Which work of his was it that first caught your eye? The party balloon animals forged from mirror-polished stainless steel that looked like they could be punctured with the faintest prick of a pin? Or the images of him cavorting naked with the Hungarian-Italian porn star Ilona “La Cicciolina” Staller, his future wife dressed in lacy white undies and a tiara of fresh flowers in a series of pornographic poses lifted from the pages of the Kama Sutra? Maybe it was the giant-sized West Highland terrier, a cartoonish sculpture wreathed in thousands of flowery bedding plants that for a time parked its colourful rear at Sydney’s Circular Quay, temporarily upstaging Jorn Utzon’s monochromatic sails? Or perhaps it was another work from his “inflatable” menagerie, Rabbit, a bulbous stainless-steel creation that sold at auction in 2019 for $US91 million, a record-breaking figure?
Even before the advent of the attention economy, when worth came to be equated with likes, clicks and views, the art of Jeff Koons was screaming “look at me”. Now the world’s most commercially successful living artist is planning to unveil his latest major work, the centrepiece of the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) upcoming triennial, a contemporary art, design and architecture exhibition that opens across the Melbourne institution just before Christmas. For a city forced into spring hibernation by COVID-19, one of the art world’s most crowd-pleasing stars will serve instead as a morale-booster. “One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about having the opportunity to show my work is the communal optimism,” Koons tells me. “Putting our best foot forward together. To find a future and to find a way forward.”
In an art calendar decimated by the pandemic, and in a year in which we have all suffered such sensory deprivation, the global unveiling of the first in what he’s calling his Porcelain series has become even more of a red-letter event. Fittingly perhaps, given our social estrangement and affection deficit disorder, his muse is Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Inspired by 18th-century porcelain figurines, the sculpture is a synthesis of classical ideas of beauty and cutting-edge production techniques. As with so much of his work, it uses mirrors and reflections – a device intended to make his art more accessible by turning the viewer into a participant in the piece. “The surface people are looking at is the right here, right now,” he says of the super-sized statuette. “The image itself is a historical viewpoint.”
Given the artist’s celebrity, and the undisclosed price tag attached to the work, Venus may be the most consequential American acquisition to arrive in Australia since Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in the early 1970s. The key difference – and one that offers a protective shield from tabloid outrage and political philistinism – is that no public money is involved. Instead, a small group of NGV benefactors, including members of the Smorgon, Clifford and Fox families, has financed the entire project.
Venus has been six years in the making, and is almost as much a feat of engineering as it is a work of art. Completing her voluptuous mirrored surfaces required years of milling, mechanical and laser-assisted manufacturing, reverse engineering, painting and polishing. It’s a painstaking process that is classic Koons. There have been times in his career when his obsessive pursuit of perfection has brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, but his production values have vested his collections with a greater sense of worth, both artistic and financial.
His creative method began more simply, with him spending two years conducting research into porcelain figurines and amassing a collage of postcards and images. “I perform very intuitively,” he tells me, lapsing into a lexicon that speaks of his showmanship. “I never sit down with a notepad and think, ‘I need to come up with a new body of work.’ I follow my interests. What can be more joyful than to follow your interests? If you focus on those interests, it will connect you metaphysically with a new vocabulary.”
For an artist often accused of being superficial and vacuous, metaphysics, the examination of the fundamental nature of reality, has long provided something of a philosophical frame. “I always loved Nietzsche’s definition of metaphysics,” he says. “It’s the eternal tied to the now and the future, and I think that’s what this work depicts.” Venus, then, is a crowning achievement. To his admirers, it challenges the sneering notion that he is merely the “King of Kitsch”. To his knockers, it may well offer proof that still he occupies that gaudy throne. “I’m very proud of it,” he says, with an almost childlike sense of wonder. “This is the accumulation of my artistic experience.”
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, his team, understandably, has declared his giant studio in Manhattan, where he oversees the production of his collections, a “no fly zone”. So instead, we meet by video call. It’s early on a Saturday morning, and he’s been battling all week to make deadlines. Still, the 65-year-old so often referred to as the boy wonder of the art world looks like Peter Pan. Ever the perfectionist, he adjusts the lighting to remove the bright red glare from his face that looks like a warning light. And then he fine-tunes it again.
Not only is Jeff Koons the contemporary art market’s most bankable money-spinner, he continues to be its most polarising figure. To his admirers, his work transcends elite and popular culture, and successfully marries the pop art of Andy Warhol, the avant-garde of Marcel Duchamp and the surrealism of Salvador DalÍ. His detractors deride him as a creature of the greed-is-good materialism of the ’80s, whose sensationalist body of work is cynical and tasteless – the sort of Reagan-era art that finds its architectural equivalent in Trump Tower. The late Robert Hughes, his most strident critic, was merciless. “He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida,” blasted the Australian critic in 2004. “And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.”
Is he worried, I ask, that some Australians might have a jaundiced view of his work because they were introduced to it by Hughes’s savage critiques? “I always feel a sense of loss when somebody will view something and say, ‘I don’t get it,’ ” he says. “I have an acceptance of that. I did see Robert a couple of times later in life, but I don’t think he ever changed his opinion of the work.”
Punctiliously polite, Jeff Koons looks and sounds more like an Anglican choirmaster than a blow-dried Baptist from Florida. Rather than New York, he is more a product of York, his hometown in rural Pennsylvania. That is where he is calling in from today, sitting in what used to be the tackle room of his grandfather’s farm. This country estate, as opposed to some beachfront mansion in the Hamptons, is where he spends most weekends with his second wife, Justine, and their six children. “I wanted to have my children understand this experience, and an agrarian way of life,” he says. “And it’s not like the experience of the Hamptons or Manhattan.” His small-town lack of pretension comes as a surprise. This, after all, is an artist who in his
earlier years likened himself to The Beatles, compared his relationship with La Cicciolina to Adam and Eve, and placed himself in the same pantheon of 20th-century greats as Picasso.
York, where he was born in 1955, is where his artistic journey began: the place, as he puts it, where his parents “let art give me a sense of self”. His father, Henry, owned a furniture store and was an interior decorator. Working in the shop at weekends introduced Koons to a lush mid-century colour palette, with its golds, russets and turquoises. It also tutored him in the
theatricality of staging, since the shop so regularly altered its window displays. Young Jeff was so skilled an artist that he started painting reproductions of the Old Masters – they were signed “Jeffrey Koons” – which his father sold for as much as a few hundred bucks a time, big money back then.
His childhood sounds idyllic, a cliché almost of the middle-class American dream. York could easily have formed the backdrop for a Frank Capra movie or cover illustration by Norman Rockwell. Also, it is telling that when I ask Koons about the formative experience of growing up in the ’60s, he cites the romance of Kennedy’s Camelot rather than the turbulence that came afterwards – the inner-city race riots, the counter-cultural revolution or Vietnam. “When I think of the ’60s, I think very much of Kennedy and an underlying optimism and belief in the future.” There seems to be a sunniness in almost everything he does.
Much of his art has roots traceable to York. There’s the domesticity of his vacuum cleaner series, an early collection of household appliances displayed in Plexiglas boxes and illuminated by fluorescent tubes that helped make his name (the first Koons work purchased by Charles Saatchi, the advertising executive and trend-setting art collector, was a carpet shampooer). His globe-like gazing balls, the glass baubles that have featured in his paintings, sculptures and on the Artpop album cover commissioned in 2013 by Lady Gaga, were inspired by the ornaments that dotted his neighbours’ front yards, a Germanic tradition in Pennsylvania. Then there are the playthings of his childhood, the toys that inspired those balloon dogs, his Popeye series and some of his most famous works, such as the giant mound of painted aluminium, Play-Doh, which sold for $US22.8 million in 2014. To this day, his Pennsylvania upbringing provides a key to unlocking his work.
From York, Koons moved the short distance to Baltimore to attend art school, with all the insecurities of a small-town boy trying to find his feet in a more cerebral world. On his first day, his class toured the Baltimore Museum of Art, an outing that exposed the gaps in his artistic education. “I knew Picasso, but I didn’t know Matisse or Cézanne,” he remembers. “But I survived that moment, and a lot of people don’t survive that moment.” From it he learnt a valuable lesson, which became something of a personal credo. “Art demands nothing. You never have to bring to art anything other than yourself … The only thing that art really is, is the essence of your own potential.”
Another formative experience came at the age of 18 when Koons met the Spanish surrealist Salvador DalÍ. His mother had read that DalÍ spent six months each year residing at the St. Regis Hotel off Fifth Avenue in New York, so the young student rang up reception and asked to be put through to his suite. DalÍ told him to meet in the hotel lobby at 12 o’clock the following Saturday. “Exactly at noon, he turned up wearing a buffalo fur coat. He had a silver sculpted cane, and a diamond tie-clip. His moustache was up. It was a spectacular outfit. DalÍ had this way of making the people he met feel important and the way he dressed was to communicate with you.” They went to see DalÍ’s Royal Tiger, which was on exhibition at a nearby gallery. “I had a great experience. I remember going back to my school that evening thinking, ‘This is a way of life, and I believe I can do this.’ ” For years, he has kept a study for that DalÍ masterwork in his bedroom.
“Art demands nothing. You never have to bring to art anything other than yourself.”
After Baltimore and a further spell at art school in Chicago, Koons decided in 1977 to relocate to New York, having been drawn to the city by listening to the Patti Smith album Horses (the singer, alas, became a vehement critic, labelling him “litter upon the earth”). There he worked on the membership desk at the Museum of Modern Art, turning up each day in such extravagant outfits – multiple bow ties and sometimes inflatable flowers and toys fastened to his clothing – that he could be mistaken for an installation, a flamboyant one-man show.
A natural salesman, who claimed to have single-handedly doubled MOMA’s membership roll, he then went to work on Wall Street selling commodities. This is the section of his curriculum vitae, which reads like it could have been lifted from a Tom Wolfe novel, that is often weaponised against him. In the crudest retelling, Koons is portrayed as a Wolf of Wall Street, a shallow opportunist who repurposed the sales patter he had perfected trading commodities to marketing his showy artworks. “It’s always about trying to fit things into a preconceived shape,” says Koons. “They’ll try to take a triangular peg and try to make it fit into a smaller circular hole.”
Rather than impersonating Gordon Gekko, his Wall Street foray was a means to an artisanal end: he needed cash to fund his art. “I was a fish out of water, just trying to swim or learn how to swim,” he says of this phase of his career. “I was trying to the best of my ability to swim. And that’s what I have always tried to do.”
Jeff Koons’s early works were plastic inflatables surrounded by mirrors – again, those reflective surfaces. Then his vacuum cleaners formed part of a collection entitled The New, which caught the eye of the Manhattan criterati. His 1985 Equilibrium series, where he suspended basketballs in tanks of water, a trick he pulled off after consulting a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, made him the talk of the town. Those hovering basketballs also inspired the young British artist Damien Hirst to preserve a tiger shark in formaldehyde.
Five years later came his big breakthrough collection, Banality, after which he was christened the “son of Warhol”. His most shocking work yet, exploring the shame of childhood masturbation, it included a porcelain Pink Panther hugging a busty mermaid, a giant mascot-like bear towering over a British bobby, and, most famously, an almost life-size statue of Michael Jackson with his pet monkey Bubbles in gold leaf and white porcelain – the then “King of Pop” did not yet have the skin colour of a geisha. At the time it seemed like a garish representation of celebrity culture in a media-saturated age. Now, given what we know about Michael Jackson, it looks grotesque.
The Banality exhibition made him an avatar of the ’80s, much like another New York showman who personified the zeitgeist, Donald Trump. Yet although they were in the same Big Apple orbit, their star power rarely aligned. It was only much later that Koons remembers being introduced to the then property tycoon by their mutual friend, the actor Pamela Anderson, at a party in 2003 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Playboy. Their children also attended the same elite Manhattan school. “I never had any interest in Trump,” he says. “The sense of hierarchy; I didn’t have any interest in that way of being. The sense of narcissism I never really could connect to.”
That all sounds a bit rich for an artist whose most eye-catching work at the time was his Made in Heaven collection, that pornographic romp with Ilona “La Cicciolina” Staller. Its canvases and erotic sculptures included Ilona on Top – Outdoors, Jeff Eating Ilona, and Blow Job. “I can’t say that’s an unfair criticism,” he admits. “The intention was about removing guilt and shame. I started that dialogue with the Banality exhibition … With the Made in Heaven work, I wanted to be more direct and tie it to the body.”
When Koons embarked on the project, he had never met Staller, who in 1987 had been elected to the Italian parliament and who famously offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein in order to free the foreign hostages held as human shields ahead of the Gulf War. But he was intrigued by the sight of her in a photo-spread for the German magazine Stern that was unlike anything he had seen in a top-shelf American magazine. Through their bodily collaboration in Made in Heaven, they ended up falling in love, a courtship conducted with the help of an interpreter since she spoke so little English. They were married the year after the exhibition first went on display at the 1990 Venice Biennale, but, alas, their love story ended up contradicting its title. From la dolce vita in Venice, where they were the playthings of the paparazzi, they ended up in the divorce courts in New York, where they became the objects of a tabloid feeding frenzy. Koons won the ugly custody battle over their son Ludwig, but then Ilona spirited the child away from his New York townhouse to Italy.
This was the darkest interlude in Koons’s life. He fought to retrieve Ludwig. (It remains a source of great pain to him that Staller made it “impossible” for them to maintain any kind of contact.) His beloved father passed away. His perfectionism ensnared him in various legal disputes, most notably with one of the Pennsylvania foundries that manufactured his work, which almost brought about his financial ruin. Artistically, too, these were barren years. Made in Heaven had sparked shock and awe when it debuted in New York, but the critics were unsparing. “Just when it looked as if the 1980s were finally over,” wrote Michael Kimmelman, the art critic of the New York Times, “Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterised the worst of the decade.”
The wholesomeness of his flowery Puppy sculpture, which debuted in Germany in 1992 and then took up residence at the Rockefeller Centre in New York, helped revive his reputation after the sordidness of Made in Heaven. However, Koons struggled to complete his next collection. Entitled Celebration, it would eventually include those shimmering balloon animals, Play-Doh, a delicious-looking party cake and a hanging heart – childhood iconography that anticipated a reunion with Ludwig that never came. But funding for the project kept on being exhausted, and its unveiling at the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim was repeatedly postponed and finally cancelled. Koons was forced to lay off most of the studio staff who produced his work. Tales abounded of him smashing up pieces that did not meet his exacting standards, and demolishing the gymnastic sculptures of him and Ilona. The King of Kitsch had evidently become King Lear.
Koons regrouped and rebounded with an exhibition entitled Easyrun that premiered in 1999. Then he followed up his Puppy success with another giant floral sculpture, Split-Rocker, comprising a dinosaur’s head conjoined with a pony’s in a referencing of children’s toy rockers. His works had started selling for big sums – his Pink Panther sculpture sold for $US1.8 million in 1999, a snip now but an astronomical amount back then. Production started again on the Celebration series.
His marriage in 2002 to his second wife, Justine, brought happiness at home. As the new millennium dawned, Koons embarked on his successful second act, which has seen him become a pillar of the artistic establishment.
The Whitney Museum of American Art handed over almost its entire gallery space for a Koons retrospective. Like an act of consecration, this 2014 exhibition sealed his reputation as one of the foremost artists of the post-war years.
Though Koons has clearly mellowed, and gained more widespread praise, he’s still seen by detractors as an ugly American whose overpriced works are pilloried as cheap and crass. When he was commissioned by the then US ambassador to France to produce Bouquet of Tulips as a gift to the people of Paris after the terror attacks in 2015 and 2016, his sculpture was met with Gallic disdain. Luminaries of French culture put their names to a letter published in the newspaper Libération, assailing the project as “opportunistic, even cynical”.
A French philosopher likened it to “11 coloured anuses mounted on stems”. Deluged with such an acid shower, the city authorities moved the proposed site of the sculpture, which was supposed to recall the spirit of the Statue of Liberty, to a less prominent location.
Obviously, Koons thinks this bad press is undeserved, and that often he is caricatured. “It’s an artificial personality,” he says. “I try to be sincere. And I try to communicate as clearly as I can what my intentions are.”
The artist found himself occupying more welcoming turf with the work he submitted for an auction to raise money for Joe Biden’s election campaign, prints of a stainless-steel inflatable of Old Glory, the US flag, that ended up raising $US400,000. Given his early inflatables symbolised the breath of life, I ask him whether the flag is more about a last exhalation, and the death of America as we know it. He seems shocked by the pessimistic premise of my question, and reaches back to the more comforting times of his childhood.
“When you mentioned the flag, I thought right away of parades in York. The Fire Department would come out. Fourth of July.” He explains how York served as the temporary capital of the Continental Congress during the American Revolutionary War, and recalls visits to Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty, where he would climb the tower of City Hall and peer out over the home of Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross, the founding mother who stitched the first American flag.
“To come into contact with that sense of history and to be part of something greater than self,” he says with wide-eyed awe. “That feeling has always stayed with me.” The idea, then, of a post-America America is anathema. It offends his sense of optimism. It violates his sense of civic tradition. “I do believe America can get back to the correct footing,” he insists. “Because there is belief in these institutions. There’s empathy there.”
From the accessibility of his balloon animals to the approachability of that West Highland terrier to the transcendence of his red, white and blue inflatable flag, Jeff Koons has always believed in the democracy of art. For the boy wonder of American art, both are a thing of boyhood wonder.
* Jeff Koons “Venus” 2016–20 (render) mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating 254.0 x 144.5 x 158.4 cm Edition 1/3 + 1 A/P National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with funds donated by Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, Leigh Clifford AO & Sue Clifford,
John Higgins AO & Jodie Maunder, Paula Fox AO & Fox Family Foundation, Professor AGL Shaw AO Bequest and NGV Foundation, 2020 © the artist and Gagosian.