How do you even begin to introduce Jeff Koons? He’s: the artist who reinvented Duchamps readymades for the consumer age and who became a Wall Street commodities broker to support his art-making; one of Charles Saatchis early enthusiasms and now one of Eli Broads; the holder of the record for most expensive piece by a living artist ever sold at auction; a peddler of kitsch and the sometime husband and porn-partner of Illona Staller (aka La Cicciolina); a serial defendant in high-profile copyright cases; the super-rich supremo of a factory-scale art production company; and the maker of some of the most genuinely perplexing works of art out there. This week the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled three of them on its roof: Balloon Dog (Yellow) (1994–2000), Sacred Heart (Red/Gold) (1997–2005), and Coloring Book (1997–2005). They will be there through October. None has been displayed publicly before, and they will no doubt split opinion among the roof’s up to 800 visitors an hour, as Koons’s work always does — people can’t decide whether it means far more, or far less, than it seems.
Koons is often seen as the contemporary art world’s supreme operator, in the ignoble tradition of Duchamp and Warhol: an intelligent, provocative, consistently self-referential icon who seems to both embody and parody the art world’s worst excesses and to stay one jump ahead of his audience’s expectations at all times.
But the Jeff Koons who talked to ARTINFO in his Chelsea studio last Friday would have none of this. In person he comes across as straightforward and self-effacing, though these qualities are so incongruous with some of the efforts he’s put into self-promotion in the past — including those pictures of himself in flagrante with La Cicciolina and the full-page newspaper ads he took out to highlight the good life that his art buys — that it’s hard to know which presentation, if either, is the real thing. Decide for yourself.
Jeff, would you say you are you the most famous artist in the world?
No, absolutely not. There’s Warhol…
I meant the most famous living artist.
Mmmm…no. I’m ambitious, but I’m ambitious about art, and I’m ambitious about what I can become as an artist. Hopefully I have more to contribute. But how that’s judged is not important.
But isn’t the celebrity-artist Jeff Koons part of the context that you’ve created for your art?
No. There are some aspects of celebrity that come into play, but that’s really not important to me. The word “celebrity” suggests that the artist is important, but it’s not about the artist. It’s about the work.
A lot of people think that I’ve worked with publicity agencies and things like that, but I never have. I’m weary of some of those things …
When the Times runs a piece about you being sued for child support, do you think it’s any of their business? Do you think it has any significance to your work?
I like to keep basically personal things very personal. And by the way, I’ve been paying child-support. Even though my son was abducted and taken to a foreign country and all that, I’ve always paid child support constantly through this whole time.
But I’ve always tried to the best of my ability to be at the service of the work, to give time to communicate and inform and interact with people about the work. I’ve always tried to help the work have a platform, but at the same time I realize that it’s not about the platform, it’s about the visceral art itself.
Can you explain what you mean by “visceral”?
When you view work, it’s not just an intellectual experience. It’s also a physical, biological experience. People like work that makes them feel a certain way. I want my work to have a certain charge, and I think that people who view the work like it, that intensity. It’s the same intensity that I get when I view other artists’ work. I like that. I want more of that. And the greater understanding I have, the more sensitive I am to that.
Well in that case, is it important that your work be “famous,” or extremely well known?
There’s a difference between being famous and being significant. I’m interested in significance — anything that can enrich our lives and make them vaster — but I’m really not interested in the idea of fame for fame’s sake.
So, what’s it like to have your works on the roof of the Met?
First, it is a wonderful location. My works have never had so much horizontal space around them. They’re up there on the roof, and all of a sudden the amount of space, the vastness, the void around them is really remarkable.
But most significant is being able to have a dialog with the collection: A piece like Balloon Dog taps into the mythic. It’s a little equestrian, a little bit like a Trojan Horse, even though it’s a dog. Even the act of making balloon-type animals like that, it’s supposedly quite an ancient act, from primitive cultures, of working with intestines.… Sacred Heart feels as though it’s connected to early Christian work and European history. And Coloring Book relates to the modernist part of the Metropolitan’s collection.
What you call a “dialog” with artists of the past has always been important to you, hasn’t it?
When I was younger, I always wanted to have a dialog with Roy Lichtenstein and Andy [Warhol] and Rauschenberg, with Dali and Picabia and Duchamp, and back on through Boucher and Fragonard, and on and on … Although I’ve always accepted that I had limitations, I always wanted to expand to whatever was possible. For me art has been a vehicle of self-acceptance. That started with the idea of accepting objects — external things in the world — then moved into what it’s really about, the acceptance of others.
For me, art has been about living to my full potential and about having viewers increase theirs. My work has always tried to communicate acceptance. It’s not about a rarefied object, because art is about people, life, experience. It’s about giving attention to the viewer so that hopefully they maintain enough confidence to experience communication.
You almost sound Buddhist.
I do believe that art is a hub that connects all of the disciplines of the world. Art can do that because it is so open and so easily clarifies things. It’s connects theology with philosophy and psychology and aesthetics and physics and any other discipline.
Can art change the world?
I think that people — and people’s gestures — change the world. And art is a vehicle of people’s gestures. So yes, I think that art changes the world.
Do you think of your art as political?
When people talk about political art, they generally mean something that is one-dimensional, about one cause or one specific issue, that doesn’t open itself up to much greater political issues. But I’m really dealing with the empowerment of the individual. I’ve always thought my art has been very political.
Do you make your art deliberately provocative?
No. When I was a younger artist I had great respect for the avant-garde. I just loved the idea of trying to make something new and different, because it was about bringing something to the table. But I believe that if you try to make something just to shock it ends up not having a very long lifespan. It’s not going to be archetypal or iconic or anything. What’s most shocking is honesty. If you’re really honest with yourself, that’s what people really find most shocking.
Well, one piece people might find shocking is Sacred Heart. What’s behind that work?
The meaning of Sacred Heart is not specific, and it comes from the work itself. I remember seeing a chocolate heart in Munich wrapped in reflective cellophane. It had two figures on the front – a little boy and a little girl – and I removed them to try to make something that balances. The piece balances on a fine point. It weighs a couple of tons. There’s a lot of steel there. But it tries to be somewhat graceful. It’s up on its toe like a ballerina. There’s some defying of gravity. It’s also on a tightrope between the baroque and something a little more modern. It could represent romantic love or spiritual love or Christian love. The bow might suggest that it is a present. Or it could be like a crown of thorns.
Your polished steel pieces are highly reflective, but their surfaces also distort reality. Is that an invitation for the viewer to find their own meanings in the work?
Well, I think that works have to be chameleon to a certain degree. If a work isn’t chameleon, eventually someone is going to be in front of it and not find any meaning. Things change and works have to be adaptable to be able to absorb meanings that people place on them or find in them.
Is Sacred Heart a religious work?
I’m not involved in any standardized religion. If somebody finds significance or meaning in something, that’s absolutely wonderful. And whatever that meaning or significance is, if it helps to push against somebody’s parameters, then that’s fantastic. I believe in things being socially benefiting. I believe in absolute freedom of gesture and anarchy and all of these things, as long as it doesn’t endanger others. I believe that art should have all the freedom in the world. But there is a moral responsibility that comes along with that. So you should embrace all that power but then accept the moral responsibility as well.
You were just talking about your dialog with Warhol. He said that he wanted to be a “business artist.” Is that what you are?
I am not a business artist. And I would like to think that Andy wasn’t either. My work’s not about business, but I was brought up to be very self-reliant, so whatever I do in life I believe I should be able to take care of myself and my family. There are certain demands, but that’s the same with any kind of success.
Is this huge operation that you run, with these dozens of artists producing your art, just the necessary means of making the work?
That’s right. I’m not involved in business art, that’s not my interest. My interest has always been in art. I remember when I was 16 and I turned on the radio and heard Led Zeppelin. That was when I came into contact with how powerful art can be. It was a very moving experience, and I thought, “I want part of this.”