This week saw the opening of the third and final leg of Jeff Koons’s traveling retrospective at the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the great artist—sculptor of balloon animals, seeker of perfection, holder of the world auction record—was there to unveil his artworks in Frank Gehry’s swirling, iconic building. Sporting a longish new haircut that served to both make preternaturally boyish artist look years younger, and, for needing to look younger, older, Koons generously took the time to address the international press corps and discuss his work.
For anyone who hasn’t heard the artist speak, it is a treat. Soft-voiced and utterly calm, Koons has a unique style of talking about art, slowly and dreamily enunciating every syllable in a way that suggests he earnestly hopes to impart his thinking but is unconcerned about the reception. Very quickly, as he begins to take rapid switchback turns from the everyday to the startlingly universal, you realize that the artist has more profound things on his mind than blown-up baubles and balloons.
Listening to one of Koons’s sermons can leave an impression of the artist as a starry eyed leader of a cult of one. But if you pay attention and take him at his word—if you listen with judgment, in a spirit of acceptance—you might realize that you’re in the hands of a man who has made peace with history, and who has has either achieved a certain state of transcendence or sincerely believes that he has. Here are a few revelatory and rather inspiring things he said in Bilbao.
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ON THE AIM OF HIS WORK
“What I hope to accomplish with my work is to have a dialogue about eternal life and the external world, and how from the comprehension of this dialogue how we can enrich our lives and we can all participate in transcendence and we can understand the freedom of gesture that each and every one of us has at every moment in our lives.”
ON WHAT HE MAKES OF THE ARC OF HIS CAREER, FROM HIS EARLIEST SERIES TO HIS RECENT WORK
“You see the raw power of a young artist–that there’s nothing to deter them, it’s just pure chemicals and body and inner mind. And you end up with work that at the end that has the same type of drive but that also has the intellect of the force behind it, and I think you see that a great artist gets better.”
ON HOW HE FIRST BECAME AN ARTIST
“I always participated in activities of making art since the time I was three. I have a sister who is three years older than I am, and she could always do everything better than me because of that age difference. She could count further, she could spell words better, jump higher, do everything better. But finally, when I was three, I remember making a drawing and my parents coming up behind me and saying, ‘Jeff, that’s really fantastic.’ It gave me a sense of self, and art always continued for me in that way, and I continued making drawings. But it wasn’t until I got to art school and I had my first art history class that I realized the potential. That’s when things really changed and I understood my path.
“And I realized at a young age that I had interests—that I wanted more in life. I saw some of my friends growing up not really desiring more, but I wanted to participate. And I was always involved in self-sufficiency. I would take care of myself—I would be a busboy or I would go door-to-door selling things. But I think there was a certain point when I wanted to take on the responsibility to lead to the best of my ability, to interact and take care of the community.”
ON WHAT HE LEARNED IN HIS FATHER’S STORE
“At the earliest stage, I thought about reflection when visiting my father’s showroom. My was an interior decorator and he had a furniture store, so whenever I would go into my dad’s store a couple of time a week I learned aesthetics through my father. He taught me that different colors, different textures, can affect how you feel, so this aspect of emotions—of chemical reactions—really started through experiencing my father’s combination of textures and colors in his work. But I was always around mirrors and around objects displaying themselves in his showroom. A lamp would just be a lamp, and display itself.
“But what I started to realize a mirror did was that it affirmed the viewer. I enjoyed Robert Smithson’s work, I enjoyed Robert Morris’s work, and this aspect of affirmation became really important to me. It’s actually the key to my work right now, because once you have self-acceptance you can go to a higher state, which is accepting others. And that’s really what the journey of art has revealed to me. It was a process for me to go through a journey of self-acceptance to learn personal iconography, using color in a certain way, texture in a certain way you access the Dionysian power of art. But at the same time you connect with intuitive thought and the layering of ideas.”
ON WHEN HE FIRST ACHIEVED SELF-ACCEPTANCE
“When I was in art school and I started studying philosophy, sociology, and art history, and because I had always loved Dalí’s work and the Dadaists I was involved with personal iconography. I ended up transferring in my last year of art school from the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, because I wanted to study with the Chicago Imagists. All of their work is based in subjective art—it’s what you dreamt the night before, personal iconography—and there’s a lot of feeling, strong sensations, like when you think of Pop art and the kind of sensations you have around the color red, or lips. The work that I was really responding to really hits you in the gut—it was strong visual stuff.
“But I woke up one morning, and I remember hearing Patti Smith on the radio, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really fantastic.’ I had a desire to connect to my new generation, and I was tired of making artworks and painting about what I dreamt the night before—I automatically wanted to go outside myself and connect to my generation. So I moved to New York and hung out with the artists of my generation, and I started having the confidence to start to go external and to be involved with the dialogue outside myself. And I think I was able to make works that were even more dynamic. When I created those early inflatable pieces, with the store-bought mirrors and those flowers, I would have to go and have some drinks afterwards because they were so visually strong that I would have to shake it off.”
ON THE INFLUENCE OF DALÍ
“As a child I was always involved with artwork from about around three, and Salvador Dalí was the first artist for whom I had an art book—I had a large coffee-table book, and I loved Dada and Surrealism. I think Dalí helped me start a journey of learning how to go inward and to trust in myself. Once you trust in yourself then you can go into the external world and you can trust in others.
“Dalí was probably the most generous artist to me. When I was about 18 I met Dalí in New York. He invited me to see him there. He was very punctual—he met me in the lobby of his hotel exactly when he said he would be there, and he was dressed impeccably. I believe it was [Philippe] Halsman who used to photograph him all the time, and his daughter said that whenever you meet Dalí, he makes you feel as though you’re experiencing the most important moment in your life, and that was absolutely true. He was impeccable in his buffalo-fur coat, his diamond-studded tie, and that mustache.
“He invited me to go to an exhibition that he had in New York at the Knoedler Gallery, he spent time there going around and letting me photograph him, and he was so generous. I left the exhibition that night thinking, ‘I can do this. I can be part of an underground avant-garde, and I can make art a way of life.’ He was one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, and I hope that my lobster in this exhibition pays homage to his relevance as a tremendous human being, a tremendous artist.”
ON WHY HE LOVES COURBET
“I love Courbet because I love the idea of the avant-garde. I love him for his radical quality, I love the intuitive aspect of Courbet, I love the physicality of his work. But the tradition of the Romantic in art and the capturing of life’s energy goes back even further, even to the Paleolithic period—you can look at the Venus of Willendorf and other Paleolithic pieces and they’re like Courbet’s Origin of the World. But I love the openness, the intuitive quality of his work, and the aspect of social realism that he dealt with in his work. He extended it outward, so that it wasn’t just about Courbet but was about the community, about the interaction with the viewer.
“But Origin of the World is one of my favorite works, and I’m happy to say that in my bedroom at home I have a painting of Jo, the model of that piece, that he did two weeks before, laying in the position of the femme nue with the parrot. We actually thought that Origin of the World might be underneath it, because it has the same layout, but we x-rayed it and it’s not. But it’s right at that moment, she’s the model, and that’s her genitalia in Origin of the World.”
ON HIS PASSION FOR THE BAROQUE
“As far as the Baroque and the Rococo, I remember as a child having my first theological or spiritual experiences of being in the environment of the church and that kind of ethereal abstraction. And when I started to spend time in Europe and I would be in Southern Germany or Northern Italy and Spain and I would see the churches, I loved how the Baroque has all of the polarities there. It has the organic and the inorganic; it has the eternal and the biological through life energy, procreation; and at the same time it has a very ethereal, ephemeral spirituality.
“This type of equilibrium, this type of balance—the same as my Equilibrium Tank—is captured in Puppy. Puppy is about whether you love or want to be loved, whether you want to serve or be served. It’s about the polarity of the organic eternal life energy and, at the same time, the ephemeral and spiritual. So that’s really my love of the Baroque.”
ON WHERE HE SEES HIMSELF FITTING INTO THE LINEAGE OF ART HISTORY
“As far as being at the table of the history of art with other artists, I’ve always been desirous of being able to sit down and have a conversation with Picasso and with Picabia, Duchamp, Courbet, Velázquez, and Fragonard—the whole history of art. That type of interaction, that dialogue of how they inform my work, is something that I would hope that I can continue into the future, so that my work is resonating and connecting with other artists. It’s about being at that table and sharing that type of lineage.
“Our genes connect. If you look at our DNA there’s this connection, and the arts make that same type of connection—it parallels biology. I believe that I’m a different person since I came across Manet’s work, and Manet was a different person since he came across Goya and Velázquez. Ideas can change your genes—science knows that it does it momentarily, and I think it does it permanently. The art parallels these biological connections, and biology is our truest narrative of human history.”
ON NEW TECHNOLOGY
“I don’t really think of technology other than as a tool. I can remember when I started working with computers, it was just another way of working, so instead of maybe using the Xerox machine I could be able to manipulate precise information. I was always very worried, because I would see other artists reach to the newest technology as if they thought, ‘If I work with the newest technology, my work is going to be new! It’s going to be fresh, it’s going to be exciting—it’s going to contribute to society. It’s going to be new!’ That’s not where the new comes from. The new comes from following your interests, it comes from reflection, it comes from honesty, it comes from truth, which just means being open. It doesn’t come from technology—that’s quite temporal, and it has no lasting quality.
“But as a tool, it’s fantastic. Three years ago I partnered with MIT, so I work with Bits and Atoms and I meet with them constantly throughout the year and they look at my work. I always want to develop methods of creating my work that are the most efficient and precise. I want to be in the moment as much as possible. There are years of reflection that take place, but once I decide that I want to make something I would like to bring it into the world as quickly as possible. Right now there's, on average, a delay of three years, and I want to get that reduced to a shorter and shorter time. Technology is a tool.”
ON THE MEANING OF EQUILIBRIUM
“My Equilibrium Tank is a symbol of an alternate state of being. I worked with the Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Richard P. Feynman, who won the prize for quantum dynamics, and he would tell me, ‘Jeff, you can do it. You can create permanent equilibrium.’ And I’d say, ‘But I want to do it at the size of an aquarium and put a basketball in there.’ And he would say, ‘You can do it,’ and he would give me hints about how you could do it.
"Silicon oil is the most compressible liquid that exists—but I couldn’t do it because I would need an aquarium about 100 feet tall to have a density gradient where the basketball could just hover there and stay there. I could do it if I had two immiscible liquids, but I wanted the purity of the womb. Because an equilibrium tank is pre-birth, it’s pre-new. And it’s after death, it’s a symbol of the eternal. So I wanted to maintain the purity, and I sacrificed the permanent equilibrium for the purity of that work.”
ON WEAKNESS IN HIS WORK
“I try to attack the weakness every day. And the weakness of any artist’s work would be not exercising the freedom that I have, of reaching the highest state of consciousness that we’re all capable as human beings. I believe in the removal of judgement, and that through the removal of judgement you experience acceptance. It eliminates discrimination, and everything remains in play—all objects, all images, everything—and the universe is at your disposal and there’s nothing to create anxiety. To me, that’s how you walk out of Plato’s cave, and you exercise the freedom that you have as a human being of gesture and comprehension.”
ON WHETHER HE HAS EVER DESTROYED ANY ARTWORKS
“Due to the nature of how I make my artworks and some of the costs that can come into play in the realization of them and the time and the energy it takes to make them, I really have to pre-edit my work in advance. So there’s very little destruction that ever takes place. I really think it probably takes at least two years on average before I even start to work on something, before I’m sure something is good enough to be made.
“But there was a time in my life… some of the series ‘Made in Heaven’ I destroyed, but not for any disbelief in the work, because I loved he work completely. I think it was some of the finest work that I’ve made in terms of dealing with the eternal, the biological, self-acceptance, and the removal of guilt and shame—the whole dialogue about how we can have a platform for ourselves in this world not to be disempowered but empowered. And one of the things that distances people from themselves and self-acceptance is the failure to accept their own body, their own biology. But I destroyed those works only out of the context that the work was being placed in due to the courts and litigation over child custody.”
ON WHETHER CICCIOLINA WAS THE PERFECT REINCARNATION OF VENUS
“It’s hard for me to reflect on that, because I have to say that the perfect reincarnation of Venus is my wife Justine. We have six children together, and when I think of love, when I think of beauty, of giving myself up to somebody and being lost in the power of the biological and the universal, that’s through my wife Justine.
“And when I think of Venus and Mars, I think of the kisses of Picasso, and how Picasso is looking back to Titian, how he’s looking at the shadow between the mouths. All of Picasso’s kiss paintings of ’67, ’68, ’69, they’re all about out that shadow that’s taking place between the mouths. These are the kinds of connections that I make.”
ON CRITICS AND CRITICALITY
“I think that critics have actually been wonderfully supportive of my work, considering that from the very beginning I have called for the removal of criticality. That’s basically how critics earn a living. But the removal of criticality is about the removal of judgment and the acceptance of everything, that everything is perfect in its own being. That doesn’t mean that at different moments in our lives we may not find more significance in certain things, certain identities, but there’s no room for judgment and criticality.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with all the support and openness that people have given to my work. From a young age I have tried to take the responsibility upon myself to present my work to people that they could see the starting point. The viewer always finishes the work of art, so they always have the last word, but it’s the responsibility of the artist to try to get you as far as they can to a vista of how to see the context from their point of view.”
ON THE TRUE COMPENSATION OF HIS ART, AND THE “ECONOMIC ASPECT”
“My joy, my pleasure, has always been to participate in the dialogue of art, to be part of a community. How I’m rewarded is by creating something where my mind creates certain secretions and I feel physically charged and I feel connected to the universe and I can feel connected to Manet and Courbet and Velázquez and I can feel connected to the community that created something like the Farnese Hercules. So, that’s the the joy, that’s the pleasure, that’s the value in art.
“The economic aspect that comes sometimes to art is so far removed and so abstracted to me. Of course I’ve always wanted to create a political platform for my work that would help it have as vast an impact as possible. But I’m completely removed from it. When people make statements to me and talk about the money and the prices, I have to think, ‘Who are they talking about?’ Then I have to realize all of a sudden that, oh, that’s associated with me. Because the reward, the value, in art is something completely different that I treasure.”
ON IMPORTANT DEALERS IN HIS LIFE
“Larry Gagosian is a great dealer. He’s a friend. But I have to say that there have been people in my life who have had so much more extreme relevance at my foundation in terms of giving me support. All my friends, other artists, young dealers, but really foremost would be Ileana Sonnabend, who passed away about six years ago. She gave me undeniable, constant support, and no matter what I did she was there. She supported the ‘Banality’ work, the ‘Statuary’ work, the ‘Made in Heaven’ work. She was an amazing force, and she also helped connect me with European culture—she was one of the first to introduce me to Europe and help build some of the connections.”
ON THE DARK SIDE
“You always have to have the other polarity, the other side. I love the philosophical discourse. I can look at my work and I can see the relevance of how important Kierkegaard is, of Either/Or and Being and Nothingness, and Sartre, Nietzsche, Plato. So all of these different philosophical dialogues are very relevant to me, but there’s no other way that I know of to be engaged with he creative process other than first having self-acceptance. Once you accept yourself then you can start to go outwork and focus your interests, and that leads you to the universal vocabulary. I don’t know how else anybody could do it. I’m going to externalize myself and follow your interests? Automatically there’s a disconnect.
“So you have to have self-acceptance, and you have to go through the dark side at the very beginning. The dark side is there—the dark side is what you need to overcome to be able to walk out of Plato’s cave. I think judgement is the dark side, you can remove judgment and anxiety by participating in acceptance, being open to everything—understanding that nothing is sacred, that everything is in play. There’s nothing that can’t be used and incorporated, there’s no disempowerment of the self. When you keep everything in play, automatically you connect to the universal.”
ON SAYING YES TO EVERYTHING
“I’ve always tried to say yes to everything and to be available and to consciously reflect on all opportunities to try to be at the service of my work. I believe that my art has made me a better human being. I try to be a better artist every day. That’s what brings me pleasure, that’s what brings me joy—to reach the highest level of consciousness that I can and to make the freest gesture that I can.”
ON WHAT INSPIRES HIM NOWADAYS
“Everything. But, you know, the only thing you can do as an individual, in no matter what profession, whether you’re an artist or a physician, is to follow your interests. When you follow your interests and you focus on your interests it takes you to a very metaphysical place where you connect with a universal vocabulary, and time and space bend. And that’s the pleasure that I have in life. We all participate in this activity, we all connect to the universal, and we all connect to the history of humankind, and we all put our foot in the future by focusing on our interests and following them. It’s the only thing we can do.”