Have you ever wondered what lies beneath those shiny stainless steel surfaces? In honor of his latest exhibition, we take a look at the mysteries surrounding the world’s most expensive living artist
Ah, Jeff Koons. The marmite of the art world. A name the mere mention of which can trigger a cacophony of opinions. Some flattering, many harsh. But everyone has an opinion on one of the most controversial artists of our time.
So when I found myself in front of the man, the myth, the artist himself, it felt like I was on the other side of the mirror, in a world far away from mine. But here he was, waiting in line for coffee at Doha’s Qatar Museums Gallery, Al Riwaq, ready to unveil his latest and biggest exhibition in the Middle East, Lost in America – just as he’d had his caffeine fix. After all, he is human.
After his 1986 sculpture Rabbit sold for $91.9 million in 2019, Koons became the world’s most expensive living artist, overtaking David Hockney, who held the honor for just a few months. His Celebration work, particularly Balloon Dog, is among the most photographed works of art in the world, and yet not many of us know what lies beneath those gleaming stainless steel surfaces.
Lost in America, explained curator Massimiliano Gioni at the exhibition’s press conference, aims to dispel some of the myths surrounding Koons – but also occasionally perpetuates it. Complete with wall text written directly by the artist himself, something more personal happens in this space as the exhibition does its best to unravel an autobiography through a work often described as astonishing in execution but conceptually “meaningless”.
“The show is quite rich in diverse thematic explorations of the myths surrounding Jeff and the myths surrounding American culture,” Gioni said. “As a curator, I wanted to think Jeff’s work beyond some of the stereotypes that have often characterized his practice, particularly the auction records, and take a much more intimate look at his work.”
In honor of the exhibition, which runs at the museum until March 31, we set out and contextualize three of Koons’ greatest myths.
Photography Fred Scruton
HE IS NOT AN ARTIST BECAUSE HE DOESN’T DO HIS ART WRONG
In the exhibition catalogue, Koons muses that he has always been an artist – that growing up, “art was always a reward system”. Born in York, Pennsylvania in 1955, Koons was deeply inspired by his father’s work as a decorator. This started his obsession with packaging, aesthetics and environments. “I grew up very early and learned that the environment can manipulate your emotions and your feelings,” he recalls. “I went into my father’s shop and in a week one room was a kitchen and the adjoining room was a living room. I would be returning in the next week and the kitchen had become a den for people to watch TV and the other room had become a bedroom. I would feel very different emotions entering this room. I was manipulated and I liked that.”
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 wasn’t until he worked at the membership desk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the 1970s that Koons discovered his urge to become an artist. Embedded in works by Picasso, Robert Smithson and Donald Judd, Koons wanted to contribute to the modern art canon. His earliest art was ready-made sculptures, which he bought cheaply on New York’s Canal Street, including the pool toys and inflatable boats that he later became synonymous with in works like Hulk (Friends) and Lobster. While today these readymades are meticulously simulated and cast in materials like bronze or stainless steel—which often weigh over a ton—Koons back then presented them as they are, seated on a mirror. Another series that was strikingly practical was Made in Heaven, a series of pornographic images made with his then-wife Ilona Staller, some of which were destroyed during a bitter divorce.
“I was always afraid that instead of me manipulating the material, the material would manipulate me” – Jeff Koons
A few years ago, Koons announced that he employed 100 people to help create his record-breaking work, and he was open to collaborating with artisans from around the world. Occasionally people have grappled with this and use it as a means to get him fired. But for Koons, these assistants and artisans keep him closer to the essence of the artwork itself. Speaking to Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani during a presentation for Lost in America on opening weekend, he said, “I was always afraid that the material would manipulate me instead of me manipulating the material. If I wanted to start making a vase of flowers out of clay, I could end up making a duck. I’ve always enjoyed having more of an idea and then some distance.” His voice is soft, graceful, upbeat, and at times it feels like he’s experiencing something wonderful for the first time – like a wide-eyed child who discovered ice cream.
HIS ART IS ONLY SURFACE DEEP: WRONG
Koon’s best-known work is undoubtedly Celebration. Even the uninitiated viewer is likely to recognize the series of stainless steel mammoth sculptures modeled after items from a child’s birthday party – a cone-shaped hat, a balloon dog. Crafted with insane precision, these movements are stunningly seamless, aside from their oversized stature, identical to their “real” counterparts. “Party Hat” – Koon’s latest addition to the series – took 25 years to complete, Gioni says during the press tour. Others, like “Balloon Dog” – the most famous of the series – around a decade. It is an arduous process that was also painful in its process. And beneath the surface of the glossy, selfie-ready artwork lies deep personal pain.
Celebration was created after Koons divorced Staller, the mother of his son Ludwig, in 1994. Art became an outlet for his grief, initiated after his then gallerist Anthony d’Offay asked him to create a calendar. Koons realized the concept was “too good” to be just a calendar and embarked on a decades-long, perilous journey. “Despite all the myths about Jeff’s success, he’s had some very dizzying ups and downs,” says Gioni. “Celebration is now associated with his masterpiece, but it was almost a recipe for disaster in the beginning.” In fact, the show was so ambitious that Koons nearly went bankrupt in the 1990s and, financially ruined, he went back to live with his parents. Gioni recounted observing one gallery director who said, “Jeff is so determined. He loves his work and is so precise he will make you jump out the window. But he’s the only artist I know who’ll jump with you — that’s how true he is to his vision.” However, Koons kind of flipped it. Celebration now sells for epic numbers.
Courtesy of Gagosian, Photography Tom Powel imaging
Koons, Gioni agrees, specifically described “Balloon Dog” as a “Trojan horse”. “It has a secret, but it’s up to you to find out what it is.” Because the balloon is filled with air, Koons says of the work, attention is drawn to its exterior and, in particular, to the viewer. “Even the exterior of the bouncy castles is fully reflective, constantly reminding the viewer of their existence,” he writes in the exhibition catalogue. “For me, Celebration is about the viewers – what their own dreams and memories are. It’s about using the public as a readymade.”
THE ONLY VALUE OF HIS ART IS IN HOW MUCH IT COST: WRONG
Although these lustrous surfaces are among the most coveted works of art in the world, they don’t just return the viewer’s gaze. Outside of Koons’ oeuvre, his favorite material, stainless steel is anything but precious: it’s widely available, affordable, and durable: a “proletariat’s platinum.” “We use that for pots and pans,” says Gioni, laughing. “It has more to do with cooking than with visual arts.”
Instead, these inanimate objects challenge the viewer to think not only about their image, but about what’s inside them. “When I work with objects, I try to reveal a certain aspect of their personality,” Koons writes in the exhibition catalogue. “I put them in a context or present them in a material that emphasizes a certain personality trait in the objects themselves.
“I also try to capture the individual’s desire in the object and fix that person’s aspirations on the surface, in a state of immortality. All of this means that in the system I grew up in – the Western, capitalist system – you get objects as rewards for work and achievement. Once accumulated, these objects act as support mechanisms for the individuals: to define the personality of the self, to fulfill desires, and to express them.”
PhotographyTom Powel imaging
In Lost in America, “Rabbit” is positioned in its own room, facing all of the other works — a “signal” for the future, Gioni noted. It is the highlight of Koons. What started out as a cheap inflatable boat is now the most expensive work of art in the world. You’d be forgiven for thinking that with his resume of haggling commodities on Wall Street and memberships at MoMA, Koons knows how to get people to sit down and pay attention to what he’s saying – or sold. And you’re right, but according to Koons, the value of the artwork is beyond money.
“I’m not trying to make consumer icons, I’m trying to decipher why and how consumer goods are glorified. My objects reflect desire; they don’t pick it up,” Koons wrote. “I thought stainless steel would be a wonderful material. I could polish it and create a false luxury. I never wanted real luxury; Instead, I wanted proletarian luxury, something visually intoxicating and bewildering. To a large extent, the surface of stainless steel is a false facade for underlying degradation.”
Ultimately, Koons said, his artworks are more about us than about him. Gioni noted that Koons’ fascination with the readymade goes beyond a philosophical position into something much deeper: acceptance. “The readymade is acceptance of the world as it is,” he explained, “and Jeff said that when you learn to accept everything in the world, when you learn that even the most worthless object can become a work of art, it opens up the world as a field of endless possibilities… The heightened perception we see in reflection is an invitation to take a closer look at the world and find that rewarding experience in all the objects that surround us.”
Lost in America by Jeff Koons is housed at the Qatar Museums Gallery, Al Riwaq, Doha until March 31, 2022. For further information, click here