Have you ever wondered what lies beneath those shiny stainless steel surfaces? In honor of his latest exhibit, we delve into the mysteries surrounding the world’s most expensive living artist
Ah, Jeff Koons. The Pot of the Art World. A name whose mere mention can trigger a cacophony of opinions. Some free, many hard. But everyone has a position on one of the most controversial artists of our time.
This is why, when I found myself in front of the man, the myth, the artist himself, I had the impression of being on the other side of the mirror, in a world far from mine. But there he was, waiting in line for a coffee at Doha’s Qatar Museums Gallery, Al Riwaq, ready to unveil his latest and greatest exhibition in the Middle East, Lost in America – as soon as he’d had his caffeine fix. He is human, after all.
After his 1986 “Rabbit” sculpture sold in 2019 for $91.9 million, Koons became the world’s most expensive living artist, overtaking David Hockney, who had only held the honor for a few months. His Party The works, including “Balloon Dog”, are among the most photographed works of art in the world, and yet few of us know what, if anything, lies beneath those shiny stainless steel surfaces.
Lost in America, curator Massimiliano Gioni explained at the exhibition’s press conference, aims to dispel – but also sometimes to perpetuate – some of the myths surrounding Koons. Complemented by wall text straight from the artist himself, something more personal is happening in this space as the exhibition does its best to unveil an autobiography through work that is often described as stunning on the in execution but conceptually “meaningless”.
“The show is quite rich in different thematic explorations of the myths around Jeff and the myths around American culture,” Gioni said. “So myself, as a curator, I wanted to think about Jeff’s work beyond some of the stereotypes that have often characterized his practice, especially auction records, and take a much more intimate look at his job.”
In honor of the current exhibit at the museum through March 31, we’re opening up and contextualizing three of Koons’ greatest myths.
HE IS NOT AN ARTIST BECAUSE HE DOES NOT MAKE HIS ART: FALSE
In the exhibition catalog, Koons thinks he’s been an artist since he was alive – that “art was always a reward system” as a child. Born in 1955 in York, Pennsylvania, Koons was deeply inspired by his father’s decorating work. It was through this that his obsession with packaging, aesthetics and environments began to form. “I grew up learning early on that the environment can manipulate your emotions and the way you feel,” he recalls. “I would walk into my dad’s store and one week one room was a kitchen and the next room was a living room. I came back the next week, and the kitchen had become a den for people to watch television, and the other room had become a bedroom. I would feel totally different emotions entering that space. I was manipulated and I liked it.
Koons studied painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and then at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. But it was while working in the membership office of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1970s that Koons really found his drive to be an artist. Immersed in the works of Picasso, Robert Smithson and Donald Judd, Koons wanted to contribute to the canon of modern art. His the oldest art was ready-made sculptures bought cheaply on New York’s Canal Street, including the pool toys and inflatables he would later become synonymous with through works like “Hulk (Friends)” and “Lobster.” Whereas now these ready-mades are meticulously simulated and cast in materials such as bronze or stainless steel – often weighing over a ton – so Koons presented them as is, sitting atop a mirror . Another series that was obviously handy was Made in heaven, a set of pornographic images made with his then-wife Ilona Staller, some of which were destroyed during an acrimonious divorce.
“I’ve always been afraid that the material would manipulate me, instead of me manipulating the material” – Jeff Koons
Several years ago, Koons revealed he employed 100 people to help create his record-breaking work, and he’s been open about his collaborations with artisans around the world. Sometimes people have challenged this and use it as a way to fire it. But, for Koons, these assistants and artisans bring him closer to the very essence of the work of art. Speaking to Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani at a conference for Lost in America opening weekend, he said, “I was always worried about the material manipulating me, instead of me manipulating the material. If I started out wanting to make a vase with flowers out of clay, I might end up making a duck. I’ve always liked having more than one idea and then having distance. His voice is soft, graceful, upbeat, and sometimes it feels like he’s experiencing something wonderful for the first time – like a wide-eyed child discovering an ice cream.
HIS ART IS ONLY ON THE SURFACE: FALSE
Koons’ most recognizable work is undoubtedly Party. Even the uninitiated observer will probably recognize the series of gigantic stainless steel sculptures imitating the objects of a child’s birthday party – a cone-shaped hat, a balloon dog. Made with maniacal precision, these works are breathtakingly fluid, identical to their “real” counterparts except for their disproportionate stature. “Party Hat” — Koons’ latest addition to the series — took 25 years to make, Gioni said during the press tour. Others, like “Balloon Dog” – the most famous of the series – around a decade. It is a painstaking process that has also been painful in its process. And beyond the surface of the shiny, selfie-ready artwork, there’s a deep personal pain.
Party was created following Koons’ divorce from Staller, the mother of his son, Ludwig, in 1994. Art became an outlet for his grief, initiated after his gallerist Anthony d’Offay asked him to create a calendar. Realizing the concept was “too good” to be just a calendar, Koons embarked on what would become a perilous journey spanning decades. “Despite all the success myths around Jeff, he had some very dizzying ups and downs,” Gioni says. “Party is now associated with his masterpiece, but it was initially almost a recipe for disaster. In fact, the show was so ambitious that it nearly bankrupted Koons in the 1990s and, financially ruined, he returned to live with his parents. Gioni recounted the observation of a gallery manager who said, “Jeff is so determined. He loves his job and is so precise he will blow you out the window. But he’s the only artist I know who will jump with you – that’s how true he is to his vision. However, somehow Koons turned the tide. Party now sells for epic figures.
Koons, also known as Gioni, described “Balloon Dog”, more accurately, as a “Trojan horse”. “He holds a secret, but it’s up to you to find out what it is.” Because the ball is filled with air on the inside, Koons said of the work, attention is focused on its exterior, and in particular on the spectators. “The exteriors of the inflatable structures are also fully reflective, and this constantly reminds viewers of their existence,” he wrote in the exhibition catalog. “Tome, Party is about the viewers – what their own dreams and memories are. It’s about using the public as a ready-made.
THE ONLY VALUE OF HIS ART IS IN HOW MUCH IT COSTS: FALSE
Although they are among the most coveted works of art in the world, these glossy surfaces do more than direct the viewer’s gaze. Outside the context of Koons’ work, his material of choice, stainless steel is far from precious: it is widely available, affordable and durable: a “platinum of the proletariat”. “That’s what we use for pots and pans,” Gioni laughs. “It has more to do with cooking than fine art.”
Instead, these inanimate objects ask the viewer to think not only about their image, but also about what they contain. “When I work with objects, I try to reveal some aspect of their personality,” writes Koons in the catalog for the exhibition. “I place them in a context or present them in a material that will highlight a specific personality trait within the objects themselves.
“I also try to capture the desire of the individual in the object and fix his aspirations on the surface, in a condition of immortality. All this to say that in the system in which I was raised – the Western capitalist system – one receives objects as a reward for work and success. Once these objects are accumulated, they function as support mechanisms for individuals: to define the personality of the self, to achieve and express desire.
In Lost in America, “Rabbit” is positioned in its own room, gazing out at all the other works – “signalling” the future, Gioni noted. It’s Koons’ piece de resistance. What started as a cheap inflatable is now the most expensive work of art in the world. You’d be forgiven for thinking that with Koons’ resume selling goods on Wall Street and his MoMA memberships, he’d know how to get people to sit up and pay attention to what he’s saying — or selling. And you would be right, but according to Koons, the value of artwork goes beyond money.
“I’m not looking to make consumer icons, but to decode why and how consumer objects are glorified. My objects reflect desire; they don’t absorb it,” Koons wrote. “I thought stainless steel would be a wonderful material. I could polish it, and I could create false luxury. I never wanted real luxury; instead, I wanted proletarian luxury, something visually intoxicating and disorienting.The surface of stainless steel is largely a false front for underlying degradation.
Ultimately, Koons said, his works are more about us than him. Gioni noted that Koons’ fascination with the readymade goes beyond a philosophical position to the realm of something much deeper: acceptance. “The ready-made is the acceptance of the world as it is,” he explained, “and Jeff said that if you learn to accept everything in the world, if you learn that even the object more worthless can become a work of art, the world opens up as an endless field of possibilities… The heightened perception we see in the reflection is an invitation to look at the world more closely and find that enriching experience in all the objects around us.
Lost in America by Jeff Koons is at Qatar Museums Gallery, Al Riwaq, Doha, until March 31, 2022. For more information, click on here