"Art Isn’t Something That’s External": Jeff Koons on His Whitney Retrospective, the High Line Train, and Emptiness

"Art Isn’t Something That’s External": Jeff Koons on His Whitney Retrospective, the High Line Train, and Emptiness
Artist Jeff Koons
(AFP/Getty Images)

Whether it’s the mission to bring his $25 million dollar “Train” to the High Line or calling his own artwork “empty,” artist Jeff Koons never ceases to be an art-world enigma. His appropriated sculptures, from “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” porcelain pieces to the enormous “Balloon Flower (Magenta),” incite both staunch criticism and astronomical auction records. The artist also experienced heartbreaking tragedy when his ex-wife and former muse Ilona Staller kidnapped their son Ludwig in 1994. This year, Koons has four solo exhibitions planned around the world: one in Basel, two in Frankfurt, and one in St. Petersburg, Fla. ARTINFO caught up with Koons at the Whitney Museum of Art during the Wall Street Journal’s Donor of the Day Celebration to ask him what to expect for the last show at the Whitney’s Breuer building, how the High Line “Train” efforts are going, and why he calls his art “empty.”

What did you mean when you called the art at your Fondation Beyeler retrospective “empty”?

What I was speaking about is that artwork, objects, they’re transpondent. You try to pack them with information, that when somebody looks at them, they’re able to have an internal discourse, and when I say that these objects are kind of empty, what I meant is the art’s not there. The art happens inside the viewer, and these objects direct, and communicate to people, and try to manipulate how they feel about a situation, or the type of sensations that they can have. Art happens inside them. Art isn’t something that’s external. It’s always inside the person.

How does it feel to be the last artist to show at the Whitney’s Madison Avenue space, and the only artist to take over the majority of the museum?

I’m really thrilled because I enjoy the place that the Whitney has had in my own life as an artist – of being an open door kind of place to young artists coming to New York. They always have the opportunity at the Biennials for artists. You always felt as though there was a sense of inclusion, but the exhibitions that they’ve had over the years have been really informative to a young generation of what’s possible in the dialogue of art, and so I’m really thrilled to have my New York exhibition here.

Can we expect any new works from you?

Absolutely. I’ll be showing the newest things up to that moment that I’m working on. I’ll be showing the antiquity series that I’m working on now. I’m just going to try to give an overview of my work from when I first moved to New York, which was around the very beginning of ’77 up to the present day, so by the time of the exhibition, it will be close to four decades.

Any updates on the High Line “Train”?

I’m really thrilled at the possibility, because it’s only a possibility that the train could come to the High Line, but if it would become a reality, I think it would be wonderful. It’s a piece I designed to function as a rallying point for a community that people would gather around it and be able to experience something which is moving and demonstrates the power and intensity of life experience and at the same time inform us of the warmth of our community.

Are there any fundraising efforts going on?

I’m sure the High Line would be involved with that. I’m sure that they would love to find donors to be involved with it, but if it can be a possibility here in New York in my hometown, that would be great.

With your current Fondation Beyeler retrospective and the announcement of your traveling 2014 retrospective, it feels like the year of the Jeff Koons retrospective. Where do you feel like you’re at in your career?

Being able to have the opportunities to have my work be engaged in different communities — right now this year, the work is going to be shown in Switzerland in Basel, in two exhibitions in Frankfurt, and later this year in St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s always exciting to be able to have a dialogue with the community. Also, as an artist, you always are able to view your work and see it in a different light.

Last year’s Costume Institute exhibition, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” surpassed your 2008 sculpture show to become the eighth most-visited exhibition in the history of the Met. Do you feel threatened that this year’s show, “Schiaparelli & Prada: Imaginary Conversations,” might do the same?

I really have no idea, but I know that I enjoy so much having an exhibition at the Metropolitan, because it’s such an incredible museum, and to be able to have contemporary art and the audience for contemporary and also pull people in to look at the classical works, or to look at Baroque paintings or the Old Masters, it’s fantastic. And the same with people who go to see an Old Masters painting, to end up wandering to see another exhibition. I think Miuccia’s exhibition with Schiaparelli is fantastic. It’s an incredible installation, it’s really interesting and engaging, and it has the energy of the avant-garde of the 20th century. It has that whole feeling of “We can change reality.” And Alexander McQueen’s show was great too, but I’m very happy to be a part of the history of the Met too.

You’ve been very active with the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and National Center for Missing & Exploited Children since your son’s abduction. Have you met parents who have gone through similar ordeals who have been able to get their children back?

Through the National Center and International Center, I’ve met a lot of different parents, and some parents have had success. These stories touch everyone, and they touch a lot of families where we’ve all known somebody and maybe there was a parental abduction or we know from just reading the papers, abduction of children in our communities, so this always touches everyone. We were hearing the numbers today … the return of 167,000 children is an amazing accomplishment.