Jeff Koons: On Track
Balloon dogs made from stainless steel; basketballs floating in aquariums; a sculpture of Michael Jackson holding Bubbles, his identically- dressed pet ape; close-up depictions of a photogenic couple making love; a train made from plastic and porcelain liquor decanters; a smiling dolphin serving as a suspended pot rack; porcelain dogs and puppies incarnated as forty-three-foot topiary sculptures—such diverse works comprise Jeff Koons’ art, an oeuvre that has provoked and continues to elicit a spectrum of opinions, from virulent condemnation to effusive praise. Love him or hate him, Koons continues to make his mark, one provocative work at a time
Handsome, eloquent and still youthful at 52, Jeff Koons appears to be his own best advertisement when he speaks of his work. His passion is clear, his mood is uplifting and there is a slight tinge of intellectual excite- ment bubbling to the surface as he explains the thought process and philosophy behind his world- famous, stainless steel Rabbit. “Anything that becomes iconic also becomes a chameleon,” he explains. “It meets the needs of viewers who can superimpose in their mind a childhood toy, the Playboy bunny and, with its well-rounded haunches and massive legs, aspects of sensuality and procreation. Images such as this keep us alive.”
The sense of vigor in Koons’ character abounds in his work, especially in his larger pieces. After all, who can resist the playful grace of Balloon Flower from his Celebration series, evidence of Koons’ conviction that art is communication and a means of empowering people? “Objective art is about acceptance of whatever viewers’ interests are,” the artist explains.
The fact that an international group of mega collectors (including Eli Broad) owns several Koonses and blue chip art dealer Larry Gagosian represents him gives credence to the idea that an ability to see beauty in the commonplace or its rebir th evidences an elevated level of sophistication. “Jeff has never repeated himself; he has managed to evolve in a thirty-year period on a brilliant level,” says Gagosian.“His range is remarkable and virtually unprecedented.”
Koons attributes his success to his desire to empower all viewers.“My rela- tionship with collectors is based on honesty in my art. I make every piece out of creative impulses rather than for commercial success,” he says.“I supported myself as a stockbroker before I found my niche in art—they know I am inde- pendent and not in it for the money.”
He is a perfectionist who leaves nothing to chance—even when as many as 80 assistants toil in his studio at any given time. “I am versed in every aspect of art-making and I have my finger on every aspect of production,” he asserts, maintaining that his hands-on approach mirrors that of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. “Roy had just the right level of production—not too much, not too little. I try to work in a similar manner and ful-fill my moral commitment to the viewer by not just producing (works of art) but communicating ideas.”
Koons began taking art lessons at age seven and says that he got his sense of aesthetics from his father, an interior decorator and furniture sales-man, and established his sense of culture while growing up in York, Pennsylvania. “My work with the inflatables is rooted in the rabbits I saw in backyards at Easter,” he says. “They, more than anything, connect me with my own cultural history.”
He attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and spent a year at the Ar t Institute of Chicago; however, he explains, he did not really understand the connective power of art until his second year of college. He says that he appreciates the pieces he does today as much as his earliest work.“My interest in objective ar t came from subjective art. By transcending personal iconography, I could work in metaphors and go past the self,” he explains. It was after moving to New York in 1977 that he began to work with “ready-mades” (inflatable toys).
He admires surrealists Salvador Dalí and René Magritte as well as dadaists like Marcel Duchamp. However, he does not quite mirror the dadaists’ cynical view of the world and of the art establishment in particular. Instead, he says that he pays homage to ar tists who came before him by using their vocabulary. “I want to connect the dots—connect art to past human history but also move it forward by making it exciting and visceral,” he remarks.
Even though he says that he has no need to reju- venate his creative spirits, he likes to relax with his family—wife Justine, a photographer, and sons Sean, 5, Kurt, 3, and Blake, 1—at their farm in Pennsylvania.“We like to expose the kids to agricultural life or take them on train rides,” he says. He also has a daughter, Shannon, 32, an editor at Condé Nast Publications, and another son, Ludwig, 14, who lives with his mother in Europe.
And speaking of trains, currently Koons is working on his most grandiose project yet: a mon- umental public sculpture for Renzo Piano’s renova- tion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His plans call for a 70-foot working replica of a 1943 train steam engine hoisted up by a 161-foot crane; the way Koons envisions it, museum visitors will be able walk right under the train’s cowcatcher, suspended 30 feet off the ground. Equipped with all the typical bells and whistles, the train will star t steaming and chugging at scheduled inter vals.
As a bona-fide mover and shaker, Koons contends that he wants to bring art to the very edge of possibilities—and this project may well exceed even his own expectations. “The binder of working drawings is as thick as a phone book,” says Gagosian who, along with museum director Michael Govan, hopes that the train will become a bigger Los Angeles landmark than the Hollywood sign.
Image: Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Blue), 1994-2000. Stainless steel with transparent blue color coating. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles. Photograph ©2007, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.