puppy, from 1992, which finally made its way to Rockefeller Plaza in 2000. A 40-foot-tall West Highland white terrier, covered in 70,000 flowers, it was an eager and unavoidable critical and public success. New York’s Jerry Saltz named it the public art event of the aughts, calling Koons a “driven perfectionist in pursuit of unconditional love.”
In a kind of retreat-and-recovery mode, Koons began photographing simple objects that pertained to life’s transitions—cake, an egg, a diamond ring—and realized that he should make sculptures out of them. The idea was a sort of tribute to his lost son: They were also objects from a child’s party, and Koons wanted Ludwig to know he was thinking about him. This began the “Celebration” series, which allowed him to slowly crawl back to the top. But in doing so, he lost the critics—who had always been a bit skeptical, thinking of him, as the Times put it in 1991, as “one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst” of the eighties. In 2004, Robert Hughes wrote that Koons is “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida.”
All of this criticism is, ultimately, valid, if somewhat beside the point: Koons’s work is impersonal, repetitive, awe-inspiring but largely uninsightful, uninflected with any of the ambivalence about the world we live in today that animates most critically lauded contemporary art. But that doesn’t seem to be what he’s trying to do anyway. “I am very conscious of the viewer because that’s where the art takes place,” he once told an interviewer. “My work really strives to put the viewer in a certain kind of emotional state.”
What a balloon dog or a puppy made of flowers or a shiny hanging-heart sculpture offers is a picture of industrial perfection, a naïve piece of uncomplicated beauty that can be appreciated without using words like discourse. Which is one very clear reason why he is held in such unsteady regard by critics and curators and is so beloved by spectators. As a reflection of the world in which it was made—a Pop universe of digestible wealth—it is perhaps as profound a picture as the work of Warhol’s was of his.
Tobias Meyer calls Koons’s work an expression of Disney-like “pathological optimism” and compares what he does to Bernini’s work at Villa Borghese. “One of the things which comes back to him, positioning himself as a contemporary master,” Meyer says, is “perfection. Which is something that was for a long time not a part of contemporary art, which embraced the nonart of the accident or the imperfect.” And which is how Koons can be the art world’s great populist artisan, even as he operates as its most exclusive salesman.
Gazing balls are glass globes, painted on the inside, which were once quite popular suburban-garden features (versions of them sell for about $35 at places like Target.com). Koons remembers them from his childhood in York, Pennsylvania—simple mirrored balls that were somehow, magically, transfixing middle-class status symbols. “People put them in their yards because they enjoy the visual aspect of the ball, but they really do it for their neighbors,” Koons says. “And it really helps emphasize a place. It’s like a point, and everything is kind of reflected from that point.”
It’s hard to miss, in a collection of work harvesting classical myth, the overtones of Narcissus—the man really cannot stop working with mirrors. “Imagine little Jeff Koons walking into some backyard and seeing the world collapsing into this sphere,” Zwirner says, a little wistfully.
The balls that Koons had fabricated at a glass company in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, for his new works are dark blue, and he shows me how the tonality shifts slightly in the middle. In the series, he installs them on white plaster casts—classical museum statuary and vernacular yard objects, like an inflatable snowman and mailboxes, rendered in the same plaster cast. Each of these works are priced at $3 million or under—the smallest are in the six figures—and produced in editions of three. At these prices, they qualify as affordable.
In the last few years he put his sculptures on top of the Metropolitan Museum, at Versailles, and then amid the halls of Liebieghaus in Germany—producing an art-history-slideshow lecture leading, inevitably, to him. For now, though, he seems content to insert himself into art history in the most literal way imaginable—by making new work that collages with several-thousand-year-old work. “It’s about acceptance,” Koons tells me, monitoring his assistants across the room as he talks. “That’s the reason I like to work with these external things. I really think that the journey that art takes you on as an artist is that you first learn self-acceptance.”
But like many preaching that sort of self-help gospel, Koons seems still agitated by status anxiety. And, twenty years after being spectacularly shunned by the art world for “Made in Heaven,” by the need to find a place for himself in the canon—even as an artist rich enough to re-create it in his studio. Koons’s systematic literalism of reference, and his prodigious memory and free-associative narrative fervor make him a bit like your favorite art-history professor. (Get this man a mooc!)
“Plaster casts in the nineteenth century were very, very popular,” Koons explains, passing one sculpture inspired by mailboxes he’s seen in Pennsylvania, with flared V8 exhaust pipes sprouting like antlers out of the side, and a manifold on top. “They’ll go from these historical images to something that is everyday, like mailboxes,” Koons says, adding that this particular sculpture is about “personal identity.” There’s also an inflatable Christmas yard snowman. And more mailboxes, all lined up in a row, like at the end of a country road. “This is a sense of community, in a way,” he says. “A little bit, to me, like the art world. And it’s also at the same time you get kind of the sense of loss. The loss of, I guess, loss of a location, loss of a place, identity.”
Back in the painting studio. “Could you move back here just a bit?” he asks the painters, who silently unlock the wheels of the rolling wooden scaffolding they work on. He points to the sculpture depicted in the middle: Greek, 100 B.C., of Aphrodite, naked, swatting a shorter, cloven-hoofed Pan away with her sandal. Eros—the winged baby—floats amused above her shoulder. “He’s after her,” observes Koons of Pan with a tiny trace of relish. “He’s really being aggressive with her. If you look here at his testicles, his phallus has been knocked off. But if you look at the support …” There is a buttress between Pan’s form and her thigh. “The support’s a phallus. And the whole energy of the piece, the whole narrative, is a phallus. It’s telling you everything.”
*This article originally appeared in the May 13, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
THE ART NEWSPAPER LONDON
Jeff Koons on his Serpentine show, his inspirations and how his studio system works
The US artist reveals what he hopes to communicate to the public through his work
Touring Jeff Koons’s gigantic Chelsea studio in anticipation of his big summer solo show at the Serpentine in London (until 13 September) is rich in discombobulation. This is partly because the place is just so large: endless cavernous rooms, one after the other, teeming with workers and assistants, more than 120 of them, all hard at work in intense silence producing paintings and sculptures, maquettes and studies, a high-tech laboratory somewhere between a James Bond set and a Warholian super-studio. But it is also because Koons himself, always unfailingly polite, gracious and soft-spoken, is a genius not so much at self-promotion as self-deflection, seemingly ignoring some questions only to later reveal that he has been pondering them secretly. Koons likes to concentrate on technical descriptions of the work at hand mixed with sudden bursts of cryptic oratory, a sort of self-help conceptualism minted from Andy’s deadpan American optimism. Just as Koons’s work remains ever-ambiguous about just how dumb or smart it really is, likewise the man can seem like a New Age huckster repeating banal platitudes only to surprise one with the sheer smartness of some observation. If Koons and his steady ascension to wealth and fame might seem reminiscent of “Chance the Gardener”, as played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 film Being There, a simpleton whose simplicity is confused with sagacity, there is no denying his current status. Indeed it is when Koons runs one briefly through a selection of his art collection on his computer—from the Poussin on loan to the Metropolitan which he keeps as his screensaver, to the Manet, the Courbet, the medieval wooden sculpture, the Pharaonic head, the Magritte and Dalí paintings, the major Picassos—that one realises not only just how rich he must be but how deep his interest is in art history and how obsessively he can talk about one image in intricate detail. This large and impressive collection may be cunningly intended to make one see his own work in the very grandest historical context, to make even the toughest sceptic grant him the benefit of the doubt. And it works.
The Art Newspaper: Your show at the Serpentine is of the “Popeye” series of paintings and sculptures, which you began in 2002, but a lot of the works are being made here, right now.
Jeff Koons: Some works have been here since 1994, it can take a very long time to complete a series. The “Popeye” series began in 2002 but most of the pieces are only just being completed and shipped directly to the show. Here’s a Triple Popeye painting sprayed completely with a reflective surface, with what looks like a brushstroke, to give that sense of gesture to it, to give a sense of movement, a sort of abstraction.
TAN: All your work has this very long incubation period?
JK: My newest work, that comes after Popeye, is all in production and will take a couple of years to be completed, there’s always this long development time. Basically if I have an idea today I have to wait at least two years [until the work is finished].
TAN: The “Popeye” paintings are hand-painted images of what look like mechanical reproductions of hand-painted images. It’s like Roy Lichtenstein painting artificial looking brush strokes.
JK: I don’t feel they’re so like Roy’s fake-gestures, each of these broad sweeps is hand-painted with very small brushes, we never use sponges or anything larger. The whole art work is a gesture and all these gestures are about doing something with your life, about what you really want to do. This is very fluid, at a distance you can see the imagery, but up close it is very abstract. They’re about [the] history of European art. I love it when there’s a revelation in art, when you see things you have not seen before, connections that you make yourself, not that you’re supposed to make, when those things are there for you. There are French 19th-century brushstrokes we’re painting alongside the Magic Marker lines…they really work together. I like the sense of warmth that comes from an actual painting and that’s why I returned to making paintings. I like a certain power of image, but it’s not that it has to look artificially made, I would like a greater warmth than that.
TAN: Can one judge the success of these paintings in old-fashioned terms of skill?
JK: We’ve really captured the richness of these gestures, I made these gestures, some my children made, they’re very well painted, some of the best painting we’ve done. Different people have different skills, but it’s about continuing to show people how to look at things. That’s why the paintings have continued to develop, when people realise they can create anything, to be able to see it, look at these sources and to understand, I don’t have to paint it wet-into-wet, I can capture that more as a printed-type image.
TAN: You own great work by Lichtenstein and Courbet, do you see your work as a sort of synthesis?
JK: Absolutely, this line drawing could refer to Courbet but you could also see it as a young man walking his dog in the Swiss alps, the dot pattern starts to almost create its own brushstrokes, to gather up and create its own fake gesture.
TAN: As a teenage student you called up Dalí to meet him.
JK: I own the wash study of the painting of tigers that Dalí stood against when I met him. I saw this other Dalí painting at a recent auction, [Untitled (Nature morte au drapé blanc), 1969], and there was something very familiar about it. The last painting Dalí made, The Swallow’s Tail, if you look at it and then the movement inside the shroud [in the painting I just bought] you can see the connection. So I was absolutely thrilled to be able to have this. I can see the same shapes that he has used repeatedly over the decades.
TAN: Dalí is an artist you always acknowledge.
JK: Dalí is very important to me. I think Dalí had moments of real genius, and he had moments of great generosity—being generous to me, a young artist from Pennsylvania who called him up and said: “I’m an artist; I’d like to meet you” and he just said: “Sure, come and meet me.” That was really generous, likewise Roy Lichtenstein. I think that sense of generosity is so important in art. I love having a sense of a connection with these artists, with those who have made art history. A connection in the sense of really being open to their vocabulary—trying to articulate and incorporate the vocabularies they spent a lifetime developing.
TAN: Your art collection is mainly of old masters and 19th-century European painting. You also have works by Jenny Holzer, Hirst and Prince, but you seem less interested in collecting your contemporaries.
JK: I used to have Kippenberger’s self-portrait that’s on the cover of the Taschen book, the one with the hammer and sickle, and also work by Albert Oehlen. I’ve always lived with Struth and with Lichtenstein. Roy was great, a tremendous man, and very supportive, I have his easel right here, which he designed himself, with the colours of the paint of the landscape Roy was working on [when he died]. But I’m so involved in contemporary art myself that I’m much more interested in art from a different time. I have a little bit of a sense what it’s like to be alive today, to try and make work today, so contemporary art isn’t so important to me. I’m more interested in what it meant to be alive, to be trying to make art, in other times, in a very different culture.
TAN: It may not be obvious to all viewers but you have this very precise sense of your own relation to art history.
JK: This sculpture is from a tiny wax gorilla from [the shop at] the Los Angeles Zoo, we have scanned it and are building it out of hand-polished black granite to an extreme finish so it will look like wax. This is a take on a 19th-century French sculpture, Gorilla Carrying Off a Woman, 1887, by Emmanuel Frémiet, really the origin of King Kong. Here’s a pink granite ballerina with live flowers planted within the stone, so the narrative really just jumps back to Pagan art, back to Venus. There’s a modern narrative in Popeye, but where the spinach normally is, there will be begonias.
TAN: A lot of artists now outsource the production of their work to Asia and you could get this work done at half the price in China.
JK: The studio for me is a sense of family, of community. One of the wonderful things about art is that you don’t have to be so conscious of the bottom line, though you have to be somewhat aware of budget, you’re dealing with the impractical, the impossible, you’re pushing things to the edge. It’s always been important to me to feel self-reliant but at the same time I like the sense of providing for a community.
TAN: It must be daunting running an operation of this scale. Are you ever tempted to go back to making work by yourself?
JK: I used to make all my own sculpture, my paintings, but if I did that it would severely limit the range of projects that I could be involved with. I follow my interests in some way that feels profound to me, those that seem to have a deeper meaning. I feel completely free to do whatever I want to do. But I have to edit my work a lot, because of the process, the amount of time it takes to actually make things, you really have to make the things you want to make, otherwise you’re wasting a lot of energy.
TAN: How important is the assumed innocence of childhood to your aesthetic?
JK: I remember my own childhood, it was just like enjoying green, green grass, breathing in and feeling its moisture and loving it. As a child, there is just an acceptance, you don’t feel that something is expected of you. Some people don’t accept themselves, their own histories, they debase themselves by external forces which want to fill them with insecurities, people end up feeling their own cultural history is insufficient or incorrect. None of that operates in childhood, it is just acceptance, you know you love pink because pink is pink.
TAN: Is there a notion of art as deception, for example, with your inflatables that should be light but are actually heavy—the opposite of Richard Serra’s notion of the integrity of weight, that sculpture must weigh what it looks?
JK: I don’t think of it as deception but as “either/or” or “Ying & Yang”, I think of the inflatables as anthropomorphic, we are ourselves inflatables, we take a breath, we expand, we contract, our last breath in life, our deflation. By contrast these objects have a permanence to them, they maintain a non-divisible sense of life, of continuity. Maybe it’s also almost like learning to swim, that extraordinary experience almost like birthing, the independence of when you can finally swim yourself. The viewer feels their own possibilities and whatever their interests are, they feel more excited to meet their own potential, that’s what I hope the viewer experiences.
TAN: Was your own sense of potential directly unlocked by coming into contact with art?
JK: When I was younger I remember that I started to draw and my parents would make me feel as though I had a gift. For some reason I could make a beautiful drawing, do something that was special. I had an older sister and because she was three years older I always thought she could do everything better than me, but with art I felt I could do something better. Art always created a certain amount of anxiety, because: What is it? What’s art? As a kid taking art lessons I enjoyed sitting round with the others making art, that sense of community, but I was never really sure what art was. It wasn’t until I got to art school that I realised how art continues throughout human history, everything opened up. For me it’s always been this journey about the removal of anxiety. Then you learn to trust in the self, developing a sense of personal iconography that gives you the ability to work in a biological way, getting people to feel certain sensations. Then eventually you just become so bored with the self you want to start looking outside yourself which leads to the ultimate, which is trusting in others…
“Jeff Koons: Popeye Series” is at the Serpentine Gallery in London until 13 September. The artist’s work will also be included in “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” at Tate Modern, London (1 October-17 January 2010)
“Art Isn’t Something That’s External”: Jeff Koons on His Whitney Retrospective, the High Line Train, and Emptiness
Whether it’s the mission to bring his $25 million dollar “Train” to the High Line or calling his own artwork “empty,” artist Jeff Koons never ceases to be an art-world enigma. His appropriated sculptures, from “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” porcelain pieces to the enormous “Balloon Flower (Magenta),” incite both staunch criticism and astronomical auction records. The artist also experienced heartbreaking tragedy when his ex-wife and former muse Ilona Staller kidnapped their son Ludwig in 1994. This year, Koons has four solo exhibitions planned around the world: one in Basel, two in Frankfurt, and one in St. Petersburg, Fla. ARTINFO caught up with Koons at the Whitney Museum of Art during the Wall Street Journal’s Donor of the Day Celebration to ask him what to expect for the last show at the Whitney’s Breuer building, how the High Line “Train” efforts are going, and why he calls his art “empty.”
What did you mean when you called the art at your Fondation Beyeler retrospective “empty”?
What I was speaking about is that artwork, objects, they’re transpondent. You try to pack them with information, that when somebody looks at them, they’re able to have an internal discourse, and when I say that these objects are kind of empty, what I meant is the art’s not there. The art happens inside the viewer, and these objects direct, and communicate to people, and try to manipulate how they feel about a situation, or the type of sensations that they can have. Art happens inside them. Art isn’t something that’s external. It’s always inside the person.
How does it feel to be the last artist to show at the Whitney’s Madison Avenue space, and the only artist to take over the majority of the museum?
I’m really thrilled because I enjoy the place that the Whitney has had in my own life as an artist – of being an open door kind of place to young artists coming to New York. They always have the opportunity at the Biennials for artists. You always felt as though there was a sense of inclusion, but the exhibitions that they’ve had over the years have been really informative to a young generation of what’s possible in the dialogue of art, and so I’m really thrilled to have my New York exhibition here.
Can we expect any new works from you?
Absolutely. I’ll be showing the newest things up to that moment that I’m working on. I’ll be showing the antiquity series that I’m working on now. I’m just going to try to give an overview of my work from when I first moved to New York, which was around the very beginning of ’77 up to the present day, so by the time of the exhibition, it will be close to four decades.
Any updates on the High Line “Train”?
I’m really thrilled at the possibility, because it’s only a possibility that the train could come to the High Line, but if it would become a reality, I think it would be wonderful. It’s a piece I designed to function as a rallying point for a community that people would gather around it and be able to experience something which is moving and demonstrates the power and intensity of life experience and at the same time inform us of the warmth of our community.
Are there any fundraising efforts going on?
I’m sure the High Line would be involved with that. I’m sure that they would love to find donors to be involved with it, but if it can be a possibility here in New York in my hometown, that would be great.
With your current Fondation Beyeler retrospective and the announcement of your traveling 2014 retrospective, it feels like the year of the Jeff Koons retrospective. Where do you feel like you’re at in your career?
Being able to have the opportunities to have my work be engaged in different communities — right now this year, the work is going to be shown in Switzerland in Basel, in two exhibitions in Frankfurt, and later this year in St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s always exciting to be able to have a dialogue with the community. Also, as an artist, you always are able to view your work and see it in a different light.
Last year’s Costume Institute exhibition, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” surpassed your 2008 sculpture show to become the eighth most-visited exhibition in the history of the Met. Do you feel threatened that this year’s show, “Schiaparelli & Prada: Imaginary Conversations,” might do the same?
I really have no idea, but I know that I enjoy so much having an exhibition at the Metropolitan, because it’s such an incredible museum, and to be able to have contemporary art and the audience for contemporary and also pull people in to look at the classical works, or to look at Baroque paintings or the Old Masters, it’s fantastic. And the same with people who go to see an Old Masters painting, to end up wandering to see another exhibition. I think Miuccia’s exhibition with Schiaparelli is fantastic. It’s an incredible installation, it’s really interesting and engaging, and it has the energy of the avant-garde of the 20th century. It has that whole feeling of “We can change reality.” And Alexander McQueen’s show was great too, but I’m very happy to be a part of the history of the Met too.
You’ve been very active with the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and National Center for Missing & Exploited Children since your son’s abduction. Have you met parents who have gone through similar ordeals who have been able to get their children back?
Through the National Center and International Center, I’ve met a lot of different parents, and some parents have had success. These stories touch everyone, and they touch a lot of families where we’ve all known somebody and maybe there was a parental abduction or we know from just reading the papers, abduction of children in our communities, so this always touches everyone. We were hearing the numbers today … the return of 167,000 children is an amazing accomplishment.
- Jeff Koons’s Inspirations
PHARRELL WILLIAMS: I’m a huge fan of yours. How has your perspective changed since you began your career?
JEFF KOONS: I’d have to say I’ve become more aware of my communal responsibility. Seventeen years ago, my son Ludwig was abducted, and it was devastating. [During their divorce proceedings, Koons’s first wife, Ilona Staller, fled to Italy with their son. An Italian court later awarded Staller full custody.] But you have to try to make something out of what happens to you. Living such a negative experience made me stronger and made me want to use my art to bring enlightenment into people’s lives. [To this end, Koons has partnered with Kiehl’s on a limited-edition Creme de Corps collection, which benefits his organization for abducted children.] The Koons Family Institute, which is an initiative of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, would like to help victims and families and prevent this from happening.
PW: How has having a family affected your work? [Koons and his wife, Justine, have five children together.]
JK: I haven’t found anything as rewarding. My favorite activity is to be with my family.
PW: You’ve worked in so many different mediums. Is there one that you prefer?
JK: I enjoy all mediums, and I have to say, music is the medium that first made me understand how powerful art could be. I remember when I was 16 and driving around in my Firebird 400, listening to Robert Plant’s voice in Led Zeppelin and not really having a base in philosophy or psychology or sociology but experiencing the medium that pulled it all together.
PW: That’s how it was for me as well.
JK: What did you hear that informed you of the power of art?
PW: When I was a kid, my father would be in his Cadillac, and he’d play Earth, Wind & Fire or Stevie Wonder, and I’d look at the stars. I always made a connection between the twinkling of the stars and the chord changes in the songs. I realized I had been looking at music differently all my life. Most artists have some form of synesthesia; it’s easier for us to speak different metaphoric languages.
JK: Boy, you can paint a picture!
A 1966 shot of Twiggy; Courtesy Popperfoto/Getty Images
PW: When I first saw your Balloon Dog at Versailles, I think I stood in front of it longer than anyone else. I kept asking myself, Why don’t I make enough money to afford this? What I love is that you toy with optical illusion. You’re looking at something that seems like it’s made of what it would usually be made of, and then someone says, “Oh, yeah, that’s steel.” And you are just in sheer awe. Can you tell me the inspiration behind your Harper’s Bazaar shoot?
JK: When Bazaar invited me to do a photo shoot, I wanted to do it in a minimal and open way. The set was inspired by a photo of Twiggy from the ’60s, and she had a straw top of a cabana behind her. It’s a circular effect, and I thought, That’s a symbol of Botticelli’s Venus in a way. I made a stand — because I’m making a new series incorporating Venuses from antiquity — that would reflect that type of energy. Just having that prop there would let the clothes tell their story.
PW: What art do you yourself collect?
JK: The first piece I ever collected was a Roy Lichtenstein: a sculpture called Surrealist Head II. There was a waiting list. I remember Steve Martin wanted one, and I wanted one. I got the Surrealist Head, and I was thrilled. When my son Ludwig was abducted, I was on the verge of bankruptcy, and I sold everything I ever created: my rabbit, my Michael Jackson, everything, before I sold any other artist’s work. Then I had to sell my Lichtenstein. It wasn’t until about 2004 that I was able to financially bring myself back. The first thing I bought was a Lichtenstein. I love Picasso. I have Courbet, Fragonard, Magritte, Dalí, antiquities. Most recently I acquired a Picasso Kiss painting that I am just blown away by. I hope, Pharrell, to have one of your works. I think your artwork is fantastic.
PW: Thank you. That’s a huge compliment coming from you! My last question is, what are you working on now?
JK: A series called “Antiquity.” I start with a sense of contemporary time and make references to different artists such as Lichtenstein or Dalí through to Manet, Renaissance artists, or the greatest artists of antiquity, like Praxiteles and Apelles. The aspect is the acceptance of how we exist, how nature procreates, and how we are able to sustain life.
Jeff Koons’s third collection for Kiehl’s, benefiting the Koons Family Institute on International Law & Policy, will be available in November. For more information, visit icmec.org.
TIME OUT LONDON
Jeff Koons: interview
Best known for his marriage to La Cicciolina and his Jacko and Bubbles sculpture, Jeff Koons is one of the art world’s most divisive figures. We met him ahead of his first UK show
- Off and on, for almost two decades now, Jeff Koons has been the world’s most expensive living artist, selling work for upwards of $25 million, despite many of them, such as ‘Hanging Heart’ and ‘Balloon Dog’, not even being unique pieces. He’s also been married to an Italian porn-star-turned-politician, Illona Staller (better known as La Cicciolina), not to mention the messy divorce, custody and copyright suits. Yet he’s continually produced some of the most outrageous art of the last 40 years, creating giant puppies from pretty flowers and encasing vacuum cleaners in vitrines (long before Hirst’s shark). His first solo show in London focuses on his ‘Popeye’ series, based on the Depression-era cartoon character who thankfully is now out of copyright himself at the ripe old age of 80.Do I just call you Jeff?
‘My real name is Jeffrey Lynn Koons, but I’ve always liked the simplicity of Jeff.’Why is this your first public show in London? Is there something about you that we Brits just don’t get?
‘I have wonderful friends in England and have always participated in group shows here. I like to think of myself very much as an international artist, but I also know my own cultural history.’
But your work still polarises people, like Marmite in the UK, or Dr Pepper in the US…
‘I’ve always dealt with my work in a very honest manner, and so whenever someone responds that they don’t get it, I feel like I lost that person. Every time you do or make something you do it for that singular moment of communication. It happens one person at a time, but you want it to be effective. We all have the same pleasures and desires, I just think that some people are more protective and shelter themselves from their experiences, especially if it’s sexuality, the foundation of our life experience.’You talk about acceptance, but your work still has an edge, whether it’s a porcelain model of Michael Jackson with Bubbles or images of you having sex with your ex-wife.
‘All my work tries to embrace visual power, and acceptance does not have to be all warm and cushy, there’s also a violence to acceptance. I was a painter until I left art school, when I started to deal with things outside the self.’Was your recent exhibition at Versailles your crowning achievement?
‘It was a great experience. I had been thinking about Louis Quatorze and what he would want to create. Maybe he’d have woken up in the morning and wanted to see a piece like “Puppy” created out of 60,000 live flowers, and have it finished by the time he got home that night.’Although there was some grumbling from critics and tour guides there…
‘People’s attitudes can be amazing. I think if the guides were more open to that experience they would have seen the colour, the charge and the extravagance come back to Versailles. Not to mention the impracticality of it all, but showing at the Serpentine is just as special to me, it can have just as much power.’
Let’s talk about the ‘Popeye’ series. Is it straight pop art?
‘I don’t think so, because pop is about an externalisation of the viewer. I like to believe that what I do is very much the activity of real art, where the artist has complete freedom to do what they want and show the connections with human potential.’
What’s your spinach?
‘In my own life what gets me most excited are my children. They’re energising: to be able to share your life with them and to offer them opportunity is so enriching.’What’s your life-preserver?
‘That would be art and being involved in this whole process. You have to trust in yourself, it takes you to a very metaphysical place and that’s all an artist can do – make connections and be involved in something profound. Instead of creating anxiety, it should be a vehicle for removing it.’To quote another of your characters, The Incredible Hulk, why wouldn’t I like you when you’re angry?
‘I tend to think that the glass is always half full, and I try to show that through my work, but what makes me angry is a failure of communication.’
Talking of superheroes, one of your personal heroes was Salvador Dali.
‘I met him at the Saint Regis Hotel when I was a teenager. He took me to an exhibition of his and he posed for some photos in front of “The Hallucinogenic Toreador”. I now own the gouache study of that work and it hangs in my bedroom.’Do you buy anything else with your cash?
‘I have some Egyptian antiquities, but I’d much rather acquire a sculpture or a painting than a sports car. I’ve bought Picasso and Magritte and a very beautiful and vaginal [painting by French artist] Bougeureau.’You also employ 120 people in your studio, but you don’t like calling it a factory, is that correct?
‘I don’t feel very comfortable with that term. I make about eight paintings and 12 editions of sculptures a year. It’s not that we are involved in craft – I hate craft, craft is fetishism – but it’s just the time it takes to realise them.’
Are you recession-proof?
‘I don’t really have a business model other than to make the work that I want to, and downtime is good because I’ve got a backlog. People get so caught up in the recession, but it’s like a roller coaster: in good times, everything else costs so much more, so it’s all relative. “Celebration”, one of my more successful series that includes “Balloon Dog” and “Hanging Heart”, took a long time to get finished in the ’90s because their ambition was great but the economic means really weren’t being addressed.’
How do you feel about speculators flipping your work at auction? One even said that ‘Jeff Koons has performed better than oil’.
‘To a certain degree, I’m honoured, but I’m disappointed that they don’t enjoy the same connection to the power of art that I have as a collector. I love the responsibility of the maintenance or preservation of art. I want to protect it.’
But you were on Wall Street once yourself, weren’t you?
‘I ended up becoming a broker, and it was really more like ad work, where you’re commissioned to do something except you don’t have the freedom of your own expression. But from childhood I was brought up to be very self-sufficient, so I would go door-to-door selling gift-wrapping paper and candies. I enjoyed the experience. It was my desire to communicate.’
Is there any rivalry between you and artists like Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami?
‘I consider Damien very much a friend; I don’t know Murakami that well. I enjoy showing with artists from my generation but I’m not involved in trying to create some branded type of product, because I believe you penetrate the consciousness through the idea more than with distribution. So I like to believe that I’m in that school, and only involved in the economic aspect of art through how good of an idea I’ve had.’
Do you enjoy the attention of the art world?
‘I always wanted to be involved, I enjoy having the platform of success. I don’t enjoy it unless it’s about the work, so if I’m not in my studio for a couple of days I become quite nervous.’
What would people be surprised to know about you, apart from your cameo in Sean Penn’s movie ‘Milk’?
‘I think there is a misunderstanding about my work that it’s about product and consumerism. Somebody recently came to me and asked if I could design a bookstore, but that’s not for me. I never did anything to create this other persona, even in the bodies of work that dealt with luxury and degradation where I warned people not to pursue luxury because it was like the alcoholic falling under the control of alcohol. It’s confusing the messenger with the message.’
GP: You speak of objects, and never of sculpture. Why?
JK: First of all, I see myself as an artist, and not as a sculptor. Most of the time my work operates in a three-dimensional realm, possibly because it is more substantial than the two-dimensional realm of illusion. It defines a reality for me. In the system I was brought up in — the Western, capitalist system — one receives objects as rewards for labor and achievement. Everything one has sacrificed in life — personal goals or fantasies, for instance — in the effort to obtain these objects, has been sacrificed to a given labor situation. And once these objects have been accumulated, they work as support mechanisms for the individual: to define the personality of the self, to fulfil desires and express them, and so on…
GP: What meaning does your work have for you?
JK: In the past my work has always been about my personal, intellectual development. More recently it has involved the external world and how it functions socially. Whereas in the past I was more concerned with defining states of being that can be achieved by the individual, in more recent times I’ve extended my interest to social states of being that are more and more removed from what I could accomplish now, within my lifetime. Also, the work is being directed, since I have been defining a social state of being. I have also been redefining a personal state of being. On both the personal and the social level, though, my goals have been knowingly unachievable — biologically, psychologically and economically they just aren’t possible at this time.
Lately, the work has taken on a dimension of alienation of the physical self. In the body of work I called “The New,” I was interested in an individual psychological state tied to newness and immortality: the Gestalt came directly from viewing an inanimate object — a vacuum cleaner — that was in a position to be immortal. Now the works, particularly the cast pieces, are maintaining the integrity of the object to such a degree that my hand, my own physical involvement, disappears. Nothing is done to alter the viewer’s confidence in (or the psychological perception of) the object. Any diminishment or increase of its imperfections would affect its ability to convince in the arena of display; and total confidence, total conviction, are essential if these works are to achieve their goal.
GP: Is your work formed intuitively, or does it stem from market research?
JK: My work is intuitive, but I also expose myself to as much information as I possible can, so I think it would be fifty-fifty. It involves directly seeing the manipulation that takes place within oneself and how one’s desires are directed, but then it also relies on the biological self, an intuitive self. In this sense my work differs from, say, Conceptual art; my work is more ‘ideal’ than conceptual. Conceptual art was always creating support mechanisms to hold itself together, to cover up any lies within its structure. The intuitive quality of my work precludes all need for deception. If a flaw is there, it is part of the system. That’s what I mean by functioning intuitively instead of trying to create an artificial support for the work.
GP: Does art have a social dimension?
JK:Yes. I feel it’s the only valid way for art to exist, and the only way it can truly function. If art is not directed toward the social, it becomes purely self-indulgent, like sex without love. Whereas if art is functioning in the social sphere and helping to define social order, it’s working purely as a tool of philosophy, enhancing the quality of individual life and redirecting social and political attitudes. Art can define an individual’s aspirations and goals as other systems — for instance, economics — are defining them now. Art can define ultimate states of being in a more responsible way than economics can, because art is concerned with philosophy as well as with the marketplace.
GP: Your work is very new. Do you think you are still in the field of art, or have you gone beyond?
JK:My work, hopefully, is showing new possibilities of art. At the same time I am trying to look back, to see what attributes of art have been performing psychologically, and to work with those attributes in defining a new area, a situation in which the individual will have pure confidence in his position by virtue of the objects with which he surrounds himself. These objects will not be looked at in a contemplative way, but will only be there as a mechanism of security. And they will be accessible to all, for art can and should be used to stimulate social mobility. In fact I envisage the formation of a total society where every citizen will be of the blue blood. In such a society the individual will exist in a state of entropy, or rest, and will inhabit an environment decorated with object art that is beyond critical dialogue.
Helena Kontova: Does that mean you’re working for the present or for the future?
JK: The kind of transformation I’m talking about cannot be achieved overnight. Nevertheless, my work is being directed along these lines right now. My bust of Louis XIV (1986) is about the confidence that can be placed in a monarchic situation; it’s almost speaking about the ruins of Versailles. The stainless steel alludes to proletarian luxury, a necessary component of any political support system; and the light reflected in the shadows of the steel, which takes on a cerulean tone, reinforces a sense of intimacy and passiveness — the same kind of intimacy or passiveness one may feel, say, in a public square with a fountain or with a sculpture. Although the work is functioning in that area now, it needs time, just as the general economic situation needs time.
HK: For whom does the work function in this idle way you are describing?
JK: It functions for everyone. For the lower and middle class it will lead to an ultimate state of rest; for the upper class it will lead to an unprecedented state of confidence. So all members of society would benefit. There would be no losers.
Gregorio Magnani: Can you explain what you mean by “proletarian luxury?”
JK: The polished stainless steel has a reflective quality which is associated with a luxurious item. In my work the situation is set up so that the individual from the lower classes feels economic security in a fake situation. Polished objects have often been displayed by the church and by wealthy people to set a stage of both material security and enlightment of spiritual nature; the stainless steel is a fake reflection of that stage.
GM: Don’t you think your bust of Louis XIV and many of the other works, as well, can be seen as enbodiments of the confidence that can be placed in a multinational situation?
JK: The bust of Louis XIV is a symbol of the confidence that can be placed in an authoritarian regime but it is also a symbol of all labor exchange systems in history, including capitalism. What is being communicated is a decriticalized political situation. As Louis XIV is not performing as a monarch anymore, the lower class individual can feel comfortable that he can not be betrayed once he has gone into this state of entropy, and the upper class is able to partake in a false security and therefore can not betray the lower classes. Once the object has seduced the viewer into the acceptance of this political situation, there is no way for the lower class to revolt and there is no way for the aristocracy to betray again. If that were to occur, and it could not, the aristocracy would be biting its own tail.
GP: Is there any connection between your work and the work of the past?
JK: I’m deeply indebted to Marcel Duchamp, whose work, because it was directed outward from the artist and into the social arena, had a liberatory value for me. My work is connected with the past to the extent that it wishes to use the past psychologically, to reap the benefits inculcated in works of art by other artists — for example, the sense of entropy or equilibrium, devoid of critical dialogue, that is
present in certain statuary.
Giacinto Di Pietrantonio: A lot of people have been talking about the component of desire in objects. Are you acquainted with this philosophical debate, and do you see a relationship between your ideas and theirs? I’m thinking in particular of Jean Baudrillard.
JK: My art has not been directed toward defining someone else’s philosophical point of view; it has often been admired for the way it has enhanced these points of view. Baudrillard envisages an end time when art will be purely nonfunctional, a term of economic exchange; I see the ultimate role of art as one of pure function. Where I see art going, its exchange value, its economic substructure, will be removed; it will function solely as a means of support and security. Seen from this point of view, my work has strong biological implications; the encasement of the vacuum cleaners, the idea of removal and protection, and especially the “Equilibrium Tanks,” where you have water sustaining a basketball, are all very womblike.
Elio Grazioli: How is it possible for the immortality of the object to create a sense of security in the subject? Wouldn’t it have just the opposite effect?
JK: Any insecurity it might create would be generated by the realization that one is not living in a state of entropy, or equilibrium, and by the consequent desire to return to the womb — which, of course, is an unachievable goal.
EG: How do you go about choosing an object, if you want to eliminate its metaphorical quality? If you want to get away from a situation of critical evaluation where a vacuum cleaner is a breathing machine, or a basketball floating in a tank of water is a foetus?
JK: I think my work still has that metaphorical value. The statuary body of work that I just used had it, and even the “Luxury and Degradation” show, the “Jim Beam” work, used the metaphors of luxury to define class structure, a pail being a symbol of the proletariat, and a Baccarat Crystal Set (1986) the edge of the upper-middle class. Now the work is functioning on metaphors of art. The bust of Louis XIV is a metaphor for art in the hands of a monarch; the vase of flowers (Flowers, 1986), art working to create a sense of economic stability; or the trolls, a metaphor for mythology. So I’m still dealing with metaphor, in order to produce a false front that will have substantiality to it. There has to be a false front under the present economic conditions, but it has to have stability to it, and confidence in itself.
HK: How does your socio-political intention relate to, say, the American system as represented by Reagan and his following?
JK: With Reaganism, social mobility is collapsing, and instead of a structure composed of low, middle, and high income levels, we’re down to low and high only. Reaganism has defined two ends, and these are the areas where insecurity is greatest. My work stands in opposition to this trend.
GP: Why do you work in series?
JK: In bodies of work like “The New,” the “Equilibrium” pieces, and the “Jim Beam”
work, I was working with the integrity of the artist, opening myself up to what art can be rather than getting locked into a particular aesthetic. The latter, for me, would be very boring. I prefer to look at my context from another angle continually, to enhance the core of my work and to define the parameters, to expand them. It also addresses a marketing issue, namely, that art has to continue to change. If I want to leave the door open to change, I also need the freedom to repeat myself.
GP: Two or three years ago you worked with images that came from advertisements. Can you explain why?
JK: My original concern was to clarify the content of my work, so that when a viewer came into contact with “The New,” or a doubledecker (New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker, 1981), he would understand what it was about. For instance, near the object I would place things like a cigarette ad that would say “New Philip Morris Ultralight 100s” or a car ad that would say “New Toyota Family Capri” as a guide to the context of the work. In the “Equilibrium” work I formed a triad based on the Nike ads, bronzes, and equilibrium tanks, which functioned together to define one context. In the “Jim Beam” work, where I worked with liquor advertisements, the purpose was not so much to direct the viewer as to define social class structure. The Aqui Baccardi ad (1986) is defining a mentality and the desirability of luxury on an income of $15,000 or less. It says, “let’s gamble with our lives, let’s throw all our chips up into the air, and wherever they fall we’ll accept it.” Whereas the Frangelico ads are defining a $45,000 and up income, which is more concerned with being lost in one’s own thought patterns. These two publics are being deceived on different levels of thought, because they’re educated in abstraction and luxury on different income levels. The upper class would love to pull an individual with ambition and gumption from a lower class to the verge of the upper class, because that’s where the big takings of power are. If they can have you move through social mobility up to the edge of the upper class, they can go in and in one killing get 250 chips; but you’ll never break through, because luxury and abstraction are the guard dogs of the upper class. And the pursuit of luxury is degradation.
EG: Isn’t this the old problem of the avantgarde, where the artist, from the height of his intelligence, dictates that which you must and must not do? He gives you power, but he takes it away at the same time.
JK: My new objects reflect desire, they don’t absorb desire. It’s entropy, it’s energy that’s not being lost, but is in a state of rest. It’s not an absorption.
GM: How can your art have such an important social effect if the circulation is controlled by a limited circle of people?
JK: The freedoms that are fought for by art are never fought in the streets. It is a dialogue among few people which may eventually be reflected in the streets but isn’t created there. However, the people who are collecting and supporting my work are the ones that are in the same political directions as I am. They are responding to a dissatisfaction in art, politics, in philosophy. I feel aligned to them. Hopefully the ideas in my work will be disseminated through them to a larger audience.
GP: You are making very new and aggressive art… how do you fit into the New York situation? Do you look at other artists, or talk with them, or do you work alone?
JK: I’ve been in New York since the end of ’76, but have been participating in an open dialogue with the community only since ’79. Until recently I have felt like an outsider, although I have always been directly connected with the center of the art community. I don’t feel like an outsider right now; if anything I have to impose an outside position. I live down in the Wall Street area only for exclusion, so that I don’t have to walk out on the street and be confronted with SoHo or run into a specific dealer, and so on.
GP: What do you think the future of the art market in America will be like? Do you think galleries should change their strategies over the next ten years, in the light of developments like the recent boom in corporate art buying?
JK: I believe the responsibility of art must be controlled by the artist. I don’t feel that the galleries truly care, or can be placed in a position to assume the responsibilities of carrying the flag, because most are purely controlled by economics. On the other hand, I think that the New York market at this moment is functioning almost in a Reaganist term of a true marketplace. So far the market has been very positive, because there are so many opportunities for the artists.
GP: Don’t you think that the power of corporations is influencing taste?
JK: I haven’t had corporations directly involved in purchasing my work, other than Chase Bank. They seem to participate in the art world only as a market signal, an indicator of speculative value.
GP: Do you think speculation is still important in art, more than status, for instance? Because for investments the stock exchange is probably a better bet sometimes.
JK: People should be able to state their opinion in art, and help to direct the course of art. But there are greater profits to be made in other areas, and they can be made much more rapidly than in art.
Various contributors and members of the editorial staff participated in this interview, which took place on the premises of the magazine, December 10, 1986.
Giancarlo Politi is the editor and publisher of Flash Art.
Jeff Koons was born in York, USA, in 1955. He lives and works in New York.