Jeff Koons retrospective is at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was supposed to debut at MoCA in Los Angeles, but was lost when Jeffrey Deitch left MoCA. It would seem that he took the exhibition with him. I believe I recently read that the exhibition wil not be coming to Los Angeles. MoCA also lost the Richard Hamilton retrospective, and the Jack Goldstein retrospective was dropped but fortunately picked up by the Orange County Museum of Art. I saw Koons survey show at MCA Chicago a few years ago. There is no other artist who is making objects that look like plastic, rubber, balloons that are actually digitally engineered metals.
Modern art was born into a market economy, and by the early 20th century it could no longer ignore its commodity status. While some artists sought to escape this condition through abstraction, say, others worked to underscore it with the readymade, an everyday product they simply nominated as an artwork. In its first incarnation, with Dada, this device was taken to be critical of the cultural-economic system in which it was enmeshed, but by the time of Pop such negativity had all but drained away. ‘A new generation of Dadaists has emerged today,’ Richard Hamilton wrote in 1961, ‘but son of Dada is accepted.’ With Jeff Koons, the current maestro of the readymade, whose work is the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney in New York (until 19 October), acceptance has become affirmation, even celebration (his term). ‘I have always tried to create work,’ he has said, ‘which does not alienate any part of my audience.’
The child as an ideal of innocent vision is another old trope of modern art, and it too takes on a new twist with Koons, who aims to convey a youthful wonder at the object world around him. Here, however, innocence means less freedom from convention than delight in the commodity image, even identification with it, as he suggests in the account of a primal scene he gave in an interview with David Sylvester:
Childhood’s important to me, and it’s when I first came into contact with art. This happened when I was around four or five. One of the greatest pleasures I remember is looking at a cereal box. It’s a kind of sexual experience at that age because of the milk. You’ve been weaned off your mother, and you’re eating cereal with milk, and visually you can’t get tired of the box. I mean, you sit there, and you look at the front, and you look at the back. Then maybe the next day you pull out that box again, and you’re just still amazed by it; you never tire of the amazement. You know, all of life is like that or can be like that. It’s just about being able to find amazement in things.
This point of view – of the world seen by a boy precociously alert to the sexuality incited by consumerism – is one key to Koons, and it drives his refashioning of the readymade in terms of the child that commercial culture often takes us to be. As a result, his readymades have as much to do with display, advertising and publicity as with the commodity per se. (His father, Henry, was an interior decorator who owned a store in York, Pennsylvania, and even in his youth Koons was an avid salesman; he went on, briefly, to sell mutual funds and to trade commodities on Wall Street.)
Koons broke through in the early 1980s with a series titled ‘The New’ consisting of store-bought vacuum cleaners and other pristine appliances; set on or placed inside fluorescent light boxes, each immaculate product glows with a godly aura. Among the ‘New Hoover Convertibles’ is The New Jeff Koons (1980), a self-portrait which, enlarged from a family photo of the artist-to-be not long after his fateful encounter with the cereal box, also radiates a special wellbeing, here the wellbeing of a middle-class boy circa 1960. Shirt buttoned up, hair neatly combed, young Jeff sits at a desk with a colouring book, a crayon poised in his chubby fingers, and smiles up at the camera (adult Jeff, too, is almost always beaming in photos). In his lexicon ‘The New’ implies perfection in the sense of pure as well as packaged, and The New Jeff Koonsexudes both qualities. Although the family photo is obviously staged, so thoroughly does young Jeff inhabit the appointed role of budding artist that it seems absolutely authentic. Again, the mood is celebratory, and why not if your vision of life brooks neither death nor decay?
Koons is Panglossian in his artworks and statements alike, and – as with Warhol, who also ‘liked’ everything just as it is – this prompts the inevitable question: is he sincere or ironic or somehow both at once? It is difficult to call his bluff (again as with Warhol, you get stuck in his faux-naive language) or to catch him out (it’s been thirty years, and Koons is yet to step out of character). ‘I hope that my work has the truthfulness of Disney,’ he told Sylvester, and here as elsewhere it seems that Koons believes what he says and that his version of sincerity is the most sardonic thing ever. Yet when he adds, ‘I mean, in Disney you have complete optimism, but at the same time you have the Wicked Witch with the apple,’ you are given a useful insight into the workings of both impresarios.
This poisoned apple, this witchy charm, is what Koons offers in his best work, and when the ambiguity isn’t there, the performance falls flat. Thus his paintings are mostly a computer-assisted updating of Pop and Surrealism, equal parts James Rosenquist and Salvador Dalí (his first love), and the sculptures that mash up pop-cultural figures like Elvis and Hulk are also usually overdone. So, too, Koons often fails to inflect the three categories that are his bread and butter – kitsch, porn and classical statuary – with much edginess or even oddity; their tautological structures (‘I know porn when I see it’) appear to resist his attempts. Some of his objects cast a spell nonetheless, especially early ones such as his Hoovers presented as fetishes and his basketballs submerged in tanks of water, in a state of ‘equilibrium’ (the title of this 1985 series) that Koons likens to that of a foetus in a womb as well as to a state of grace (is there a pro-life message here?). He is also able to fascinate with objects that are not at all, physically, what they appear to be imagistically, such as Rabbit (1986), a bunny cast in stainless steel and finished to the point where it looks exactly like the cheap plastic of the inflatable toy that is its model. This is a talismanic piece for Koons, for it confirmed his shift from the relatively simple device of the readymade to the very painstaking one of the facsimile. Here he adapts the unusual genre, ambiguously positioned between art and craft, of the trompe-l’oeil object (the pictorial version of such illusionism is familiar enough), exactly reproducing a tacky curio (such as a Bob Hope statuette) or an ephemeral trifle (a balloon animal) in an unexpected material like stainless steel. Koons thus renders the thing (which is already a multiple) a weird simulation of itself, at once faithful and distorted; and, paradoxically, this illusionism reveals a basic truth about the ontological status of countless objects in our world, where the opposition between original and copy or model and replica is completely undone.
With this illusionism, as Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the retrospective, points out, Koons turns the readymade on its head, transforming cheap nick-nacks into ultra-expensive luxuries. His ‘Celebration’ series (1994-2006) includes twenty large sculptures of cracked-open eggs, balloon figures, hanging hearts and diamond rings; cast in high-chromium stainless steel, coated with transparent colour and polished to a mirror shine, they are inspired by the gifts we exchange on such occasions as birthdays, Valentine’s Day and weddings. These deluxe outsize decorations might strike even jaded viewers with the ‘amazement’ the young Koons felt in front of his cereal box; certainly they are fit for a king – or an oligarch.
What is the point of this art? Koons claims he wants to relieve us of our shame, which is why he focuses on two subjects where humiliation runs deep – sex and class. ‘I was just trying to say that whatever you respond to is perfect, that your history and your own cultural background are perfect,’ he remarks of the tschotskes (like the Bob Hope statuette) reworked in his ‘Banality’ series (1988), in language not unlike that of a cult therapist who has drunk his own Kool-Aid. Yet here too his work is more effective when our shame – or our ambivalence at least – is triggered, not wished away. When Koons desexualises sex, as in the images worked up with his ex-wife, the Hungarian porn star and Italian politician Ilona Staller (aka La Cicciolina), in the ‘Made in Heaven’ series (1989-91), there is little charge. Yet when he sexualises ‘things that are normally not sexualised’, as he puts it, such as children, flowers and animals, an edgy unease is sometimes the result.
Consider the porcelain boy and girl of Naked (1988). Rather than an Edenic purity, these pre-pubescent twins evoke a nasty prurience; they also gaze into an abundant flower that looks as though it might hold a dark Bataillean secret about the true nature of sexual organs. Koons makes his animals even more polymorphously perverse (based on toys and curios, they are creepily semi-human to begin with). Take Rabbit again. The bunny is an infantile thing, but it is also an adult symbol of rampant sex, and this one is erect in all its bulbous parts; Koons refers to it as ‘The Great Masturbator’ after a 1929 painting by Dalí. Or take Balloon Dog (1994-2000), which at first appears as innocent as its birthday-party inspiration. ‘But at the same time,’ as Koons says, ‘it’s a Trojan horse. There are other things here that are inside: maybe the sexuality of the piece.’ And after a while it does begin to look like a poupée by Hans Bellmer reworked for a super-rich kid. Edgier still is the sexuality suggested in Bear and Policeman (1988), a polychromed wood piece that shows a big cartoonish bear in a childish striped shirt looking down on a boyish bobby (whose whistle the bear is about to blow), and inMichael Jackson and Bubbles (also 1988), a well known porcelain piece that shows the King of Pop cuddling with his pet chimp (Koons predicts a whitened Jackson here). The two sculptures point to an illicit love that crosses not only generations but also species, and Bear and Policeman implies a further joke about English pop culture (the juvenile bobby) being schooled by the bigger, badder American version (the papa bear).
‘My work’ is meant to ‘liberate people from judgment’, Koons told Sylvester: ‘I’ve always been aware of art’s discriminative powers, and I’ve always been really opposed to it.’ And Rothkopf feels that Koons has indeed ‘achieved a kind of democratic levelling of culture’. Yet as with sex, so with class: his work is more effective when it sharpens our sense of social difference and tweaks our guilt about bad taste. Thus in the bar accessories that Koons made over in stainless steel in his ‘Luxury and Degradation’ series (1986), his ice pail, travel bar and the Baccarat crystal set register class distinctions rather precisely. And in the kitschy curios of the ‘Banality’ series we are not released from judgment so much as invited to entertain a campy distance from lowbrow desires or even a snobbish contempt for them.
In a telling moment Koons tells Sylvester that his work is ‘conceptual’ in that it uses aesthetics as a ‘psychological tool’. And at the end of the conversation he makes an extraordinary remark:
What I’ve always loved about the Pop vocabulary is its generosity to the viewer. And I say ‘generosity to the viewer’ because people, everyday, are confronted by images, and confronted by products that are packaged. And it puts the individual under great stress to feel packaged themselves … And so I always desire … to be able to give a viewer a sense of themselves being packaged, to whatever level they’re looking for. Just to instil a sense of self-confidence, self-worth. That’s my interest in Pop.
This credo fits in well with the therapy culture long dominant in American society (the only good ego is a strong ego, one that can beat back any unhappy neurosis), but it also suits a neoliberal ideology that seeks to promote our ‘self-confidence’ and ‘self-worth’ as human capital – that is, as skill-sets we are compelled to develop as we shift from one precarious job to another. When the perfectly presented boy in The New Jeff Koonslooks into the future, perhaps what he sees is us.
“Balloon Venus (Magenta)” (2008-2012) from Jeff Koons’s “Antiquity” series on view at Frankfurt’s Liebieghaus.
Liebieghaus/ Norbert Miguletz
“Metallic Venus” (2010), an eight foot high stainless steel beauty with live petunias
Liebieghaus/ Norbert Miguletz
1 / 7
AMERICA’S most famous living artist, Jeff Koons, is an ambitious perfectionist. He experiments with digital technologies, pushing materials to their limits and testing craftsmen’s skills, while taking care to hide the evidence of these processes. A Koons piece is always partly about the exquisite appearance of the final product.
Six long-awaited new Koons sculptures are being unveiled this summer. “Balloon Swan” made its debut at the Beyeler Foundation in the Swiss town of Basel during the art fair. The 11.5-foot (3.5-metre), stainless-steel bird, with a shiny magenta finish, is the latest instalment in the artist’s bestselling “Celebration” series. The series was originally conceived as a way for Mr Koons to communicate with his estranged son after he and his Italian wife were divorced. An earlier work in the same range, “Hanging Heart”, briefly made Mr Koons the world’s most expensive living artist when it sold for $23.6m in 2007.
The series has always had a perverse side, but “Balloon Swan” is arguably the most sexually evocative so far. Mr Koons sees the sculpture as a “totem” that is “phallic from the front” but displays “sexual harmony on the side”. From the back, he points out, its buttocks look like breasts.
Sex has long been a Koons theme, so it is remarkable that he has waited until now to make classic full-bodied female nudes. In Frankfurt at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, as part of a 44-piece sculpture retrospective, he has unveiled two goddesses of love. “Balloon Venus” looks like a “Celebration” sculpture but is actually the first work in the artist’s new “Antiquity” series. Inspired by the Venus of Willendorf, a tiny fertility goddess discovered in Austria and dating from around 23,000BC, Mr Koons’s sculpture proposes a new kind of idol—a high-tech grande dame whose untouchable polished surfaces reflect the viewer. Where the goddess is corpulent, Mr Koons’s Venus is palpably pregnant. For Mr Koons creativity and procreativity stem from the same root; his current wife, Justine, is expecting his eighth child.
“Metallic Venus” (2010), a saucy gal, marks a more dramatic departure from Mr Koons’s earlier style. The glossy turquoise statue includes a planter of living white petunias. The flowers are an odd touch, suggesting a Pygmalionesque desire to bring her to life. Venus was the Roman goddess of prosperity and victory as well as love. More than any of Mr Koons’s other new works, “Metallic Venus” feels like a dazzling trophy made for the super-rich.
Thanks to improvements in three- dimensional-scanning technology, “Metallic Venus” was made in only 18 months, which is fast by Koons standards. By contrast, two of the other new works at the Liebieghaus—“Hulk (Friends)” and “Hulks (Bell)”—took eight years to make. (Collectors who paid in advance for the works may complain that they are still waiting, but it is fashionable to have a multimillion-dollar Koons on order.) The artist explains that initially the technology was not good enough to do what he wanted and the Hulks “got trapped” in a spiral of “reverse engineering, endless scanning and re-detailing”. Mr Koons strives hard to create convincing illusions. The “Hulks” are painted bronze depictions of the inflatable toys that stand in for the green macho man; they look as light as air and have a finish that resembles plastic.
Mr Koons sees the “Hulk” and “Popeye” (the subject of the summer’s sixth new sculpture) as self-portraits. It is intriguing that a slim intellectual known for his classy business suits likes to represent himself as a pumped-up muscleman. “Popeye” is a stainless-steel statue in an unusually large range of translucent colours. He holds a silver tin of emerald-green spinach that could also be a pot of money. The messianic figure’s show of physical power is absurd but real.
Mr Koons’s icons are spectacular—and unrivalled. His figures have rich associations, immaculate shapes and luxurious materials. They speak to a global elite that believes in the holy trinity of sex, art and money. Art collectors enjoy seeing themselves reflected in what they buy.
FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON
Lunch with the FT
August 21, 2009 2:38 pm
Lunch with the FT: Jeff Koons
By Peter Aspden
This may be something of a first for Lunch with the FT. So improbably blue is the summer sky over central London, and so unusually warm the temperature, that Jeff Koons wants to eat al fresco. So we dispense with the troublesome business of restaurants altogether and order a picnic, which we will eat, by special arrangement, on the roof of the Serpentine gallery, in the heart of Hyde Park, where his latest show Popeye Series is on display.
We step outside the gallery’s first-floor offices, and a couple of staff enjoying a crafty cigarette come scuttling back in to give us our privacy. There are chairs, a table and a parasol already set up, as well as a sumptuous spread of healthy summer food, including roast aubergine, beef, grilled sea bass and a tomato salad. We have a personal waiter. I order a glass of white wine, Koons has Diet Coke. The scene is weirdly idyllic, hidden from public view, although we are able to observe the goings-on below.
Koons, as ever, is dressed immaculately, in a suit and tie, and perfectly manicured. He moves round the table, so that we can both shelter from the sun, and seems to want to play host. He is courteous and boyish, looking younger than his 54 years, and radiates a kind of innocent charm that makes me think of a Frank Capra movie.
Lunch with the FT
Koons’s life can’t get much more wonderful. He is one of contemporary art’s most renowned practitioners, with spectacular rewards to match. He vies, as auction records tumble, with Lucian Freud and Damien Hirst for the title of the world’s most expensive living artist. In recent years, his giant, highly polished sculptures of seemingly trivial subjects – balloons, dogs, dolphins, rabbits – have been among the most sought-after art works of the new century. Two years ago, one of his “Hanging Heart” series – a magenta heart, cast in stainless steel and weighing 1,600kg – sold at Sotheby’s for $23.6m.
Critical opinion is divided, to say the least, over Koons’s work. He is castigated for the slickness of his product, and the pretentious claims he makes for it; but he is also lauded for his cleverness in combining the monumental effect of high art with the cheap pleasures of the banal. He has, according to veteran critic Robert Hughes, “the slimy assurance … of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida”. But even this denigrator-in-chief admits: “The result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.”
In the gallery downstairs, spectators are sidling curiously around the new show. There are more creations on offer – aluminium sculptures of inflatable pool toys entangled in trash cans and plastic chairs – as well as the giant Popeye paintings: busy, brash canvasses surround their eponymous hero with a wealth of extraneous detail.
I notice that all the visitors have smiles on their faces, particularly when they stop to study the sculptures, in thrall to the optical illusion that makes their hard metal finish look like inflatable plastic. I ask a gallery attendant if people want to touch them. “I want to touch them,” she says with surprising passion. This doesn’t feel like a depraved culture at play; it is, rather, as if a spell has been cast that has turned us all into five-year-olds.
Up on the roof, picking at our starters, I recount my observation to Koons. “You know, I enjoy real inflatables,” he says earnestly. “A lobster pool toy: it’s a wonderful thing, it has such a great optimism to it. But it won’t last. A real toy, within three months, would become soft. Its shape would be distorted, it would eventually lose its air. So the only way it can maintain its optimism and power is to transform it into a different material.” He makes it sound like he is performing a public service.
I remark that the innocence of the image is belied by the way his “toys” are enmeshed with other objects such as fences or trash cans. What is that all about?
“I went through a custody situation some years back with my son Ludwig, and I wanted to make a body of work that featured objects going through things, but not becoming distorted. It is important in life, when you’re faced with a challenge, not to have that cause trauma or make you lose your path. I believe in being able to keep your life energy in a very optimistic direction, not allowing trauma to take place.
“I was in Rome and saw this tree growing through a chain link fence, and I looked closely. It was interesting, but I was a little turned off by the trauma and the distortion. So I thought I could make these things, and they would go through other objects but they would maintain their course, and remain optimistic.”
This is narrated deadpan, and with evident sincerity. The child-like candour of Koons’s remarks does indeed feel like he is casting a spell. I feel, after listening to his analysis, that there is no disjunction whatsoever between the world of inflatable pool toys and the symptoms of psychic well-being. A fake lobster has become a signifier of mental resilience, suddenly invested with the moral seriousness of a Crucifixion scene.
The custody battle, after all, was palpable enough. It came after the breakdown of Koons’s heavily publicised marriage in the early 1990s to Ilona Staller, better known as La Cicciolina, porn star and Italian politician, who absconded to Italy with their son, now aged 16.
That trauma must have been very real, I say. Did he ever feel like addressing it more directly in his art?
He admits that the experience made him lose faith in humanity. “When I felt there were injustices against myself and my son, the only way I could get through it was to turn to my art, reflecting my moral position to my audience, and taking my ability to communicate with people even more seriously. I came out of it a stronger person, a stronger artist, a stronger human being.”
The Serpentine show is not Koons’s only significant London presence this year. A forthcoming exhibition at Tate Modern, Pop Life: Art in a Material World, will feature the artist’s “Made in Heaven”, a series of sexually explicit photographs that he made with his ex-wife, which scandalised the Venice Biennale, and the rest of the world besides, in 1991.
Most of us would feel a little sheepish to have those intimacies recalled; but Koons doesn’t do sheepish. “I feel very proud of that work.” he says. “It was about the removal of guilt and shame. I saw Masaccio’s ‘Expulsion [from the Garden of Eden]’ in Florence and I immediately thought I would like to make a body of work that was situated after the Fall, but without the guilt and the shame.”
Which meant that he didn’t believe in a Fall at all?
No, he says. The lesson of “Made in Heaven” was self-acceptance. “If you can’t accept yourself, how can you go on to achieve any kind of transcendence? You are distancing yourself from the concept of life and how life functions.
“There is one work, ‘Ilona’s Asshole’, which I have always particularly enjoyed.” (The photograph is as described, and also features a penetration scene, in ruthless detail). “To have the confidence to reveal oneself so intimately, to be so at ease with one’s own body. It is quite beautiful,” Koons says.
His work, he insists, is designed to appeal to everyone. “I have seen how works of art can be used against people, how they can be demanding and intimidating, by the suggestion that you can’t enjoy or understand them unless you have read this piece of literature, or know that piece of mythology. It is total disempowerment. But art has the ability to achieve the absolute opposite of that.”
But his art also made coded references that wouldn’t be understood by everyone, I say: even the seemingly innocent “Popeye” paintings were full of references to Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly.
“But you don’t need any of that. That’s my fun and my interest, but it is not necessarily the viewer’s interest. The works are totally open to the viewer. They invite the viewer in. And whatever the viewer’s history is, it’s perfect. This is a subconscious dialogue that is taking place, and the art is happening inside them. Everything of value and importance is occurring inside them.”
We talk about Koons’s most famous work, his “Puppy”, a giant, 43ft sculpture composed of 60,000 plants and flowers that currently stands guard outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. He says he conceived the work in Germany. Louis XIV was on his mind, and he found himself wondering what the Sun King would be imagining as he looked out of the window. “And I thought, maybe he would want to see a sculpture of a giant puppy made out of flowers … ”
Whoa, slow down, I say. Why on earth would Louis XIV want to see a sculpture of a puppy made out of flowers? “Because the most profound question in art is, do you want to be the server or do you want to be served? When you come home to a puppy at night, do you look at it and say, ‘Go and get my paper’, or do you roll it over and say, ‘How are you doing, boy?’ ”
The stream of consciousness is bewildering, but we move swiftly on. Koons’s loquacity means that he is barely touching his lunch.
“It has been embraced by the people of Bilbao. There are lots of weddings there. It has brought a lot of happiness to the place. And another interesting thing about it, Peter, is that it can’t be planted incorrectly. There are 60,000 decisions to be made and none of them is wrong.”
But a puppy is a puppy. I ask how he feels to have his work labelled as kitsch, a description he famously resists.
“When you use words like that, it feels like people are throwing tomatoes at me. These words reflect segregation and judgment, and I don’t believe in judgment. These images and objects are things that I am curious about. A child is open to everything, and accepting of everything. The highest state of being is acceptance. When you segregate, you create a hierarchy. But everything has its own beauty.”
Seeing the beauty in everything has made a lot of money for Koons. His well-rehearsed reaction to his work fetching such staggering prices is that he is glad it will be looked after, “because people tend to protect what they pay a lot of money for”. Other than that, he says, economic values “are a reflection of how you serve your community. I take it as an honour. When there is a time when [my works] are not seen as significant, I am sure those values will change.”
He collects art himself, much of which is in his Manhattan home. “Poussin, Dali, Picasso, Magritte, Picabia. Some Egyptian antiquities. And Manet – I have the last significant nude that Manet did in 1879. These are the things that give meaning to me. When you believe something is a masterpiece, it can change your life and the way you view things.”
He talks eagerly of a future project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which a steam train engine will be suspended from a giant crane. He describes it for me: “It will do everything a train does – choo, choo! – and then it will get faster and faster, it will inhale and exhale and then a noise will come from its braking – hsssss – and then – whoo, whoo! – it will reach this orgasmic plateau … ”
It is a When Harry Met Sally moment. I order what Koons is having (coffee). I say the piece feels sad to me, because the train won’t actually be going anywhere.
“And it is also a technology that is already in the past,” he adds. “It is very much a symbol. Once you are born, you are already participating in time. You have to become aware of your own mortality.”
It is, before long, time to come off the roof. Is this a great time to be producing art? I ask. “It’s a great time to be alive.”
NYTIMES T MAGAZINE
Q. & A. | Jeff Koons on His New Champagne-Filled Balloon Sculpture and the DNA of Art History
This fall, an incredibly rare, highly valuable object created by Jeff Koons will become available for purchase. Two, actually. It’s up to you to decide whether to spend tens of millions on “Balloon Dog (Orange),” the massive sculpture being sold by the collector Peter Brant in November at a Christie’s auction (where it is expected to fetch between $35 million and $55 million), or the somewhat more reasonable figure of $20,000 on “Balloon Venus for Dom Pérignon,” the artist’s limited-edition Champagne-filled collectible made for the luxury brand. T spoke with Koons about the project and his forthcoming 2014 career retrospective at the Whitney, which will be the museum’s final exhibition in the iconic Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue.
How did the collaboration come about?
I very rarely do anything with brands. I worked with BMW to do an art car, and the reason I did that was because of the artists who had participated before, so I would have a dialogue with their work. With Dom Pérignon, other artists had been involved in their program. I wanted to participate in that dialogue. Also, they stand for quality — the same kind of quality that I like to attribute to my work.
How did you go about interpreting Dom Pérignon as a physical object? They asked me if I would make something to contain the bottle, but with a special serving ritual. So I thought that I’d like to place it inside the Venus. It represents, for me, the continuum of life energy. I think of Titian’s “Bacchanal” paintings with the satyrs and the nymphs. All of the celebrations and the ritual of celebrating life energy.
What has led you to be so interested in this Venus figure? It’s been recurring in your work for a couple of years now. It plays with scale. And its ability to be both masculine and feminine. It’s a feminine object, but its density, and maybe the patina of it, has a masculine quality. … I have been interested in narrative. If we look at human history, the only narrative of human history that we have is our genes and our DNA. Every other narrative is developed by political motivations. So the true human history is our genes and DNA. There’s an aspect of consciousness — consciousness is making connections. The way art works is connections. The more connections something makes, the more it imitates life itself. So if I am making a reference to Manet and Manet is referencing Velazquez and Velazquez is making a reference to Ariadne, the whole way back through this type of linkage is really like a replication of the way genes and DNA connect. I like to believe you can manipulate and form your own genes. These connections and ties that we make, the sense of family and the warmth that we take from that, I don’t think it goes without effect biologically.
What chromosome have you contributed to the DNA of art history? It’s more an aspect of affecting consciousness in a way, rather than any specific physical traits. I am really very interested in the exercising of freedom. The freedom of an artist to absolutely experience enlightenment and total consciousness. Absolute freedom. That is the desire. How close we allow ourselves to participate in freedom, that’s another matter. …
Last spring you presented exhibitions at two competing galleries simultaneously. Was that a statement of freedom or of power? Pretty good that you picked up on that. I have always had the freedom to show with any gallery that I’ve wanted to. We hear about these galleries, and they’ve become so big and so global in their identities, so everybody starts to focus on the galleries instead of the art. I wanted to do a show that felt very much on a street level, that a young artist could interact with. Before galleries were so global, artists used to have relationships with different gallerists. You would have somebody represent you in London and you would have somebody represent you in Berlin. Another friend in Spain and another one in Chicago. When galleries became global, these types of friendships disappeared. Because the galleries have a competing commercial interest. So, you might as well show at multiple galleries in your hometown. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.
You are about to have the last exhibition at the Whitney Museum’s original home on Madison Avenue. Obviously, that is quite momentous, but there are two sides to it. One is that it feels significantly overdue for you to have a solo exhibition at a New York museum. But it also feels like a remarkable tribute that you are having the final exhibition at that space. At first I was kind of mixed. When I was invited to be the closing show, I was like, “Do I really want to be the last show, or do I want to be the first show at the new museum?” Then I realized all of the incredible exhibitions that I had experienced at the Whitney and how it had changed my life. And the Breuer building is an incredible building, and I was absolutely thrilled they were able to make the whole building available for the exhibition. So I’m absolutely thrilled. It could not be in a more meaningful space.
I met Robert Plant maybe a year ago, and I told him, ‘You basically taught me how to feel.’ “—-Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons doesn’t necessarily look like an artist—and certainly not one who’s been slaving away in a garrison. In fact, he often looks more like he’s running for office, dressed in a suit and tie, his hair neatly cropped, an effervescent smile perpetually at the ready. But few artists truly embody their approach to making art as fully as Koons does. He is as All-American as it gets, a son of the Rust Belt (the industrial burg of York, Pennsylvania, to be specific) with an unbridled affinity for concepts that many artists actively try to disavow, like consumerism, accessibility, and populism.
In creating his work, Koons operates more like the self-made CEO of a small corporate enterprise, directing and project-managing it into being with the support of a staff of more than 100 artisans and assistants in his West Chelsea studio. But the fact that Koons’s life as an artist began as an off-hours endeavor supported by day jobs, working at the membership desk at the Museum of Modern Art and as a commodities broker on Wall Street, and eventually led to a robust retrospective in 2008 at the Château de Versailles—the same year Koons’s pieces reportedly sold for a cumulative $117.2 million at auction—tells you all you need to know about the kind of populist mythmaking that has frequently colored, and often fueled, his art. His work has drawn on the broad iconography of everything from Roman statues and classical busts to Michael Jackson, Popeye, balloon dogs, and household objects like basketballs and Hoover vacuum cleaners, playing with scale and context like some parallax fusion of Duchamp, Dalí, and Disney. Koons has also liberally inserted himself into is work, sometimes explicitly, as in his controversial Made in Heaven series, which was first exhibited in 1990, and more often through his runaway ambition and perfectionism, as in Celebration, a long-gestating cycle begun during a period when Koons was going through a divorce and faced near-bankruptcy.
Koons, of course, has not only rebounded over the last decade, but flourished, producing a prodigious amount of work, including his Popeye series, his bronze-and-wood Hulks (Bell), and his magenta Balloon Venus and turquoise Metallic Venus pieces. In 2012, he was the subject of two connected large-scale exhibitions in Frankfurt, Germany—one at the Schirn Kunsthalle, which focused primarily on his paintings, and another at the Liebieghaus featuring his sculptural work. The Whitney is also in the process of planning a major retrospective of his work set to open in 2014, and in September, it was announced that Koons would be consulting with New York State on designs for a new Tappan Zee Bridge.
Supermodel Naomi Campbell recently visited with Koons, 57, at his studio in New York City.
NAOMI CAMPBELL: You had an interesting exhibition titled “Popeye Series” in London [in 2009]. Why that Popeye image in particular?
JEFF KOONS: I think I was drawn to Popeye because it makes reference to our paternal generation, like the parents of people of my generation. I would think that to people like my father, and the people of his generation, Popeye is like a male priapist. So if you think in ancient terms, he would have a harem, a symbol of male energy. Popeye takes that spinach, and strength comes-art kind of brings that transcendence into our life, so I like these parallels. This enhancement of sensation. I think art teaches us how to feel, what our parameters can be, what sensations can be like; it makes you more engaged with life.
CAMPBELL: Some of your artwork has been sold for enormous prices. I know the Balloon Flower [Balloon Flower (Magenta)] sold for more than 12 million pounds. Do you see it as a mark of recognition, or is it completely academic to you?
KOONS: I think that it is some sign from society that at least some individuals find some worth in the piece and it is worth protecting and saving, that there is some cultural value. When things become more expensive, you would believe—or you would like to believe—that people want to protect them because they want to safeguard this storage, this kind of a value. But at the end of the day, the artistic experience is about finding your own parameters—for myself as an artist, having as intense and as vivid a life experience as possible-and then to trying to communicate that to others.
CAMPBELL: Your famous sculpture Puppy, in Bilbao, is about 40 feet high. What kind of challenges did it present to you?
KOONS: To make any artwork is always to be open to everything. I’d just had my “Made in Heaven” exhibition, and I’d really opened myself up for the baroque and the rococo. I became aware of those floral sculptures of Northern Italy and Bavaria. So I thought, Oh, it would be nice to make a living work, a work that shows the lifecycle just like an individual. There are also technical aspects of creating something like Puppy because you want to make it as economically viable as possible and also ensure that it functions and supports the lifecycle of these plants. Climates go to different extremes, so you want to make it flexible for different locations. When I first had the idea for Puppy, I thought, Oh, in the winter, Puppy could become this ice sculpture. But climates change so much today, that you are not allowed to do that.
CAMPBELL: So there is no right or wrong way of doing Puppy?
CAMPBELL: Michael Jackson and Bubbles is another famous piece of yours. There seems to be a lot of humor underlying your work. It this the key factor?
KOONS: You know, I met Bubbles, but I never got to meet Michael.
CAMPBELL: I met Michael, but not Bubbles.
KOONS: So it’s a kind of yin and yang. When I made that sculpture, Naomi, I was very much in awe of Michael’s talent. His breadth in so many different things . . . He was a live sensation, and I was always very intrigued by that. So I was really trying to communicate to people self-acceptance, and that whatever their history is, it has its purpose. I needed kind of spiritual, authoritative figures there to let people feel it’s okay, that you can go along with this self-acceptance of your own cultural history or the things that motivate you. So Michael was there as a contemporary Christ. If you look at the sculpture, it actually is like the Pietà. It has the same configuration, the triangular aspect, so it’s making reference to that. He is there like a contemporary Christ figure to assure people that it’s okay.
CAMPBELL: It’s nice to hear you speak about self-acceptance. You seem to care about people on a deeper level.
KOONS: People have always enjoyed looking at my work and presenting it for something else. My work is very anti-criticism, anti-judgment. Because of that, automatically there is some kind of energy. People who want to look at art on a very surface level, can go against the work in an easy manner. They will refer to it as kitsch.
CAMPBELL: I don’t like that word.
KOONS: I don’t like that word either because even using that word is making a judgment.
CAMPBELL: I think it’s a bullshit word—it’s a word people use just because they do not have a real understanding of what it means.
KOONS: You know, blaming the messenger always happens. I remember in 1986 when I made my Luxury & Degradation body of work. People would like to write this off as some blame-type thing. But it’s really about abstraction. It’s about awe and wonder. I’m from Pennsylvania, and when you go out for a drive in Pennsylvania, quite a few people in the community have a gazing ball in their front yard—like a glass reflective ball—on a stand. [To assistant] Lauran, can you bring up a gazing ball?
CAMPBELL: Do we have those in London?
KOONS: I don’t know. In Germany, in the 19th century, King Ludwig II of Bavaria helped bring back the gazing ball. I think in Victorian times there were a lot of gazing balls. It’s a way of people being generous to their neighbors. [Shifts attention to computer screen] Okay, this is one image of the gazing ball. You’ve seen them?
CAMPBELL: Yes, I have.
KOONS: That’s my Rabbit. If you think of the head of my Rabbit, the reason I made my Rabbit was to make reference to this type of generosity. The reason people would put [a reflective ball] out in the yard is, I think, for their neighbor to enjoy when they go by.
CAMPBELL: You started at the Art Institute in Chicago.
KOONS: I did my last year of school in Chicago, and ended up staying there for a year or so later. Originally, I went to Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, but I transferred to Chicago because of the artist collective the Hairy Who. As a young artist, I was able to learn personal iconography through artists like Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke. So it’s learning a vocabulary that helps you learn how to feel and how to make other people feel and experience.
CAMPBELL: Salvador Dalí is cited as one of your utmost influences, is that right? What in his work has particularly inspired you?
KOONS: I would have to say the surreal nature of it. You are young and you don’t know what art can be—you don’t know when you are older either—but the first part is the self-acceptance, this inward journey. Surrealism is very much about going inward. I always felt like that about Dalí. He was the first artist I got involved with after my parents got me a coffee-table book of his work. When I was 17, I called Dalí and asked him if he would meet me. And he told me, “Sure, just come to New York.” We met at the St. Regis hotel, and he asked me if I wanted to go see his exhibition at the gallery. I met him at the gallery and he posed for some photos. So his generosity was great.
CAMPBELL: Wow! So you came from Pennsylvania?
KOONS: No, from Baltimore then. It was very generous of him to take the time for some young artist. To answer your question, Dalí was very innovative. And there were many things he toyed with that really affected the art world. I think that pop art is very much based on and reflected on a lot of Dalí’s work. The idea of the Madonna . . . So the Pope was visiting New York, and Dalí saw his image in the newspaper, he zoomed into a photograph of the Pope’s ear and he painted a Madonna and child. It’s all Band-Aid dots. There was never anything like that before. It affected young artists. There were no Warhol silk screens. This is the ground floor.
CAMPBELL: I’ve read that sometimes you use a large number of assistants and you have a color-code system so they are able to paint a large volume of artwork in a short space of time. Do you think that masters like Van Gogh or Rembrandt would have been shocked or amused by this approach?
KOONS: Each painting takes from a year and a half to two years, so I wouldn’t be able to make between six and eight paintings a year. But because I am doing other activities—I want to make sculptures, I want to work on other projects—I can’t sit and paint all day. If I could, it would be wonderful. Then it would probably take me four years to make a painting, or maybe I’d change my technique and it would not be so realistic. But the reason for this is to be able to have this type of control that every gesture is the way I would do it, every color is controlled, the way the paint is applied is controlled. It’s not as if I have assistants and I’m like, “Okay, go and make something and I’ll come and sign it.” Everything is a system to control every gesture as if I did it.
CAMPBELL: I know that your wife [Justine Koons] is an artist. Do you work together sometimes, or do you create art independently?
KOONS: Our whole life is a collaboration. We have six children together. We just had our sixth child.
CAMPBELL: Oh, my god. Congratulations!
KOONS: Art in our family is the meaning of life. It’s an extension of our lives. Justine used to work at the studio, and I met her through a friend that worked at the studio—she is very artistic. We’ve been working on some jewelry projects together and she’s been very involved in—
CAMPBELL: Raising the family.
KOONS: Raising the family. She’s been a little distant from the studio itself. She makes her own drawings and paintings and jewelry.
CAMPBELL: Any signs in your kids that they might want to pick up a paintbrush? Obviously, kids do pick up paintbrushes . . .
KOONS: Our daughter is maybe picking up more signs from your line of work. She is very feminine. Her favorite book is Shoe-la-la! It’s about girls shopping for shoes.
CAMPBELL: I know this book.
KOONS: But all of our kids are bright, artistic, and talented.
CAMPBELL: Would you agree that art is everywhere in life: in advertising, TV commercials, album covers?
KOONS: I think that there are externalized things-the things that we come across—and art eventually becomes objectified as these external things. But real art experience has connections just like consciousness itself. The heart of this is the experience.
CAMPBELL: There are many people who describe your work as inspired by consumerism. Do you think that there are any parallels with the Warhol approach?
KOONS: Well, I think I am inspired by the world around me. I think everybody is. Ed Paschke told me as a young artist, “Everything is all here. You just have to look for it.” The only thing you can do in life is follow your interests. I try to kind of accept everything and have everything in play. No matter what it is, it’s okay—I can use it. So there are aspects of desire that I am interested in. There are also aspects of consumerism in my work, absolutely: heightened experience, display, and also dealing with class structure and trying to, in a way, level it. But my work has always been about acceptance and dismantling this hierarchy system of judgment where there is only one way to look at something and you must know something to be involved in. You don’t have to know anything. It’s about your own possibilities, our own insight.
CAMPBELL: What was the first piece you sold?
KOONS: Well, truly the first work I sold, my father would have sold it for me. My father was an interior decorator and he had a furniture store in Pennsylvania. He had a showroom window in our town of York. He was very, very supportive of my interest in art. I would make paintings and he would have them framed and put them in the showroom window. As a 9-year-old child, I would sell a painting for $900. Maybe it was not $900—maybe it was $300. I remember they sold one piece at $900. But after art school, my first artwork I sold was to Patrick Lannan. He is deceased now, but he headed the Lannan Foundation. He bought my first Hoover that I ever made. He came to my studio and he liked the work and said, “You know, Jeff, when I started off, I sold Hoovers door-to-door.”
CAMPBELL: No! He totally connected to it.
KOONS: He did. What’s interesting is that I used the vacuum cleaner in my work because I was making reference to that knock on the door that you would get in the ’50s from the Hoover salesmen.
CAMPBELL: Do you consider art a good commodity?
KOONS: I like to think of art more as an experience. Is it good or bad? It has information just like the library has information that helps us to stay alive. It has the ability to condense information to what’s really important and critical. It deals with archetypes. It has the essence of all human history in it, so it’s a shame that an economic aspect comes into it.
CAMPBELL: Does music play a big part in your life?
KOONS: When I was younger, I was very moved by Led Zeppelin. When I was about 16, I have a vivid memory of wanting life to be more interesting and listening to their music driving around in my car . . .
KOONS: Can be blasting, but really starting to get in contact with aspects of sociology and philosophy from the music. I met Robert Plant maybe a year ago, and I told him, “You basically taught me how to feel.”
CAMPBELL: You had a small part in Gus Van Sant’s film Milk  as the character aptly named Art Agnos. Did you enjoy the experience?
KOONS: I did. Gus saw me on Today or some news program, and he told me that he thought, That’s my Art Agnos! And the experience was fantastic. Sean Penn was wonderful and very supportive of me not being an actor. James Franco was also very supportive. It was interesting, because the whole acting process about being in the moment—it was a philosophical experience for me, just as an artist, to try to be engaged with my life. At different moments, I kind of snapped myself into, “Wait a minute, I am here, this is it!”
CAMPBELL: You like spending money. It’s said the Celebration series almost bankrupted you. Apart from your projects, what is the biggest luxury in your life?
KOONS: Being able to make things. My family and I have a farm in Pennsylvania, and we love it there. Our children can run wild. I don’t have sports cars . . .
CAMPBELL: You have a truck.
KOONS: Yeah, I have a truck. As far as conspicuous kind of consumption, I am not really involved in that. I love art; I have artworks.
CAMPBELL: Do you collect?
KOONS: I collect. One of the most important reasons is I want to inform myself. I’ve acquired pieces that have changed my life. The Picassos I own had that effect on me. We got involved in collecting so we can educate our children that art is much bigger than their parents.
CAMPBELL: What’s left for Jeff Koons to do? What else do you want to do?
KOONS: Oh, man, I feel I have a lot to do. I feel like I have made certain things that, at times, consciously, I may not have been so aware of what I was doing—I was just doing it. You just do it. And now that I’ve gotten older, there is a certain consciousness that I have about art. I still really want to make something that is the highest state of experience for myself. I want higher states of experience, of excitement.
Jeff Koons is without a doubt one of the best-known contemporary artists in the world. His sought after artwork, which is both innovative and expensive, explores current obsessions with sex and desire; race and gender; and celebrity, media, commerce, and fame. He’s been lauded by the art world, but his work has been deemed controversial and he has received criticism along the way for being kitschy! Despite any controversies, his sculptures are deep rooted in sensuality, sexuality and have a genuine concern for humanity. He is a true artist in every sense of the word!
Naomi Campbell recalls “I was fretting ahead of my meeting with Jeff Koons but this turned out to be all for nothing. Jeff looked so at ease with himself, and as a result, with all his surroundings as well. So much so that I felt that sitting across from him was a privilege and an invaluable opportunity, almost akin to a spiritual experience”. From his side, Koons did not begrudge the time necessary to explain in detail to our guest editor the idea behind his work and tell how he built his own personal “factory.”
NAOMI: Three years ago your “Popeye” exhibition was held in London. Why did you choose this cartoon hero?
KOONS: Popeye the Sailor Man was a hero of my parents’ generation. For my father and others of his age, he was something like Priapus – the symbol of manliness. He eats spinach and attains unprecedented power, and the art of this brings transcendence to our lives. I like this type of association. Art teaches us to feel, helps us realize our limits, forces us to be captivated with life.
NAOMI: Some of your works have jaw-dropping price tags. In 2008 “Balloon Flower” went for almost £13 million. Is this recognition? Does the sale price carry any significance for you?
KOONS: If the cost increases, one would like to believe that they want to preserve your work. It is a sign that people acknowledge the socio-cultural value of your creation. In this there is sense, but in the end a piece of art is an intense and vivid life experience, with which I try to share with others.
NAOMI: The height of your flower sculpture “Puppy” in Bilbao is 13 meters. Was that difficult to shape?
KOONS: I had just finished the exhibition “Made in Heaven,” so my mind was completely open to Baroque and Rococo. I learned about flower figures, which they create in northern Italy and in Bavaria in southern Germany, it wouldn’t be bad to create a living sculpture reflecting the Earth’s cycle. The “Puppy” is just this: the need to support plant life taking into account the temperature . . .
NAOMI: . . . and the passing of the seasons.
KOONS: Yes, the passing of the seasons. And this allows the sculpture to work in different climate zones. When this idea first came into my head, I thought it would be cool to do the “Puppy” as an ice sculpture. But the climate changes so quickly, and the idea didn’t take off.
NAOMI: Peter Brant (the owner of the house that publishes Interview, businessman and multimillionaire – Interview) ordered “Puppy” from you for his estate. Will you travel there to look after the sculpture?
KOONS: Right after he bought the work, I went to see him and with his whole family we discussed the nuances and wrote down instructions. I went to see him several times afterward with the changing of the seasons, but since then they have learned how to take care of the “Puppy” themselves. I would like to believe that no mishandling of the sculpture is occurring. If you give a picture of “Puppy” to a hundred children and ask them to draw it, all hundred drawings can be used for a new design. After seeing it, I, without having participated in the design of the sculpture, would almost certainly say “Wow!”
NAOMI: And here’s another work of yours, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” I love its humorous message. Before this I had only seen Jackson’s favorite monkey Bubbles in photos, even though I knew Michael.
KOONS: For me it was the other way around – I knew Bubbles but not Michael. But I think very highly of Michael’s talent. And in this sculpture I wanted to convey the idea of accepting oneself, that no matter what your story, it has its own special meaning. I did it in order to help people triumph over insecurity and poor self-esteem. So I choose a person with influence, whose example would show people that everything will turn out okay, that you are wonderful in your own way and just need to find motivation from within. Michael was a modern day Jesus. And if you look at the sculpture, you’ll notice a similarity with Michelangelo’s Pieta in a general sense, with a triangle at the base. This is a modern day Jesus, who tells people that all is well.
NAOMI: You seem to have such a deep sense of caring about people!
KOONS: Those that like my creations always perceive them as a symbol, as something more than just a shape. In all my work, I push back against criticism, against judgment and condemnation. And these features automatically generate a certain strength and energy. Those that see my work only in a bubble can easily judge it and call my art kitsch.
NAOMI: What an unpleasant word. Just rotten. People often say it when they don’t understand something.
KOONS: Exactly! But in using it, you start to judge. By the way, this is nothing new: They have always condemned the messenger, who simply bears bad news. Back in 1986 in the series “Luxury and Degradation” I told people that art intoxicates, that art and its abstractions are the most powerful form of communication, and that luxury actually humiliates the world. Then I started to work with reflective services. I took stainless steel – I like the proletarian aspect of this material. Some write off my methods as sinfulness and a feeling of guilt, but reality it can all be reduced to abstraction and a feeling of surprise. You know, I’m from Pennsylvania. In almost every yard there is a reflective ball. In the 19th century the King Ludwig II of Bavaria brought back the fashionability of such “magical” crystal balls. And it Victorian England this was completed. It’s simply a way to show your generosity toward your neighbors. (An assistant brings Koons a ball.) Are you familiar with this?
KOONS: This is my “Rabbit.” (In a catalog Koons shows his sculpture made of twisted balloons in the shape of a rabbit.) Look at it and you’ll get there here there is also a reference to that generosity. You see they set these balloons in the garden for the pleasure of passer-bys.
NAOMI: How cool is that! Jeff, I know that you graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago and likely spent a great deal of time in the Windy City. Have you met Barack Obama?
KOONS: Oh no. I only studied at the Art Institute in my final year. I began my education in Baltimore, at the Maryland Institute College of Art and transferred to Chicago because of a group of artists called Hairy Who, which included Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke and widely used personal iconography. It was from them that I hit the books on the dictionary of feelings and studied how to make others empathize with the work. (He shows the work of Ed Paschke with Mighty Mouse.) This is one of my favorite pictures. Look how Paschke uses color: Each detail is traced like the old masters, and then he adds color rays to give all this the glow of life… Jim Nutt’s work has all its roots in Dada and Surrealism: The group he imagined was developed in parallel with pop art, but in his work is more iconography, and in pop art objectivity.
NAOMI: They say that Dali had a strong influence on you. What inspired you in his work? Color? Form? Surreal images?
KOONS: Probably the latter. In youth you only vaguely know what is art. By the way, you don’t become smarter regarding this matter with age. It actually all begins with an internal journey, here’s Surrealism and Dada and that’s about it. Dali was the first artist whose works I met with – my parents bought be a book of his art. And at 17 I garnered up the courage to call Dali and ask if he needed me. He unexpectedly answered: “Of course, come to New York.” We met in the hotel St. Regis. He took me to his exhibition. I took a picture of him there, and he posed.
KOONS: No kidding. The fact that he found the time for a young artist was incredibly generous. By the way, here is standing in front of his hallucinogenic “Tiger.” (He shows a photo.) I have a sketch of this work hanging in my bedroom. In the picture is the image of a tiger, and if you pull away, you can see three heads of Lenin. Dali was a great innovator, he played with a lot of different things that had a major influence on the art world. Pop-art is in many ways a reflection of Dali’s ideas. Did you know that in ’58 he painted “Sistine Madonna?” The Pope came to New York, and Dali saw his picture in the paper and increased the size of the Pope’s ear. Then he drew an image of Madonna with a baby. Today this picture is located in the Vatican’s art collection. And the entire thing was done with dots. It inspired many young artists. You see before this no had created anything like it, there was no Warhol silkscreen printing, no Roy Lichtenstein comics. Dali is the ground floor, the base. He constantly experimented, read scientific journals, he was very interested in math…
NAOMI (to the side): And I will nevertheless ask you this question. (Turning to Koons.) I read that you have many assistants and that you’ve developed a special system of color codes so that they can quickly draw a large amount of work for you. Do you think masters such as Van Gogh or Rembrandt would be shocked by this approach?
KOONS: Every painting takes 1-2.5 years. This is very long and at this pace I wouldn’t be able to do 6-8 pictures in a year. And I still have other matters to attend to! I want to create sculptures, installations… I can’t sit and write all day. But I want to control everything, so I review the pictures daily. And every stroke, every gesture falls exactly where it would if I did it myself. I don’t say to an assistant: “Go draw something and then I’ll sign it.”
NAOMI: I know that your wife Justine is also an artist. Do you work together?
KOONS: Yes, our entire life is a complete collaboration. We have six children, the sixth was born 1.5 months ago.
NAOMI: Goodness! Congratulations!
KOONS: Thank you! Art is the meaning of life in our family. Earlier Justine constantly worked in the studio, she’s very artistic. We worked on jewelry projects together, but now she’s busy most of the time with…
NAOMI: … the family.
KOONS: Exactly. But she still draws pictures and creates jewelry.
NAOMI: And have the children tried to pick up a brush yet?
KOONS: No, but would believe that our young daughter Scarlett has already shown an interest in your profession? She’s very feminine, and her favorite book Shoe La La is about how girls buy shoes. In the evening she gives me a clothes catalog and says, “Read me a book Daddy!”
NAOMI: Just great! So, many critics say that your work is inspired by the ideology of consumerism. Do you think there’s any parallel with Andy Warhol and his famous Campell’s Soup design?
KOONS: Yes I was influenced by the world around me! When I was young, Ed Paschke said to me, “Everything has been created already, you just have to look around.” Follow your own interests, that’s what’s truly important in life. I try to take in everything, get involved in everything – it’s not important what. Of course there is a commercial component in this. Remember when you were a kid and thought, “This is what I want for Christmas!” It is still a question of desire, of genuine interest.
NAOMI: And did you have a lot of toys as a child? Popeye for example?
KOONS: Oh yes, I had a bunch of different stuff. Even though we lived modestly, my parents bought me everything I really wanted. But allow me to finish. In my art, I simply use these aspects of desire. Time passes. We passed from an agrarian culture through an entire era of industrialization and have become a service society. Therefore, the feeling of independence and axiom of a person who relies solely on their own strength has turned into an ideology of consumerism. By the way, I’m not as close to this ideology as many think. But I certainly use several manifestations of consumerism: A powerful and intense experience demonstrated in the face of a good. At the heart of my work lies inclusiveness. Our hierarchical system of reasoning offers only one path: You absolutely must know about the world of art. But I don’t like this view. I think that you really don’t need to know anything. Everything happens within yourself. Everything can be reduced to your own possibilities and your unique understand of the essence of things.
NAOMI: When did you sell your first work? What did it look like?
KOONS: My dad sold my first picture. He worked with interiors and we had a furniture store in Pennsylvania. And Dad displayed my work in the store window. I think I was nine years old when he sold one of these for $900.
NAOMI: Oh wow! You started early!
KOONS: Yes, yes, well, maybe it was only for $300. But I remember perfectly that somebody bought one of these for $900. I’m sure that Dad understood there were more interesting pictures than mine, but he gladly met me halfway. When I finished at the Institute, I sold right here in New York my first serious creation to the entrepreneur Patrick Lennon. He came to me in the studio one day, saw my work with a vacuum cleaner and said, “You know Jeff, I started out selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.”
NAOMI: He understood that art was all around him!
KOONS: Exactly. In that work I hinted at the fact that half a century ago sales were at the forefront of culture. If someone rang your doorbell in the 50s, it was a vacuum salesman. I worked in direct sales myself during my childhood. I sold wrapping paper.
NAOMI: At Christmas time?
KOONS: Yeah year-round. Tape and wrapping paper – they’re all now in my “Celebration” series. I also sold chocolate.
NAOMI: In the little boxes?
KOONS: In the little ones. We lived in the suburbs. My parents would sometimes drive me around to different cities in the area, and I would walk around the neighborhoods knocking on doors. I really enjoyed it because you never knew who would open the door, how this person would look, would they be unkempt or beautiful, would they invite you in, what smells would be coming from the kitchen. It’s a pleasant feeling of apprehension.
NAOMI: And maybe a feeling of independence! They’re probably incredible feelings to experience at such a tender age.
KOONS: All this is about confidence in yourself and your abilities. And also about how with the help of others, people can satisfy their needs.
NAOMI: In 2002 you, David Bowie and Paul McCartney became honorary knights of the French Legion of Honor. That’s good company. After saying these names the question arises: Is music of great importance for you? Do you know David?
KOONS: I met with David and think he’s one of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. If we draw parallels with Ancient Greece, Bowie is the god Apollo. When he played music, he became a woman.
NAOMI: I adore him. He doesn’t play now, but at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, we entered the stadium to his music.
KOONS: And Paul McCartney? My God, as a kid I watched the Beetles performance on the Ed Sullivan Show! I was also very inspired by Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. At 16 I spent hours driving around in the car listening to their songs. I met Plant in person not too long ago and told him, “You taught me how to feel.”
NAOMI: And to dream?
KOONS: And to dream. Because music comes first. It enhances our senses, everything in it is about feelings.
NAOMI: You played the small role of Art Agnos in the film Harvey Milk in 2008. Was that an interesting experience?
KOONS: There aren’t words for it, fantastic! Director Gus Van Sant saw me on the Today Show and immediately thought, “There’s my Art Agnos!” Sean Pean was great to me even though I’m in no way an actor. And James Franco also supported me in every way.
NAOMI: Do you want to play another role somewhere?
KOONS: In the first place I’m very curious from the point of view of the essence of acting – it’s being in the moment. The drive to lead an engaging life, the feeling that it’s moving along and you’re sitting and waiting for your entrance to arena. For me this was a philosophical experience. I don’t think that all this helped me to act better, but as a person trying to life his life, it certainly helped. I felt moments clarify, and I said to myself, “Wait a second, I’m here, and this is it!”
NAOMI: It’s difficult when they say to you that you need to portray someone. But it’s pleasant when you can somehow erase yourself. That skill is always useful. Jeff, coming back to your immediate work, you told me at the beginning about the “Luxury and Degradation” series. It brings up the theme of alcohol and art. The collection featured some very interesting pieces of art inspired by Gordon’s, Jim Beam and Martell. Did you like the visual associations, or perhaps you were interested in the conceptuality of alcohol in society?
KOONS: I did “Luxury and Degradation” immediately after the “Equilibrium” series. I remember I was walking along 5th Avenue and at the corner of 22nd Street I saw a liquor store. In the window was a Jim Beam train with an engine, seven cars and rails. And I thought, “What a wonderful ready-made object!” But how to turn it into something connected with alcohol? That’s when I used stainless steel for the first time. The idea was that to create something visually intoxicating, you had to keep the spirit of alcohol. And then I understood that it would be a piece of art – you could cast the car that Jim Beam filled with alcohol and close its roof, and the work would keep its purity and honesty. They agreed. And that’s how the first object came to be. Then I started observing one alcoholic. I saw how he started to mumble, followed his degradation, the chaos of his life. And I noticed how when you get on the subway in an affluent neighborhood, the advertising changes. It becomes more abstract. I recorded all this, filmed it and then painted it with oil. Depending on the level of affluence, society wants you to pull out your hair, make a lot of money, become successful. Then it beats you on the head with all of this and degradation begins.
NAOMI: It’s true, when you walk from Uptown to Midtown toward the Bronx, it really catches your attention. I noticed this when I was just 17 and had just arrived in New York.
KOONS: Abstraction is a powerful weapon!
NAOMI: Do you collect others’ art?
KOONS: I collect. The main reason for this is to stay informed. Several things that I acquired literally changed my life. For example, Picasso played a major role for me. Picasso has so many references to different things. He’s so pervasive! Such a high density of information, it’s breathtaking. And all his work was done in an intuitive manner. Picasso was able to repeat himself day after day. He had favorite themes and images that seemed similar but they still came out differently. My wife and I started to collect art so that our children understand that the world isn’t limited to the work of their parents.
NAOMI: Yes, Picasso blows my mind as well. Sadly it seems I’ve come to my last question, “What would the artist Jeff Koons like to do? What inspires him today?
KOONS: Boy, I want to do a lot. Some things I did on a whim. I just did, I just felt. A specific awareness of art only came to me over time. And now I want to do something that will be for me a high-level experience, feelings, excitement…
NAOMI: Do you want to challenge yourself?
KOONS: Why not? There are so many misunderstandings about me. People think that I have a real factory. They even compare me to Andy Warhol and his numerous assistants. But I actually just try to achieve a balance: On the one hand, I always have major projects that I dabble in for a long time. On the other, I try to make sure that all my work maintains its spontaneity. And directness.
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.’
JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART jeff koonsNew York City, October 1986KlausOttmann: What is the theme of your new work?Jeff Koons: The basic story line is about art leaving the realm of the artist, when the artist loses control of the work. It’s defined basically by two ends. One would be Louis XIV — that if you put art in the hands of an aristocracy or monarch, art will become reflec-tive of ego and decorative — and on the other end of the scale would be Bob Hope — that if you give art to the masses, art will become reflective of mass ego and also decorative. The body of work is based around statuary representing different periods of Western European art. Each work in the show is coded to be more or less specific about art being used as a symbol or representation of a certain theme that takes place in art, such as Doctor’s Delight, a symbol of sexuality in art; Two Kids, of morality in art; Rabbit, of fantasy in art. Italian Woman would be a symbol of the artist going after beauty; Flowers would be art being used to show elegance and the strength of money; Louis XIV is power, a sym-bol of using art as an authoritarian means; Trolls, a symbol of mythology.Ottmann: What is your main interest as an artist?Koons: I’m interested in the morality of what it means to be an artist, with what art means to me, how it defines my life, etc. And my next concern is my actions, the responsibility of my own actions in art with regard to other artists, and then to a wider range of the art audience, such as critics, museum people, collectors, etc. Art to me is a humanitarian act, and I be-lieve that there is a responsibility that art should somehow be able to affectmankind, to make the word a better place (this is not acliche!).Ottmann: Where do you get the ideas for your work?Koons: It’s a natural process. Generally I walk around and I see one object and it affects me. I can’t just choose any object or any theme to work with. I can be confronted by an object and be interested in a specific thing about it, and the context develops simultane-ously. I never try to create a context artificially. I think about my work every minute of the day.Ottmann: How far are you involved in the actual production of your work?Koons: I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the neces-sary abilities, so I go to the top people, whether I’m working with my foundry — Tallix — or in physics. I’m always trying to maintain the integrity of the work. I recently worked with Nobel prize winner Richard P. Feynman. I also worked with Wasserman at Dupont and Green at MIT. I worked with many of the top physicists and chemists in the country.Ottmann: Could you elaborate the term “integrity”?Koons: To me, integrity means unaltered. When I’m working with an object I always have to give the great-est consideration not to alter the object physically or even psychologically. I try to reveal a certain as-pect of the object’s personality. To give you an example: if you place a shy person in a large crowd, his shyness will be revealed and enhanced. I work with the object in a very similar manner. I’m placing the object in a context or material that will enhance a specific personality trait within the object. The soul of the object must be maintained to have confidence in the arena.Ottmann: How do you see the development of your work?Koons: The early work is very important to my personal development, but I don’t feel that it has the same so-cial value as my work from the time of “The New.” I feel basically that the core of my work stays the same. I try to carry the best of my work with me through each body of work while enlarging its parameters.Ottmann: What are the differences between your work and say someone like Richard Prince who rephotographs advertisement and media images?Koons: Richard and I have been friends for many years. His work is more involved in the ap-propriation as-pect, the aspect of theft, while my work comes from the history of the ready-made, which for me is position of optimism. Whether I’m casting my Jim Beam de-canter or creating a painting from a liquor ad, I receive all the legal rights from everybody — a very optimistic situation.
Ottmann: How do you manage to get all the legal rights?
Koons: I come out of a background of, at one time, being the Senior Representative for the Mu-seum of Modern Art. I was also a commodity broker on Wall Street for six years, so I have experience in deal-ing with people on a professional level. I had only one company in my last project that turned me down. And in each company I have to deal first with them, then with their lawyers, and in some cas-es with their advertising firms and their printers.
Ottmann How do you see advertisement?
Koons: It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I said to them: “Here’s to good friends!” It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media.
Ottmann: What do you think about the fact that the owner of one of the largest advertising firms in the world, Charles Saatchi, is buying your art?
Koons: It’s not negative toward advertisement. I believe in advertisement and media complete-ly. My art and my personal life are based in it. I think that the art world would probably be a tremendous reservoir for everybody involved in advertising.
Ottmann: What is the significance of the Nike ads?
Koons:The Nike ads were my great deceivers. The show was about equilibrium, and the ads defined person-al and social equilibrium. There is also the deception of people acting as if they have accomplished their goals and they haven’t: “Come on! Go for it! I have achieved equilibrium!” Equilibrium is unattainable, it can be sustained only for a mo-ment. And here are these people in the role of saying, “Come on! I’ve done it! I’m a star! I’m Moses!” It’s about artists using art for social mobility. Moses [Malone] is a symbol of the middle-class artist of our time who does the same act of deception, a front man: “I’ve done it! I’m a star!”
Ottmann: Would you be interested in doing an ad?
Koons: I would be extremely interested. I’m not interested in corporations having my work. Some corpora-tions collect my work, that’s fine. But let’s say I use a specific product, like a Spalding basketball. I don’t want Spalding to have my basketball. I don’t do it for that reason. But if Spalding came to me and asked if I would like to work on an ad cam-paign, I’d love to do that.
Ottmann: Do you get money from companies for using their products?
Koons: Absolutely not. I would never accept it. Now, somebody like Jim Beam who has been so gracious to work with, I’ve given them a work of art, but if they would want to buy one I may feel uncomfort-able because the work was not done for that reason. I’ve given them something out of apprecia-tion of their being so tremendous to work with.
Ottmann: Do you consider the gallery the ideal space for your work?
Koons: I love the gallery, the arena of representation. It’s a commercial world, and morality is based gener-ally around economics, and that’s taking place in the art gallery. I like the tension of accessibility and inaccessibility, and the morality in the art gallery. I believe that my art gets across the point that I’m in this morality theater trying to help the under-dog, and I’m speaking socially here, showing concern and making psychological and philosophical statements for the underdog.
GIANCARLO POLITI: I can’t imagine you in your studio, because many of your works are made in a foundry. How does your work come about?Jeff Koons: When I’m at home, where my studio is also located, the studio functions as an office and as a place where I pull away from the external world and reflect on it. I’m not actually in production there; the studio is a refuge — a place where I’m in a state of rest with respect tothe outside — and a place of contemplation.
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.
Rabbit, 1986. Cast stainless steel, 104 x 48 x 30,5 cm.
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.
Flowers, 1986. Stainless steel, 32 x 45 x 31 cm;Louis XIV, 1986. Stainless steel, 117 x 68 x 38 cm. Photo: Fred Scruton.
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 ispresent 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.