by David Bowie / Modern Painter
Meeting the needs of the people bas been Jeff Koons’s soundbyte for over eighteen years and with ‘Celebration’ he does just that. lronically, however, he himself is struggling to find the means to finish the stuff.
I swear this is an out-take from Tony Hancock’s The Rebel. I wait into the now familiar Koons studio, a sprawling 10,000 square foot of loft space on Broadway, Soho, New York City. And there in the centre of the floor is one of the icons of late twentieth century art: not Jeff himself, of course, though he is, but the Hoover Celebrity Three (Quiet Series). All soft round plastic form and leaf green and cream. Jeff and his assistant, Gary, have detombed the pristine piece from twenty years of storage and are now standing before it scratching their heads and muttering. The apes before the obelisk. Is this for the Guggenheim retrospective?’, I ask. ‘Or has some collector decided to make an extremely late purchase?’ ‘Not at all’, replies Jeff Koons, the puzzled child. ‘This place is getting so messy that l just wanted to vacuum.’ VACUUM? Koons is about to turn the art world on its head. He’s taken one of the key ready-mades of our time and is going to SNORT UP THE DUST BUNNIES. l raise my little Kodak to my one good eye and wait. This will be the photograph that proves finally Arthur C Danto’s maxim that ‘Art is dead and only art philosophy survives’. Don’t bother!’ Koons exclaims. ‘The Hoover doesn’t work.’ This is a super-twist that makes the whole episode even funnier, or graver depending on how you read your art-phil. A functional object recontextualised as art, re-recontextualised as a functional object again. And it didn’t even bloody function in the first place. ‘Apparently dead since purchase’, smiles Jeff Koons, the innocent salesman- ‘Twenty years and it was always a dud.’ l fleetingly consider offering him a discounted purchase price for it, to stuff it into a vitrine, some two by twos, lick o’paint, make good – but the moment passes.
The work complex contains five or six apartment-size spaces, each with sixteen foot ceilings; traveling from the front office in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, you glide between the vast uncoloured first- and second stage statues that are part of Koonss ongoing work that is collectively called Celebration. The last two halls – for to European eyes that’s what these are – are hung with pretty much finished paintings. These are gloriously bright. Photo-realism on acid. The colours are not blended; each shade is abutted to the next. Sort of painting by numbers. The effect from a distance is of the commonplace seen in epiphany. According to one of his several assistants, Koons appears once or twice a week and orders miniscule changes to the palette, trying in vain to reproduce the luminosity of the original photochrome on its light box. He nearly succeeds.
Born into a middle-class, middie-income family in York, Pennsylvania, Koons, while a child, found a strong affinity with crayon and paint. On Saturday mornings he would take lessons from an elderly female art teacher who lived nearby. She would not let him leave until he had ‘made something beautiful. His father, Henry, ran a successful interior decoration business. Salesmanship was in the blood. Jeff’s paintings were often stuck up in his fathers showroom and sold to happy couples, a spin-off from their sofa search. His mother kept house, and worked part-time selling wedding dresses.
Jeff Koons Just hanging around my father’s showroom looking at all the things that would come in week after week really gave me a sense of new products, new things. My father loved gold and turquoise, still two of my favourite colours. Then around fourteen or so [in a 1994 interview he stated he was nine], I read that Dali was in New York at the St Regis Hotel. I liked his paintings because of their surreal-type qualities, so I phoned him and he invited me to meet him. He took me to one of his gallery exhibitions and posed for some photographs. This was Dali, but he was just a person, and it means such a lot when you’re younger, makes you feel you can achieve things. And I’m fumbling with the camera and he’s saying, please hurry up, I don’t have all day type thing.
With his heart set on a career as an artist, Koons did a spell at Maryland Institute College of Art, and then for real-life experience moved to the Art Institute of Chicago, shortly to become an assistant to Imagists artist, Ed Paschke. Paschke introduced him to a seamy back-street city, late nights full of tattooed strippers and midgets’ drinking bars: ‘The theatricality fascinated me. You’d go to the toilet or try to use the phone, but you couldn’t because they were too small or too close to the ground.’
The Far Side
‘Ed showed me that subject matter was right there in the world. That really stayed with me.’ That wasn’t all, apparently. During the 70s, Paschke did a series of figure studies, and it’s hard not to notice the puckered, seamed, vinyl bodies and luminous fabric backgrounds that have become two of the signature effects of Koons’s own work.
Early Koons is significantly more tortured and grotesque than what was to come. Five dogs ripping apart a Keith Haring-like body. A brutal man with cut, ravaged arms, a bowie knife floating grail-like by his head. A Balthusian girl holding in her lap a severed head, itself executed in the style of 1907 Picasso. The exclusion of the girl’s head, cut off by the picture frame, is to be echoed in a much later piece, Wornan in the Tub (1988). Dream (1974) shows Koons himself lying on a curving highway clutching a bouquet of white flowers, his head smashed and bleeding. Portentously, in possible homage to Johns, a glittering bunch of pink ribbon is affixed to the top of the stretcher, both echoing and standing in for the supine battered figure. A slightly later series obsesses on candy-coloured volcanoes, some piercing the clouds, some shooting out cartoon-coloured flarnes, some doing both at the same time. No humans are evident in the 50 or so examples that l saw.
The real transitional piece, though, is an assernblage from 1977. It consists of a Cornell-type box-frame papered with real incident photographs, against which various dolls, pearlised buttons, metallic Christmas decorations, a plastic rose and a shiny plaster Siamese cat, tourist Buffet-style, have been glued. Hanging separate from this construction is the real Koons future. A shop-bought, inflated, vinyl Dalmatian dog. Very shortly after this, Koons bought two more blow-ups, a plant and a flower. Back at his apartment, he arranged them on alternating glass and mirror display areas: a template for future shows was created. To keep funds flowing, he got himself a job at the Museum of Modern Art selling memberships. Wearing an inflatable flower, a pencil-bar moustache and dyed red hair, he none the less ‘doubled the membership’ for MoMa. In an earlier interview Koons quoted a figure of $3 million a year. At nights he would prepare his shows. Throughout the ’80s, one Koons success followed another, 1980s: ‘New’ with its encased Hoover and Shelton vacuum cleaners – ‘They’re kind of anthropomorphic, some of the openings on them are also very sexual.’ 1985: ‘Equilibrium’ showed a bronze aqualung that would drag you down to your death – ‘Even if you were able to drag yourself to the bronze lifeboat, it weighs over 600 pounds and is going to take you right back down. There’s no salvation’; and a basketball that hovers between submersion and space (a major influence on Hirst, l suspect): ‘They only stay like this for six months, then the balls go out of equilibrium and they have to be reset, but its pure’.
David Bowie: Why do you think people associate you so much with money?
JK: Well ‘Luxury & Degradation’ in 1986 dealt with these very luxurious objects and it was all about how advertising uses visual imagery and abstraction to set degradation in to sell you luxury and I paralleled that with liquor. Frangelico, for instance – its just a wave of liquor and it reads ‘Stay In Tonight’. Lost in your own thoughts. Or like Smirnoff, a funnel of liquor and you’re looking down into it where everything’s spinning around and the text is ‘So We Meet Again’. So l tried to parallel luxurious objects like a crystal baccarat set in polished-stainless steel with the degradation of the alcoholic. What I was really telling people was don’t give up your economic, you know, chips, because you’re just debasing yourself. I think it all started there with Luxury & Degradation’, making these luxurious objects out of stainless steel even though thats a real proletarian material, pots and pans, etc. If I’d made them in silver, that would have been horrible. The silver itself would have had a market value. l always try to have the market value really be just for the art. I’ve been through some hateful times [he confides with glazed eyes]. So terribly in debt, but the support keeps coming back. It has always bothered me that for certain media the presentation of myself has been that my work has been about money or that my interest has always been about money. Everything that l have earned has gone straight back into the work. I’m often at the point of hauling myself back from the brink of absolute financial disaster.
DB: Bringing in the proletariat, why aren’t you making lots of pieces that anybody can afford?
JK: Well, hopefully, the work gets distributed through magazines and people come into contact with it in museums and galleries. l try to fool myself sometimes and think well, if it’s a valuable piece, it will be better protected going through shipping or something. And also if you make such good things for the masses, why would they bother with more expensive things. There is something in rarity and it has to do with the spiritual. For my own work, l always want to have spiritual trust in it so the aspects of rarity just… they are also paralleling a sense of the spiritual. Something there thats a little bit of a pilgrimage. There’s also a certain sexual quality involved that I like. But actually the bookshops and gift stores in museums are a first step in opening up to the people.
Celebration itself started as a commissioned series of images for Anthony d’Offay, the London dealer, for a proposed publicity calendar for the gallery. Koons was in his figurative stage and this produced the Cat on a Clothesline and Sacred Heart, images which opened up a path to the later toy-like structures. He quickly saw a range of possibilities in the celebratory nature of the calendar theme, and the conversion to sculpture and paintings was initiated. He had just returned from a two-year working stint in Germany and felt a revived passion for New York and its streaming, colourful life, and so wanted to reflect a ‘home-made and warm’ quality. Dravving on his own funds, he set out to find, assemble and photograph his first models, or ‘tchotchkes’ as he calls them. He soon impressed a trio of dealers, Jeffrey Deitch, Anthony d’Offay and Max Hetzler, all of whom had had a long-standing relationship with him, into supporting this new work. None of the four had any idea how stretching a venture this would become. The size of the proposed sculptures ranged from seven or eight feet for the smallest up to thirteen for the largest, with many at the ten foot mark. To create the numerous models in various woods, plastics, aluminium and then sand castings, all before committing to their final steel or polyethylene stage, quickly brought an awareness of just how under-budget they were.
JK Some of the dealers I was working with just didn’t have the resources or weren’t willing to put the resources there. I was very disappointed that that happened, but it’s something that I just had to live with, and move on from.
DB So will you just show the pieces that between you all you can afford to finish?
JK Yeah, but I don’t know exactly where. The people who are financially involved only want to make things as it goes along. So if a collector or gallery really wants a particular piece, then we’ll make that. So right now I’m starting to make new work, not Celebration, for a new exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery. [Even though he has finished or is close to finishing some of the Celebration works, they themselves cannot be shown at Sonnabend as they have been privately financed by other galleries.]
You know Celebration is almost getting into the stratosphere of film budgets [he smiles in astonishment]. It was a shock at first, of course, but even if a piece is costing a million dollars to make, I believe it has its value. I believe in these works very very much, David.
To consider that at one point Koons had 50 sculptors and 20 painters at work on the 20 sculptures and 16 paintings in the studios, on three shifts a day for the obligatory eternity, gives a glimpse into the obsessive financial nightmare this has all become. Even Rodin’s flamboyant factory style pales.
JK I’ll work with all kinds of source material, things that I find interesting, responding to packaging of children’s toys, cereal boxes, and out of that somehow I’ll come up with Balloon Dog, say. I’ll make a loose drawing, then have a photo session with the elements in arrangement. I get some help with the lighting, but I take the photographs and the set-ups and then we go to the model stage. Or if it’s a painting, we grid up the canvas. We’ve often not been able to meet deadlines and we’ve been let down badly by fabricators, who will tell me five months, for instance, and it turns into at least double that. Other expected resources have dried up completely.
Even with the promise of a full Guggenheim show of the new, unseen work – a first for an American artist – and the support of loyal collectors buying the odd piece sight unseen, the funds ran way short. He may well have been a good salesman when briefly working the commodities market in the early ’80s, but he was always a salesman, never a number cruncher; always a fundraiser, not a nuts-and-bolts man. There is little proof that he is a good businessman overall. The studio he works in is on a rental basis. The Schnabel, Stella and Lichtenstein studios are both bigger and artist-owned. At least once he has decamped from New York back to Mom and Dad to recharge both spiritually and financially. He has become so broke at times, even at the height of his fame, that he has had to sell his own collection of famous-name paintings, including one by Lichtenstein.
DB When will Celebration be shown in full?
JK I guess my first priority is to complete pieces for my collectors, then somehow I will just have to complete the rest. This year has been the worst. Really bad. I had hoped it would be shown in ’96, but now I guess it will be after the year 2000 sometime [he sighs]. I was so focused on Celebration, even when I realised it was being slowed down, I just stuck it out.
The dealers, though committed, felt at an impasse. They couldn’t refinance Koons for non-Celebration work while they had such an enormous stake in Celebration. The clouds have cleared yet again in this last couple of weeks. A number of key players have made long-term commitments to back the work. A long-time collector will show on a major scale in February 1999, and the Guggenheim will buy finished pieces from its own Koons retrospective in 2000. The show will then travel to the Pompidou in France.
DB You have no reservations about talking about the prices your work sells for?
JK I never felt it was something that I shouldn’t talk about, or that I have to protect myself from. Plus now in New York they have to list prices. Years ago you didn’t have to. You could have nothing sold on the walls and someone could come and you could tell them it was sold.
Koons is a polite, charming and polished, though elusive and hard to penetrate, individual. After several meetings over several days, one becomes attuned to certain characteristics. He’s neatly dressed at all times. He’s actually kind of goofy, maybe. He doesn’t read very much. His knowledge of art history is vague. He strikes one as lonely and not, I think, by choice. He never flaps. He never even comes close to cursing. And, amazingly for an artist, he never criticises fellow artists, nor even breathes a word of gossip or innuendo. He’s not at ease with the back-and-forth of conversation, but sits smiling and patient until you have finished talking, and then – ‘let me jump back a second’, to pick up where he left off. It’s not rudeness or uninterest in what one is saying. Indeed, later in our meetings, he would refer back to something I had said in a previous one. It’s just that he finds it easier to release his small capsules of pre-arranged explanation. But when he is finished delivering his famous, meeting the needs of the people’ or ‘working in parallel with spirituality’, he struggles to articulate any further insight. He quietly paddles through non-sequiturs and halffinished sentences, or gets himself all entwined in a network of would-be high-minded words and phrases. As artist stands next to object, the beams of illumination emanate from the nine-foot kitten, not the man. He’s not a social being. Even when popping into a local café for a bite to eat, his intake of breath is almost audible. Underneath the calm exterior, he virtually steels himself to be in the company of people. (Stainless steel, Jeff?) In light conversation, he is proper and a little stilted though through it all, likeable and warm. One feels it’s the warm you get from a bulbgenerated flame living-room fire, and yet his desire to reach out is almost palpable.
DB Let me pick up something you stated in 1989. Are you still interested in ‘leading the bourgeois into a state of entropy’? What the fuck does that mean, Jeffrey?
JK I think it meant about trying to make pieces that were seductive, that whatever I wanted to, you know, kind of do with the work that it would be seductive to the viewer, that the viewer would interact with it. And you get to disarm people a little bit. One time somebody wrote something about my work saying that, and that anybody who viewed it or something must be a little bit stupid. I don’t have the exact quote, but it was about putting the viewer in kind of a stupid state. I mean I would like if this would happen, that people could just feel a little free for a moment and maybe be in a kind of stupid little state or something like that. This statement always kind of bothered me a little bit because I go on about this blue-blood thing which even makes it weirder. But it has to do with this sense of the viewer and the reflection and their own ego. There is a confrontation with the self and there’s a little something that flicks and there has to be a shut-down, or there’s kind of a shut-down that maybe happens that they’re placed in that position and that kind of sets in this more open area of kind of experiencing something that’s kind of more open, kind of ephemeral. Sorry, I’m not doing well there as far as verbalising that.
DB Do you see the process as being a quick euphoria and then a slow evaluation of what you just felt?
JK Yeah, coming out of it, the edges of what I’m involved with, whether like my source material, is coming from what I’m looking at, a lot of times there are just kind of things that are thought of as frivolous but I find kind of interesting. The things I’m emotionally attracted to… it’s evolved into this process of disarming, of opening up.
There’s something gleeful and desperately enthusiastic about the new sculptures, like walking into a Disney recreation of the Arnold Brekker Studio. Within a short time, though, the pieces quietly convey a feeling of swimmy happiness, smiley and quip-celebratory. There’s a lot of toddler aspiration here, too. Koons’s five-year-old son. There is a clutch of happytimes photos on his desk in the front office. Many of the toys were bought with Koons jr in mind and simultaneously commandeered for the work. For the last few years, Koons has been fighting a horrendous custody battle with his ex, the Italian porno-cum-political star [Iona, professionally known as Cicciolina, over their son. I won't go into this, but take it from me, it is changing Koons in ways that he probably could not have envisaged. His work is not made in an adult, rational state of mind. On the other hand, it's not immature or childish, and most definitely not childlike. The often-quoted decadence, indifference or cynicism would strike only the most casual viewer.
Although he may have naively borrowed from the Duchamp/Warhol tradition, these works are without doubt personal fetishistic devices. They are essential to his life in the same way that Picasso's sculptures were an alchemical fetishistic part of his. like the medieval alchemist, Koons has absolute belief that the ritual performance of everyday actions will bring about substantial change in his life. The collector, that strangest of men, when faced with something like Play-Doh for example, will be overcome with an instinctive perception of what's beneath the surface: the work is so euphemistically optimistic that you sense immediately that all is not right. You buy because you may buy back your own guilt ridden malformation: the happy innocent child mutated by life's extremes into the greedy and lust-driven, unhappy and dangerously anxious adult that stands before this Michelangeloscaled pile of plasticine.
Mostly, in previous work, the initial innocence is betrayed by its Grimms' fairy tale kind of commodity faithlessness. Koons's juxtapositions torture with their nightmare playroom surrealism. Now the sexuality has been expunged; Paglia's 'chthonic miasma' poured back and sealed with polyethylene. God forbid that one of these stadium-scaled pieces crack, lest you find yourself floundering in a tidal wave of the blood and vomit-smelling awfulness of this most murderous and destructive of centuries'.
DB Do you believe in the devil?
JK Not necessarily. I think people themselves cause negative energy. It doesn't feel nice to have anger.
DB I follow my nose and ask Koons if there's a Trojan Horse aspect to the Balloon Dog.
JK Well, though I wasn't trying to build a Trojan Horse, I certainly wanted people to know that the work isn't all sweet and nice. There's a darker side to the image. That's the strength of an archetype. It reveals the two poles in meaning.
DB So reading its Trojan Horse aspect, we're aware that something's invaded our territory. Ostensibly amicably, but in fact containing something inside that one wouldn't want to encounter?
JK That's correct.
We shift dogs. At the recent 'Documenta Nine' in Kassell, Koons found himself yet again uninvited to show. However, at the request of the nearby town of Arolsen, his gigantic Puppy not only stole the whole show, but triumphed over 'Document& itself, drawing superlatives from both cognoscenti and the general public. Soon after, it was recommissioned, yet again, this time by Spain. Was he pleased with the reception that Puppy got when it was placed in front of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao?
JK Oh, I was so honoured. I guess one of my most popular pieces is Puppy. Wherever it's shown it receives such great enthusiasm. Frank's a fantastic man, but you know, the dog really sets off the building because of its scale, it kind of causes the building to become a dog-house.
Now that's appropriation on a major scale. A variation on the Japanese scheme of borrowing scenery.
JK Art is often thought of as being this very intimate, made for the home thing. But it's a really big world, David. Take a look at Hard Rock Café. You have a guitar maybe a hundred feet high or something.
DB So you feel you have to shout loud?
JK Absolutely. People are used to looking at larger things. You just have to compete with the rest of the world. Also, the size tells people it's less intimate. This work was really intended for public presentation, not for a collector. I love public work. I would love to make more contributions at a public level.
There are plans to bring Puppy to New York, quite possibly to the Rockefeller Center.
His odd thought process, rather than following the flow or creating tributaries from art's river of progress, seem to give birth to regressive, modernist, autonomous lakes completely outside most art experience. 'Outside' here is a key word. I think Koons borders on being an outsider artist. A Dostoyevskian Idiot. A small boy who cries 'People' at the wolves. For someone who gained world-wide infamy with his Made In Heaven show, featuring himself and his then wife engaged in some serious rodgering, he is outstandingly naive, almost an innocent. Warhol is quoted as saying, 'Look at the surface of my paintings and there I am. There's nothing behind it'. I suspect Warhol borrowed this from Frank Stella who assured us 'if you don't get my paintings in ten seconds, move on. There's nothing else there but what you see'. Koons could not be more distanced from this altogether ultra-cool characteristic. Like Hirst's, his sculptures represent far more than their parts.
It's too pat to suggest that Koons himself has merely sussed our consumer complexity, functioning as Christmas Future to our Scrooge. Somewhere within this Uberkitsch tangle of FAO Schwartz inspirations, the collusion between Jungian symbol and consumer product, beats the sacred heart of a religious artist. His new epic scale is no more self -advertisement than that of any artist who makes his work public, Michelangelo, for example. Unfortunately, Celebration has the same chance of actually being completed and shown in full as the Renaissance master's planned but never completed great equestrian statue.
DB Do you believe that a civilised culture is necessary for existence?
JK We were looking at a painting earlier, Plate Set, and I said that that reminded me of morality and that's the concept of the beginning of culture, whatever, the groundwork for culture, because of the interaction of different things, and it's a plate set. So one step away from needing food to eat, this is how to eat it. You don't need the plate, you don't really need the spoon, you don't need the cup, you can use your hands. I did a piece in 1986 called Two Kids. It was part of Statuary and it's a stainless steel figure and it looks like a little allegory is taking place where one child is running with like a scarf over its head and spilling another child's porridge and it has the little spoon there. That spoon comes out of the hand and that always reminded me of morality, a utensil for eating.
As morality seems to have supplanted civilisation, I move on to the spiritual.
DB You've spoken of Balloon Dog as having equestrian dimensions, and Cat On A Clothes Line as having a certain Crucifixion aspect to it.
JK Well, with Cat On A Clothes Line, I looked at postcards for a really long time and there were all these images of these cats on the clothes line that I did want to make into something that was spiritual, a direct spiritual line. I think of all the work as these spiritual objects, I feel it's my job to maintain the trust of the viewer. Craft is just one tool to maintain trust in the viewer. Like if you treat the end of the nose with the same care as someplace they would never look, like at some fold underneath, is it really done in a realistic manner? That's the spiritual trust that is kind of involved there. It's very hard for me to make one piece David. It's more about working on twenty things at one time and they articulate this vocabulary. So maybe one piece starts to function like a bee and then all of a sudden another piece starts to function like an egg and it works its vocabulary. I wanted. to make a plastic piece when I first started Cat. This should be just like a big toy. I always wanted to work in plastic and not have that material present itself in a cynical manner. I want it to be upbeat and joyous, youthful, and have these rich colours within the material itself, if you fall against one of the stainless steel pieces, you're going to get hurt. If you fall against the plastic piece, you're not. I'm looking for an art that gives me the same feeling of trust that I had with art and colour when I was say four or five. [the son's age.]
DB Does the Crucifixion actually mean anything to you?
JK My family, you know, we would go to church. I was brought up Protestant. I think that it’s important for people to feel a kind of connection to their environment outside themselves and I think that a sense of spirituality is something that can be kind of very important to people’s lives. It’s probably because I’ve been going through a time where I’ve been wanting to have senses of hope. During making Celebration it was a very bad time for myself and just dealing with some of that imagery – I hate cats, you know? I’d never own a cat personally because I don’t like the hair around. That imagery that’s there like for one piece and that’s correct. I mean, that’s the history of it, ’cause to me that’s spiritual. Exuberance, buoyancy, kind of an upbeat quality. So even though I feel that it’s lacking now, the complete spiritual thing, being able to just kind of touch on some of those areas… it’s very artificial. I also like Fragonard and Boucher very much. I got involved with the imagery through enjoying Baroque and Rococo art and seeing how the church used it. I always enjoyed the Baroque for kind of neutralising science and nature, spirituality and size, this whole equilibrium going on and it’s very sexual.
I think of mentioning how Fragonard’s artistic reputation was dragged through the mud for his depiction of decadence and corruption.
DB Where is the place that banality and marketing are located in your work?
JK A lot of marketing is based on banality, so it’s something that we really respond to. A sense of dislocated imagery, something’s just off a little bit. I’ve adopted this kind of democratic thing of not alienating people, of not trying to present something above them, so I just want to present things that people are very familiar with, that they aren’t intimidated by. It would be nice if a lot of people liked the work, but if somebody just comes in off the elevator and looks at something, I mean I would like them to be able to have a good experience. There’s always kind of a sense of interaction with the work that the viewer has to deal with themselves at some level and I try not to intimidate the viewer about themselves. I want them to feel good about themselves. I think a lot of reflection that I use is to reflect the image of the viewer, that there’s this constant contact going on between the object and the viewer, almost a sexual thing where you’re being reflected, where you’re curving over its surfaces, but the viewer is dealing with defining to a certain degree themselves. Not on a very conscious level but it’s taking place when they’re viewing the work. I think that the works themselves want the viewer to feel a certain way. I mean the pieces get just as excited as the viewer of that type of interaction.
Good and Bad Art
DB You once told Matthew Collings in a Modem Painters interview that we need traditional art for radical art to exist. Do you still believe that?
JK Well, I really don’t believe in rules, David. I mean I believe in rules in life, that you don’t injure other people, but respect them, those types of things. But not visual rules.
DB Would you buy a traditional landscape?
JK I have always wanted a Bavarian landscape with cows. That environment is very beautiful, with the mountains and certain images. Maybe a contentment, fertility, innocence, because it’s more distant, you know? These are more traditional vocabularies, but I’ve worked with these things. I’ve worked with donkeys, ponies, pigs, sheep, dogs, hats, you know, traditional too, a little bit. But of course I really respond more to the so-called avant garde. I mean every gesture is art and whether you like it or not, or think it’s good for your beliefs, doesn’t mean that it’s not art.
I can’t disagree with him there, especially as I don’t know how you tell good art from bad, and the distance between decreases daily. Of all the people I’ve ever asked for a definition of good and bad, both low- and high-minded folk, not one of them has convinced me that their own take is an acceptable one. For me it either works or it doesn’t. One million artists, one million definitions.
It’s impossible to believe Koons doesn’t know he will be reinterpreted dramatically and violently. But then you look once more into those big trusting eyes and all at once one small image appears: ‘He’s doing all this for his son’, gasps New York writer Charlie Finch. I’m not sure Charlie’s right there. I would think that Koons is doing this for a much older child. One that toddled around in the ’50s in York, Pennsylvania. The small boy who would be dressed up by his mother in eighteenth-century clothes and be taken to historical parades where the floats and the dray-horse-drawn carriages seemed so enormous yet safe. A child whose father was eternally re-designing people’s homes. New objects, new carpets, swatches of bright colours. Everything bright and clean. Over the years Koons’s art has got nearer and nearer to what I think Koons really wants it to do.
Unlike Charles Ray, whose visual perversity places his work firmly in the adult world, or Oldenberg’s child impersonations that reduce his output to a one-trick pony, a small gag that’s merely repetitive, Koons ostensibly finds it no struggle to be the child of Picasso’s artistic concerns. The naiveté is not fake, but earnestly striven for in the same way that the doubting Christian tries valiantly to keep his faith. Of course the innocence is gone, and no amount of epic, banal object-building will win it back. But if only… If Koons can win custody of his son, then maybe this gargantuan playpen will burst into life and the elephants, balloon dogs and kittens will chant, ‘You, Jeff Koons, are new again! Your life’s mistakes are erased. Take your son and start afresh!’ Toddler Koon’s is the keystone, the linchpin to this whole metaphysical spellcasting. And when we approach his work we are entering a medieval world. We are entranced by its magic, for those old ways are within us still. It takes more than 700 years to ring out those last drops of alchemy. It takes one to know one. The kitten may have a Crucifixion subtext, but the primary content is Jeff himself, trapped in the sock, left helpless by events caused by his own mischiefmaking perhaps, and hung up to dry. A Play-Doh DNA pile. The very substance of life. A mountain of bright, unmixed colours waiting to be remade in the image of a caring, loving tomorrow. A healthy, thumping, sacred heart. A big shiny balloon dog, one from which the air will never escape, a balloon that will never burst. Good grief, it’s all so obvious. How did he get lumbered with the cynical broker thing? Jeff Koons is a great American artist yet he is nearly pure narcissist and his work is disturbingly dysfunctional. Celebration could be the most fitting series of works yet to plant an exclamation mark on the century’s end. I hope that the impossible will happen and that the finished work will show up pretty soon so that we can have a last amusing and painful look at ourselves.
JK I hate to have to meet deadlines. I’ve learned such a lot while creating Celebration. I definitely feel freer from sculpture and I think it will become more ephemeral, less there, so to speak. I’ll work with colour. I work such a lot with pre-existing images, but I see a time when the work will be far more personally generated, like if I want to make a shape of a bunny’s head, then I don’t have to look at ten different bunnies that I found in the world that I like and rely on them for reference. I want to be able to make a bunny’s head freely without the need of external support that that bunny’s head is going to be communicative enough and stylistic enough to have confidence in my own stylism. I think that’s what I feel.