Last week, when Jeff Koons spoke about an unrealized pet project of his– a giant, actual crane holding up a replica of a “choo choo train”– and casually estimated that it would cost somewhere around $25 million to $50 million to produce, I couldn’t help LOL’ing.
“I never think about failure,” Koons told the crowd at FLAG, where several of his sculptural pieces are on view through May 14 as part of Cecily Brown, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray. “I let things resonate and when I’m ready to make a gesture, I just do it.”
Without a financial backer and a proper venue, the train dangler piece has yet to be realized. According to Koons, the project failed to become a permanent installation on the Highline in part because a nearby tenant didn’t exactly agree with Friends of the Highline that the colossal piece should become a reality. (I guess somebody thought that a locomotive falling on top of a bunch of googly-eyed tourists wouldn’t be such a pretty sight.)
“I’d love to see it built. It’s a sculpture, a large crane– about 166 feet tall to the top– and hanging from it is an old steam engine. It’s a very large steam engine, one of the largest ever made,” Koons explained. “It was set up so that it would perform multiple times a day [and do] everything that a real train does. But maybe within 20 minutes that sequence would take place, you’d start to see it off the firing blocks, then the light is starting to flicker from the heat of the engine, then you’d hear a ‘ding ding’ and then you’d have a first huff of steam when the piston would fire. And again, it’s a metaphor for people, we’re breathing machines, you know. This engine is just inhaling and exhaling. And it would just continue to build momentum until about three minutes into it, it’d be going at full speed, which is around 100 miles an hour. And then it would be– ‘Woo woo! woo woo!’– this orgasmic climax. And then it would descend in the same kind of bell curve to the last puff of smoke.”
There was a brief moment of silence.
Jeff Koons’ chat last week at FLAG couldn’t have been any farther from what we heard in the very same place only a few weeks before, when the Chelsea art foundation hosted a conversation with Betty Tompkins, the other artist whose work is on display in the gallery space. The contrast bordered on absurd, actually, between Koons– the soft-spoken, mild-mannered mega-rich artist of Astor Place CVS balloon bunny fame, surrounded as he was by fawning collectors, heavy plastic surgery, and silk-suited bankers– and Tompkins, the fiery painter who carries herself with the kind of self-deprecating humor and realness that immediately puts everyone in the audience– what seemed like a diverse crowd of art students, downtown weirdos, and sex-positive pansexuals – at ease.
Epic as they may be, Koons works rarely entertain the idea of being original creations in and of themselves (see: his enormous mound of polychromed aluminum Play-Doh or what looks like a front-row seat at Jabba the Hutt’s colonoscopy). Instead, he openly embraces appropriation, lifting, or straight-up replicas (that life-sized model of a 1943 Baldwin 2900 steam locomotive for Train) blown up to Disney World-sized proportions, and sometimes lets actual things just be themselves (those Hoover vacuums at the Whitney). So, it’s kind of strange that a Jeff Koons piece is so immediately recognizable. Walking into the lobby at FLAG, I almost toppled over one: an overgrown happy kitty, bright blue eyes transfixed into the void, pondering its plastic existence spent hanging inside a sock, a position that any reasonable thing might find rather uncomfortable, and over an extended period, torturous (at least, the Assad regime seems to agree with me). In the moment, I couldn’t say for sure I’d ever seen this Koons piece, Cat on a Clothesline, but I had no doubts that it was, in fact, a Koons piece.
The thing might look goofy– like a throat-blocking plastic toy (made in China), a Christmas tree ornament, or a just-slightly off emblem on a bootleg kid’s t-shirt. But Koons is a “famous perfectionist,” and explained that it took seven years for his team of artisans and assistants to complete the polyethylene sculpture that stands at more than 10-feet tall. A well-known fact should be pointed out here, that Koons doesn’t actually make any of his own art. At least not with his bare hands. “It’s like being a conductor,” he offered. “There’s not a mark on my work that I’m not aware of– every color, everything about it.”
At once, Koons can be painstakingly involved in a piece, and yet so far removed from the physical thing, and the substance and origin of whatever it’s imitating. This disassociation is especially strong with “Cat on a Clothesline,” and other Koons pieces that are a little more elusive than say, one of his Balloon Dogs. Weirdly, that fuzzy lil cat is immediately familiar, something that was certainly ingrained in my brain at some point by the bullshit parade (i.e. advertising, TV), but I can’t say exactly where it came from. “I’m still very influenced by postcards, images that I would see in gift shops [while] traveling through airports, that’s where the inspiration came from,” Koons explained. “I wanted to work with a different material, I didn’t want to work in marble or materials like that. I thought that polyethylene would be a kind of material that would really kind of capture a child having an adult fantasy.”
As the most commonly used plastic, polyethylene touches pretty much everything– it’s used to make packaging, medical supplies, and even those synthetic micro-beads that are doing all sort of nasty things to our waterways. It’s a material that (unless you’re living off-the-grid, Una-bomber style) would be almost impossible to avoid contact with, but that still seems all kinds of gross and above all, unnatural. If you had the option to wrap yourself in a warm wool blanket or a warmer sheet of polyethylene, you’d probably choose the former, am I right? Even by Koons’s assessment, polyethylene is the prophylactic between the relatively safe zone of pretend play and big, scary adult things. That being said, he still associates it with the purist, most innocent forms of glee. “It has this same type of generosity, that joy that children feel when they have their own house, a Little Tikes house, their own polyethylene car that they can ride around in,” he beamed.
After my brief stare-down with that posi-vibin’ feline (looking for much longer is actually, seriously challenging and probably wreaks brain damage equivalent to a two week long poppers-n-glue bender), I tip-toed upstairs to find Koons sitting at the front of a packed room. He looked dazed but content, sitting aside FLAG’s founder, Glenn Fuhrman– successful investment banker, ex-Goldman Sachs employee, and massive art collector who beat out a Qatari sheika for the number two spot on ArtNet’s “Top Ten Uber-Rich Art Collectors.” Fuhrman, who has invested heavily in Mr. Koons over the years (and hasn’t done all bad with New York City real estate either), mentioned how much he and his family missed one of their own Koons pieces, Winter Bears, a wood-carved rendering of a ruddy-faced bear couple made in 1988, while Koons was working in Germany. It’s currently residing at FLAG for the exhibition. “My daughter loves that piece– it’s the first one you see when you come into our apartment, and my daughter to this day is still [saying], ‘Daddy, when are we getting the bears back?’” Fuhrman said. “She’s almost four years old, but it is such a happy piece.”
A reaction like this one is Koons’s ultimate goal. He recalled that, as a young artist, he was more interested in making art that reflected on himself– you know, stuff like coitus with his porn-star wife Ilona Staller. Now, he said, things are different. “I want to interact with people– the objects, the images that I’ve worked with are experiences with art. What’s relevant are not these objects, it’s the type of possibilities we feel for ourselves and what we can share with other people.”
Fuhrman’s questions, though mostly on-point, occasionally seemed to be strategically placed in order to cut the artist off before his anecdotes devolved into total nonsense. While discussing “Winter Bears,” for example, a wooden piece that’s unusual in that it bears the name of the artisan who actually carved it, Fuhrman asked Koons if he’d ever thought of including the names of any more of the skilled craftspeople who have rendered his ideas into the fantastical objects that we know them as. “Well, there’s a familiarity with them, so when a viewer comes across the image or the object, automatically you’re open to having a dialogue with it, so that it can be a quick dialogue,” he began. “This idea that there are higher objects, I’m trying to dismantle that hierarchy. It’s so that we can experience self-acceptance…” Right. The collector gracefully swooped in.
Obviously, Fuhrman isn’t exactly a neutral party here (nor does he need to be– it’s his foundation, his collection, and his prerogative) but the act of steering the conversation (or maybe “editing” one, a role that Fuhrman noted some art dealers felt the need to exercise more so in the past than these days) to weigh heavier on the side of Koons’s fandom couldn’t have been completely innocent of financial considerations. While he acknowledged that “there are a lot of opinions” about Koons, Fuhrman obviously stands to bloat the value of his own own collection if Koons comes across as a guy who knows what he’s talking about, or even as someone whose work really is polarizing. “Does it hurt your feelings when you see commentary about greed and money and fame?” Fuhrman asked. “Especially in social media today, and the press in general is just so free with negativity.” The veteran journalist who sat next to me at the talk snorted in response.
“It effects me not for myself, but for the realization that so much of our society is really cynical,” Koons explained. “And so much of our society really is looking at the negative and trying to get self-empowerment through negative and bringing down, instead of functioning in the opposite kind of way.”
The guy’s got a point. Sort of. But in response to perceived criticism, Koons pushed a glowing, optimistic, uncomplicated worldview. Sometimes I confused this attitude for zen, but I think it’s more like grimacing denial, something that’s splattered all over Koons’s work. It shows up as streaks of metallic sheen, is rendered in the likeness of dumb, hollow-eyed cartoons, and emanates with the sticky glow of plastic. But maybe the most ridiculous display of Koons’s unbridled optimism and too-the-moon excess is his dream of making that choo choo train piece. It would surely be the most epic, most outlandish Koons piece to date.
I considered the possibility that Koons has already made the piece, that Train is actually just a performance art piece that’s all about hearing Koons casually utter the words “$25 to $50 million,” delivered without cracking even the smallest smile or flashing a momentary, knowing wink, or even an embarrassed, self-aware chuckle.
Regardless, Koons is well-versed in the art of convincing people that he’s above all that money business. It must be a tight rope to walk: having to tout the magical monstrosity of his creations, the improbability of their fabrication, and make them seem like valuable works of art, all without letting them bulge into game-show-style winnings. He’s got to maintain some semblance of artistry, because without it, Koons is just a footnote in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“A lot of times when people talk about the market and bring up a ‘Balloon Dog’ or something like that, you know I really have to pinch myself, because that’s not me,” Koons explained. “I’m involved with making my works and all this, I’m not involved in that dialogue as far as the cost, all that is another abstraction.” But Fuhrman prodded him along, pointing out that, before Koons came along “art and business together was considered an oxymoron.” Koons continued to resist this interpretation of himself as a business-savvy artist– after all, it would be completely antithetical to his project of trying to “dismantle that hierarchy” of high-brow and low-brow, and a tacit admission that, with the help of art-world prospectors, he’s appropriating low-rent tastes and exploiting the basic, wide-eyed stupidity of the masses to create insanely expensive, aggressively inoffensive, and yet totally lobotomized populist art objects.
The way Koons speaks about his art in general feels carefully harnessed. He repeats several catch phrases over and over (“dialogue”) and maintains a serene, impartial, unexcitable tone. His ever-so-slight country boy drawl (Koons was raised in small-town Pennsylvania and described himself as “a country bumpkin” before he moved to New York in 1977) allows him to avoid slipping into pretentious artist speak. Rather, his speech comes off like ad copy or political slogans. And Koons aspires for the substance of his work to be populist, too. When asked about how he wanted his pieces to make people feel, Koons emphasized that he was interested in spreading the wealth, so to speak. Back in the ’80s, Koons lived and worked in Germany for a period, where he was inspired by the decorative artwork found in Baroque-style churches and Rococo architecture. “I wanted to make work that would kind of meet people’s needs, that you could experience transcendence,” he said. “So economically you wouldn’t feel depressed, you would feel like you had enough money in your pocket, just from the gold and silver type of material [used in the sculptures].”
Given that Koons loves to remind people he’s a real family guy, his backflip of a response to Fuhrman’s mention of his family heritage demonstrated the great lengths he goes to in order to disassociate himself from money grubbing. “My grandfather was a politician, he was City Treasurer in York, [Pennsylvania],” he recalled. “I would say that I try to be of service in my work, it comes from trying to make something strong and powerful. Hopefully it contributes to society– if that happens, then I’ll be okay.” In other words, as Koons insisted throughout the evening, he doesn’t create art for himself, he does it for the two-way exchange between the viewer and himself, the “dialogue.”
But Koons did give himself away as a entrepreneurial guy at one point. “I was brought up to be self-reliant. I would go door-to-door as a child. I would sell gift-wrapping paper and candies. I loved it. I would knock on that door and you never knew what the person was going to look like who opened the door,” he recalled. “You never knew the owner that was going to come out of the hall, [it was] this act of acceptance and interacting with people, to communicate, have a dialogue with strangers, and find this commonality.” The way Koons spoke about selling people things struck me as almost identical to his artistic aims, which he said are driven by one desire. “All I’ve ever really wanted to do is to participate and be in a dialogue with other people,” he said. “You never want to lose trust with the viewer. You want to be able to show the viewer that you care about them, and you’re going to let them maintain those abstractions for as long as possible. Because what you care about is them, this is a dialogue.”
It’s hard to put my finger on why, but, like a lot of other people, I find Koons’s work to be incredibly creepy and foreboding, even. And I’m not talking about that “Made in Heaven” whatever-whatever. Instead, it’s Koons setups like this one– which references childhood fantasy and playthings– with which I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a room alone. And yet, there’s little happening on the surface of pieces like “Puppy“– that enormous, 40-foot-high landscape sculpture bearing the likeness of, well, a puppy– that I can point to and accuse of being creepy without actually seeming creepy myself.
But Koons’s own explanations of the underlying weird current running swiftly through his work hints at this duality. At one point Fuhrman blurted out a question that seemed to be on all of our minds– soooo, what’s up with the “dichotomy between childhood and sexual innocence”? Like many of Koons’s answers, it was possible that he either misinterpreted the question, dodged it all together, or (and I think this is more likely) he understood the question in a way that only Jeff Koons could.
“I make reference to childhood because I think it’s a period when we’re all very open, we participate, and we enjoy acceptance– we look at the sky, or we can roll over on the ground and look at the grass and just smell it, and think, ‘Wow, it’s so wonderful, the aroma, the color green!’” he said. “We don’t segregate. I make reference to it for that. And it’s about being excited about the senses. When you start to become a little bit older, and go into adolescence, you start to realize that you want more. There’s this transformation of feelings and sensations, and you start to realize that they become ideas.”
Not surprisingly, Koons said he had no problem showing his kids some of his more explicitly sexual artwork like “Ilona’s Asshole” (uh, NSFW). “They automatically would understand the dialogue of the work, it’s just like every man and every woman, Adam and Eve,” he said. “It’s just a dialogue that’s about biology and one form of the eternal is through biological, and the continuation of that. Again, it’s participating in acceptance.”
Sex is sex, but what seems actually nefarious is Koons’s promotion of a childlike, wide-eyed way of looking at the world well beyond adolescence. If that “Balloon Dog” had his way, we’d all be frolicking around in matching lederhosen, playing Ring Around the Rosie betwixt his enormous “mirror-polished stainless steel” paws. Depending on your tastes, or how much LSD you’ve swallowed in your lifetime, this might not seem like all that bad of a fate, until you remember Koons’s inexorable ties to advertising and consumerism (he has said, “I believe in advertisement and media completely”), things that rely on gullibility and anesthesia to work. Feeling anything less than utter horror regarding Michael Jackson and Bubbles, for example, requires a glazed-over mindset that’s the stuff of advertising execs’ wet dreams. Are we supposed to be hypnotized by the gleeful, glimmering likeness of MJ clutching his monkey friend and forget about all those allegations of child sex abuse, or what?
Whereas Koons can distinguish between the superficial world of advertisements and IRL (at least, we hope he can), kids can’t really do that, and to hope that adults will choose not to do that is about as horrifying as hearing middle-aged people baby talk amongst themselves in the absence of a baby. And that’s exactly what makes Koons’s work so freaking fascinating– it requires of you a willful ignorance.
But Koons ‘s work also relies on actual magic tricks. Furhman pointed to two Koons pieces on view at FLAG, “Lobster” and “Dolphin,” that look exactly like inflatable pool toys, right down to the inevitable crinkles that fold in at the seam after the floaty’s been given a good romping. “Everybody is blown away that it’s not just a pool toy, people don’t understand when you tell them that it’s actually aluminum, and then it blows their minds,” Fuhrman said. “Kids love the show, but they can’t really understand that it’s not a blown-up balloon. That trompe l’oeil aspect of fooling the eye, is that a significant part of the work for you?”
Rather than acknowledge that at least some form of trickery was afoot, Koons answered obliquely that what was more important to him was precision. For Koons, pieces like “Lobster” are therefore less about fashioning a 3D double-entendre, and more about remaining true to the real thing. “I would say that the most important thing is a sense of commitment, a certain morality to the viewer. I think of Steve Jobs when he talks about his computers, all the care that goes on in the inside, that you don’t even see, it’s the same type of dialogue that I’ve always been involved with in my work,” Koons said. He recalled casting his “Bob Hope” sculpture, a stainless steel bobbleheaded impression of the entertainer. “This was back in ’86 and I went to see it at the foundry– it was the first time I was working with metallics–I picked up Bob Hope and they didn’t cast the felt on the bottom of the sculpture, and I was, ‘Where’s the bottom?’” For Koons, the detail on the bottom, even if it was unlikely to be turned over, “is just as important as the detail in his nose.” He addd, “This type of dialogue with the objects has always been of the utmost importance.”
And yet for every mention of “dialogue,” Koons was also keen on the idea that his work harnesses a certain kind of power over people. When asked about how much value he places on public art projects, he once again returned to Train, which he envisioned as “something that a community can rally around”: “It’s a heightening of sexual energy, it’s all these things, it’s a metaphor,” he said. “But it’s also working like a steeple, it’s uniting people together.”
Fuhrman and Koons also spoke about the artist’s own massive art collection, which includes work by Manet, Picasso, Dali, as well as “old masters and 19th-century works.” Koons placed himself within that lineage, but also understood the work’s power over him. “You relate to what it was like to be alive at that time, you think about their lives,” he said. “But it also gives you a sense of your own potential– I feel stronger, it’s kind of like inviting the gods into your body.”
In many obvious ways, Koons’s work is very distinct from this old-timey stuff. As future-pushing, forward-leaning, happy-place art with a love for all things plastic, plush, fuzzy, and precious, it has little to do with the tragic, starkly emotive feeling contained in classical art. When asked by an audience member about the presence of “suffering” in his work, Koons seemed baffled. “Well, suffering…” he started, as the audience chuckled. He honestly seemed to be wracking his brain, searching for a moment of suffering somewhere in his life. “Generally it’s easier to look at other artists and you can think, ‘Oh, they must have suffered in life. Hmm, suffering. I would say I grew up in a lower-middle class family, in a home that probably cost about $6,000 when they built it in 1955, but we always experienced a sense of social mobility. My parents, we always went to wonderful vacations, and each year we’d get a nicer vacation, a larger room, a more spectacular site. My parents always made my sister and I feel like that we were on a journey and that we could continue to move and accomplish and achieve the things that we want.”
In other words, suffering and toiling away are old world concepts that, like tuberculosis, don’t exist anymore (as far as we here in Western, developed, moneyed, late-capitalist societies are concerned anyway)– it’s the stuff of National Geographic and the UN. It has no place in Jeff Koons’s joyous creations. Weirdly, though, the craftsmanship that goes into a Koons work (again, not Koons’s own labor, but that of his assistants and hired-on artisans) is painstaking and resembles the processes of old-world masters more closely than it does the comparatively lightning-fast, slapdash production of new media art. It also implies a fair amount of suffering. Many of Koons’s larger pieces took nearly a decade to finish, and their utter, glistening perfection is more Michelangelo than Damien Hirst. Like all that olden days stuff, Koons’s work depicts idols– now they’re instantly recognizable cartoon forms, pop culture go-tos that are so universal and universally beloved that his pieces might as well be religious iconography. Wouldn’t defacing “Winter Bears” be about as blasphemous and nauseating for some people as sullying a painting of Jesus? When Fuhrman asked if religion plays a role in the work, Koons said that, “It’s more about the idea of transcendence, of reaching one’s own potential.”
Clearly, Koons is successful in this regard. The automatic, almost primal reaction to a Koons piece is to drop one’s jaw. I mean, just try walking into that Cooper Square CVS and going about your business as usual with that balloon bunny looming dumbly overhead. Even if you think the imagery is about as intelligent and evocative as a Burger King ball pit, it would be difficult to deny that his work is spectacular. It’s huge! It’s shiny! It’s a giant fucking balloon bunny!
It’s not so surprising that Koons has found a natural ally in pop stars.In 2013, Koons collaborated with Lady Gaga on the artwork for her arty concept album, ArtPop (remember that “art rave” they threw a few years back?). At Fuhrman’s behest, Koons recalled an interaction he had when he was first met Gaga at the Met Gala years ago. “I was introduced to her and she just came over and hugged my leg, kind of went down on me,” Koons recalled. “And then she said, ‘I’ve been such a fan, I’d sit at the park and smoke pot with my friends and we’d talk about your art’– she was so nice and innocent in that way.” It was after this first encounter that Gaga visited Koons’s studio and propositioned him about working with her on ArtPop along with a slew of other artists like Marina Abramovic. “She’s an artist, she’s a very, very sensitive person,” Koons remembered. “We started to talk about art and she started to cry– I mean, she just started really bawling because she was so sensitive to everything. I remember that was very endearing.”
Koons agreed to design the cover for ArtPop, which features a statuesque Lady Gaga holding up her boobs while birthing one of the artist’s blue balls. Originally, Koons said that Gaga insisted that they do a recreation of “Made in Heaven,” the raunchy series of photos and sculptures that features him and his first wife, the Italian porn star Ilona Staller (aka Cicciolina), writhing around in coital bliss. “She really wanted to shoot ‘Made in Heaven,’ she wanted to get naked,” Koons said. “‘Come on, Jeff, let’s do ‘Made in Heaven!’ and I said, ‘Well I don’t know, that was in the past.'” Gaga did end up getting naked, but clearly, Koons was more impressed by the pop star’s ability to be moved by (or turned on by) his artwork. The collaboration was profitable for both of them– it infused Gaga with some art-world cred (at least according to Koons) and gave Koons an in with a new generation of future collectors. And ArtPop most certainly satisfied Koons’s relentless search for “dialogue” not only with his viewers, but with the trajectory of art history, something Koons is clearly, unabashedly positioning himself within by way of the most approachable, pop means possible.
It’s kind of disappointing to think that Koons– a guy who’s obsessed with balloon animals and could easily be confused for a weekending banker in his zip-up v-neck fleece numbers– is the art-world’s biggest rockstar. Which, I guess, says a lot about our times. “As a young artist, Dali’s was the first tabletop book that I had,” Koons recalled, adding that Dali “was very generous to me.” The famously eccentric surrealist painter even agreed to meet with Koons, a young art student at the time, in the 1970s where they spent a few hours together in New York, posing for photographs, and checking out a gallery show. “He would say, ‘Do you want to take some photographs?’ and I would say, ‘Yes,’ and he’d put the mustache up– very, very generous,” Koons said. “But I left that day thinking, ‘I can do this too. I can make art a way of life, and be involved with the community.’ And that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do.”
See Jeff Koons’s work up close at Cecily Brown, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray, on view now through May 14 at the FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea.