Q&A

Objects of Desire: Jeff Koons Interviewed by Massimiliano Gioni

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Objects of Desire: Jeff Koons Interviewed by Massimiliano Gioni
Jeff Koons. Image via Hurriyet Daily News.

The following is excerpted from the exhibition catalogue for "Appearance Stripped Bare: Desire and the Object in the Work of Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons, Even," an exhibition that "overlays the work of Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons—two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century—to address key concepts about objects, commodities, desires, and the artist’s relationship to society." The exhibit is on view at Museo Jumex in Mexico City until September 29. Here, Massimiliano Gioni, curator of the exhibition and artistic director of the New Museum, interviews Jeff Koons about his relationship to the work of Marcel Duchamp.

In the work of Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons, mechanical apparatuses and products of technology yield rich metaphors for human bodies, sexuality, and the workings of desire. Starting around 1910, Duchamp looked to the realms of mechanics, physics, and chemistry, and “the question of shop windows,” to probe and translate enormous cultural shifts. He found ways to make art that acknowledged the dizzying increase of industrial production, the rationalization of the body by science, and an emerging consumer culture that was making desire not only the essence of human attraction but also the driving force of industry and commerce.

The overflowing production of new goods, the advent of branding, and the burgeoning of urban department stores were changing the relationship between people and goods: commodities were more than pragmatic means to take care of basic needs, they were desired objects. And conversely, anything that was desired could be a commodity. Reframing desire as an attraction to goods and objects, Duchamp was a small step away from anthropomorphizing and eroticizing machines and everyday goods. And with the shop window as the transparent threshold between the desiring viewer and the satisfied consumer, it is no coincidence that Duchamp’s explorations of desire as a mechanism and lovers as machines (and vice versa) reached their peak with his mechanomorphic allegory-in-a-window, or “delay in glass,” The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23).

At the same time, Duchamp tested ways to make art into a process as impersonal as the churning of a factory line. In preliminary notes for The Large Glass, he espoused the “dry” disinterestedness of mechanical drawing and what he called “the beauty of indifference.” Experiments with aleatory processes—operations guided by chance or randomness, as seen in his 3 Standard Stoppages (1913–14)—pushed toward an art even more distanced from the artist’s hand. In place of the age-old role of the artist as the exquisitely skilled handcrafter, Duchamp ventured further into the realm he had pioneered with his readymades. Through his emphasis on conceptual leaps, acts of choice or chance, and his effort to make “works which are not works of ‘art,’” he opened the floodgates for later artists to create through modes of appropriation, delegation, and outsourcing—all operations that are central to the work of Koons.

For Koons, in the hypercapitalist 1980s in New York, the omnipresence of conspicuous consumption and advertising culture served as the impetus for The New series, which revisited the erotics of familiar domestic machines. Koons is attentive to their anthropomorphic and fetish-like power; having grown up in his father’s furniture store, he became aware of the allure of domestic objects and commercial aesthetics. “My father’s show room was wonderful,” he recalled. “My involvement in the negotiation between the animate and the inanimate comes from this presentation of objects.” Brand-new Hoover vacuum cleaners, sealed in acrylic display cases and bathed in white fluorescent light, are presented as untouched objects of desire, which Koons has gone as far as describing as “virgins”—the chaste mechanical brides to the “bachelor machines” of Duchamp’s The Large Glass. - Natalie Bell

Exhibition view of "Appearance Stripped Bare" at Museo Jumex. Image via Museo Jumex.

 

When did you see Marcel Duchamp’s work for the first time? 

I was born in Pennsylvania and had an interest in art since I was a young boy. As a child I would go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with my aunt whenever we would visit her in the city. So I probably saw the galleries with Duchamp’s work when I was quite small, by age seven, I would say. But I had no consciousness of his work back then. What I do remember is that the sculpture of William Penn on the top of City Hall had a very big impact on me: just its presence, the way it connected to the past and history, and the kind of awe this sculpture could generate. All these aspects were really inspiring to me. To view the sculpture, you have to go all the way up the tower on top of City Hall, and the architecture and the whole journey to the top are like being inside a Jules Verne novel. The lantern on top is like a vehicle that takes you to the center of the Earth or to the moon. Many years later I realized that going up the tower was itself a Duchampian experience: not only did it have that feeling of technological mystery one finds in many works by Duchamp but also the whole experience was about wonderment and awe, which to me are the qualities I most admire in his art and that make up anything that is relevant in art.

So your primal scene with Duchamp was closer to those turn-of-the-century fantasies of science and technology that inspired both Duchamp and his hero Raymond Roussel? 

As with many young, aspiring artists, I first got involved with Surrealism and Dada. And it is probably through Dadaism that I got to know Duchamp’s work and that of Picabia, who even seemed easier to enjoy at the beginning because I have always gravitated toward works you understand with your body, not only intellectually. In Baltimore I studied with Bo Davis, who has written a book on Duchamp and his interest in threads, and I worked with Sal Scarpitta, who was also very familiar with Duchamp’s work and helped me understand that there was a conceptual side to works of art, while I was more attracted to the sensual aspects and probably found someone like Duchamp too intellectual and dry at the beginning. Then I went to Chicago and studied with the Imagists, who opened my eyes to the work of many outsider artists. That’s when I realized that many folk artists used objects in their work and that objects acquired a strange power in their creations. When I moved to New York at the end of 1976, I became much more alert to the history of modern art. The poet and art writer Allen Jones was a good friend of mine, and he gave me a new perspective—perhaps a more European one—on the twentieth-century avant-garde and helped me realize that what I liked about outsider art and some of the subjective art that I was interested in, like Surrealism, was an interest in everyday life and everyday objects and in the power of transcendence through material objects. I think that’s how I reconnected with Duchamp’s work, through the sense of power that his objects could convey.

You were so interested in Surrealism that you called up Salvador Dalí, introduced yourself, and went to meet him while he was in New York, didn’t you? 

Yes, I must have been eighteen years old at the time. I was much more aware of Dalí’s work than Duchamp’s, but I must have seen photos of Dalí with Duchamp, as they used to go on holiday together. Dalí was very present in the media: you would see pictures of him with Andy Warhol, for example. So, to go back to the story, I think it was January 1974. I had heard that when he was in New York, Dalí would stay at the St. Regis, so I called and asked to speak to him and they put me through and he just told me to come and visit him—probably he was just being polite. But I did go and see him a few days later, and I met him in the lobby of the hotel and he told me he had an exhibition at Knoedler gallery and asked if I wanted to see it. So we went there separately, I walked and he took a car, and I waited as he walked around with a French woman who I thought was a journalist but later realized was probably Amanda Lear. Eventually, he saw I was waiting and that I had a camera, and he asked me if I wanted to take a picture: he posed in front of his wonderful painting of the hallucinogenic royal tiger, and he swirled his mustache up for the photograph. I was a little nervous getting the camera focused, and it was taking a while, so he told me: “Hurry up kid, I don’t have all day.” But he was extremely generous to take the time to speak to me and to pose. I still have the photograph, of course, and a few years ago I was able to acquire the gouache study for that painting.

You have often said that it was Ed Paschke who made you more familiar with Duchamp’s work. 

I studied with Ed, but I also worked with him at the studio, as his assistant and just spending time with him. That’s how Ed showed me where he got his source material. It’d be from tattoo parlors or strip clubs, maybe just the print on the curtains in a bar, or from other odd places. What Ed taught me is that everything is here: everything is just around you, nothing else comes into the universe; it’s all here, and you just have to open yourself up to it. Through Ed, I realized that Duchamp’s work was about acceptance. Once you realize that everything is around you, the world just becomes abundant with possibilities.

When you moved to New York, you started working at the Museum of Modern Art in the membership department, which gave you a lot more access to the collection itself. That’s when you started seeing more of Duchamp’s work in person, and that sparked an interest in what you have referred to as “objective art.” What exactly do you mean by that? 

When I first arrived to New York, I was making paintings because that’s what I had always studied. My paintings were abstracted landscapes in three-dimensional form: rivers, ponds, and volcanoes. I was building them up with papiermâché and painting them. They became so large and heavy, I couldn’t keep them on the wall anymore. So, my first sculpture was actually a painting I took off the wall and put on a table. Then I went out and bought an inflatable elephant and an inflatable panda bear and attached a ceramic vase shaped like a woman to the top of the surface of the painting. Then I put a statuary base with some deer on the second level of this table. That was when I started to work more sculpturally. It came about just through the mass and weight of the painting. I made a couple other paintings around that time, maybe another three or four. And I continued to mount ceramic objects on them, attaching inflatable dalmatians or things like that to the painting. I thought it was a way of cleansing myself of subjective art—art that was about the self. It was a cleaner break when I started working only with inflatables. At that point I was really being influenced by the New York art world, by the exhibitions I would see. I loved Robert Smithson’s work, for example. And I was aware of Fluxus, which also engaged very much with objects. And I was very impressed by Robert Morris, who at the time was doing very complicated works with bronze and reflective materials. And I was also curious about photo narrative art, the work of James Carpenter, Bill Beckley, Bill Lumbergh. At that point my work started to be less about just self experience and more about an objective experience, about a shared sense that perhaps had something to do with being in New York.

I’d like to know what your experience of New York at that time was. 

I loved walking the streets of New York. You’re young, you walk around, you just absorb it. I would go into every showroom, every wholesale building. I would go to every floor, every shop in these big wholesale buildings. I really knew everything that was being manufactured. On the corner of Twenty-Sixth Street and Broadway, there was an inflatables store. That’s where I acquired my inflatable flowers. My rabbit I got down in Chinatown. It was off the Bowery. I don’t know what the cross street was, but that’s where I bought the inflatable rabbits. I also shopped a lot on Fourteenth Street, where many different cultures were coming together at the time. There was a large Spanish influence, for example—a lot of products with plastic beads and different kinds of carpets you would put on your wall. Thin carpets, very, very colorful. And there were shops selling chirping birds, little mechanized birds. A lot of products that were not expensive: housewares, decorative types of objects. And then of course I would go to Canal Street, Orchard Street, the Lower East Side. I shopped all over the city. Generally, the farthest that I recall going was up to around Twenty-Sixth Street, and that was it. That was my trip uptown.

Helen Molesworth has written a brilliant essay on Duchamp, titled “Rrose Sélavy Goes Shopping,” in which she looks at Duchamp’s work in the context of early twentieth-century history and particularly the shift from an economy of production to one of consumption, and the ways in which the readymade underscores issues related to taste and class. In this context, I’m curious to know how you chose the specific objects that you would acquire to include in your work at the time. How did you choose your readymades or your source materials? 

I was thinking of desire.

That’s quite interesting. This entire exhibition is premised on a note by Duchamp from 1913, in which he speaks about what he calls “the question of shop windows” and about the importance of never satisfying one’s own desires. More broadly, I think that interrogating the question of shop windows means understanding what has happened to objects and to desires in the last hundred years or so. 

I have always had a close familiarity with shop windows because my father had a furniture store. And I would first show my pictures in his showroom window. That showroom window, or the shop window in general, is almost like a skin membrane between our internal desires and our external desires.

Yes, it’s like “the great ephemeral skin” that Jean-François Lyotard described in Libidinal Economy. In one of your early interviews, you said your objects don’t absorb desire, they reflect it. I find it particularly interesting that you could make such a statement long before your Celebration series, long before you started working with mirroring surfaces. 

With the Statuary work, I started to think more explicitly about desire. Already in Luxury & Degradation, I was comparing the desire for luxury products to the cravings of the alcoholic who wants alcohol. But in a sense I was still suggesting that it is better to maintain one’s own economic and political positions rather than to fall for that type of desire. In Statuary, desire became more abstract. I believe very much in desire. I believe in optimism and in liking things, and wanting transcendence and wanting to enjoy life, to experience more. But the irony is that, personally, I’m not really a shopper. If I go to a store, I’m looking at objects, I’ll want to know what the other options are, and I want to study the alternatives and the various possibilities. I contemplate rather than shop.

It’s part of the mythology around your work that since you were a kid in your father’s shop, you have studied the ways in which objects are displayed and made more powerful and seductive through their presentation. But as you describe your experience of New York, it sounds much more modest, more Canal Street than Madison Avenue, so to speak.

I think that through the work, everything becomes heightened. For example, Fisherman Golfer from the Luxury & Degradation series—I remember I bought it in a shop on the Bowery that sold objects for bars and restaurants. It was just a little bar tool kit, but it was special. I could see that the object could transcend and reach a higher level, offering more of itself.

Today, it is quite common to envision objects as though they were alive. Many objects today have a voice—think of our phones and computers—and almost a life of their own. Is this type of animism what you were thinking about or was it more about a specific object incarnating projections of class and money?

I was more interested in the work amplifying the object, capturing an intensity, a life energy. Some objects want to become life itself and that is what you have to aim for in your work, even if you keep failing at it.

Many of your objects are also quite aspirational: they are about status and people wanting to become someone else or broadcasting a certain image of themselves.

That’s probably first apparent in the Luxury & Degradation series. But already in the Equilibrium series you had the tanks with the basketballs, which were displaying an ultimate state of being—a kind of philosophical state of equilibrium. But you also had the Nike posters, which I described as “Sirens”: they represented people who had attained a certain status, a certain success, perhaps a state of equilibrium, and they proclaimed they had done it. And they were luring the viewers, trying to convince them to participate in a certain idea of success. And then you had the tools for equilibrium—the Aqua-Lung, the snorkel, the lifeboat—all made in bronze, which were weighing your aspirations down. There was always a sense of narrative between these objects, a connectivity of things, how things interrelate to each other. Often the objects were connected in a trinity, so perhaps the connections became also spiritual and religious.

Art historian David Joselit has spoken of “an erotics of things” to describe Duchamp’s objects. You have often used sexual metaphors to describe your earlier works, like the vacuum cleaners, which you have called “virginal” and “virgins.” 

I thought of it as objective sex. It was more distant and, at the same time, more universal. Before, in my younger work, there were more direct sexual images. Then in The New there is nothing explicit, but there is definitely a sexual presence. In the first works in Pre-New and The New, I was still infringing on the objects: I was combining objects, gluing them together or screwing a Plexiglas tube, for example, to a toaster or a pressure cooker. Things changed when I understood I could let the object exist by itself, showing its purity of birth, its essence. I bought my vacuum cleaners on Fourteenth Street, but at the time I was working at the Museum of Modern Art and the displays in the architecture and design department had a big influence on me. So everything really fell into place when I decided to encase the vacuum cleaners and just put the white fluorescent light underneath them, almost without touching the vacuum cleaners, just lifting them out of their boxes and displaying them in their purity, before they even draw a first breath. It was a play between the animate and the inanimate, and I was asking who was better prepared to survive: you, the viewer, or the new…

They always made me think of a certain image of the American dream of the 1950s, and its corruption and lies, somewhere in between Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life and Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride. The atmosphere they evoke is also a kind of suffocating conformism.

Vacuum cleaners were something that people went door-to-door selling at one time in America. So, in this body of work, there’s also this essence of sales—the intermix of what it means to be an individual who exists not only by himself but also within a community. And the community is this interaction of sexuality and economics, of taking care of your needs and providing for other people, and all these aspects combined. The idea of sales has always hit me as the front line of morality. Trade is where cultural morality is worked out and norms that define societies are developed. I felt that The New was embodying all of that.

These are also the works that make more of an explicit reference to Duchamp’s mechanomorphic imagination, with his “bachelor machines” and all the connections with Raymond Roussel and his technologies of desire, repression, repetition, and death.

To me the objects in The New were both masculine and feminine. You can look at one of the vacuum cleaners, like an upright convertible, for example, and the sack in the front could be very womb-like or it could be like a scrotum. And this ambiguity, this back-and-forth, was also reflected in the wet and dry opposition: there were wet and dry carpet cleaners. It made me think of the relationship between the inside and the outside, the blood inside and the dry outside, the being and nothingness.

There is also a sense of obsolescence related to these works: they seem to date from much earlier than the 1970s. They evoke a fictional future that now seems dated and faded, not unlike Duchamp’s or Picabia’s turn-of-the-century machines.

Smithson was also very interested in science fiction, and I was very aware of his work early on. And Robert Morris was also making very complex works, strangely retro-futuristic. For me, the idea of the tension between the organic and the inorganic was already present in my early inflatables. The inflatables are very anthropomorphic. They are like us: we inflate and deflate. I thought of the inflatables as objects in a heightened sexual state because they’re reflected in the mirrors, which add a different sense of time, since the reflection is always in a different time than the time of the viewer and of the object. So when I came to The New, many of these elements were already present, but I compressed them more into a gestalt, a complete form. For me, The New is more clearly about challenging life’s energy, like creating an artificial life. They are like the chirping mechanical birds I saw on Fourteenth Street.

The New always made me think of something slightly clinical, like creating life in vitro or Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. But I see them more as mausoleums or tombs: to me, they are more about death, or about suspending or postponing, freezing death, in a sense.

In The New there is definitely this sense of being confronted by the object and having to ask yourself if the object will survive you and outlive you, whether its integrity is stronger than yours. Objects never participate, while our integrity and our selves are defined by all these relationships, through sex, economics, our community. The objects in The New don’t have feelings and so they are better prepared to be eternal. When I was working with objects in The New, I was always trying not to alter the object physically or even psychologically. I just always try to enhance and isolate a specific personality trait within the object. The soul of the object must be maintained, so that it broadcasts its presence.

The presence of objects—their aura or their phantasmagorical quality as commodities—is a defining quality in the history of art and culture in the twentieth century. The very definition of subjectivity is built on our relationship to objects.

I should say that I have never thought that my work is as philosophical as Duchamp’s. The original readymade turned everything upside down and changed everything. I always felt my work could participate in the avant-garde and build on the tradition of the readymade, but at the same time, I have always been trying to be more embracing, less confrontational. I have always felt an affinity for Duchamp and his objects, but I also wanted my sculptures to be closer to Brancusi’s objects, to his finish, to the sensuality of his forms.

It’s interesting that you would distinguish between readymades and sculptures. In fact, Duchamp’s readymades as we know them are mainly sculptures, which were created in the 1960s as replicas of the original found—or better, chosen—industrial objects. In a sense they are facsimiles of industrial objects, but they have been so accurately made—mainly handmade—that they are in fact sculptures. Duchamp described them as “readymade to the square power,” which is a definition that could also apply to your objects, particularly from the Statuary or the Luxury & Degradation series, in which you turn found objects into sculptures by casting them in stainless steel.

One of the reasons I enjoyed so much doing the Gazing Ball series has to do with the purity of the object. If I were to work with gazing balls bought in a showroom, their imperfections would be so noticeable that viewers wouldn’t be able to get lost in the abstraction of the surface and in the power of the object. So I have to make the gazing balls myself, in the exact same size and pretty much with the same materials, so that I can make them perfect. You have to remake the object in order to amplify it and make it perfect. And it is a hard choice because if you were to keep the object as you found it, it has beauty and immediacy—the purity of the readymade. It’s beautiful in itself, just as it is. But it would be imperfect, and once you get involved in the formal organization of the object, you realize that certain details could be corrected, that the object would be more powerful and stronger if you could get rid of some imprecisions. That’s why in my work there are different degrees of readymades and replicas, from casting something to turning it into a different material. You lose, perhaps, the immediacy, but you gain in perfection.

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