At 61, Jeff Koons is one of the most prolific — and profitable — artists alive. It can be overwhelming to witness Koons, to try to understand his years of work: his found art, his inflatables, his monumental sculptures, his Kama Sutra-inspired series. How does one approach an artist, infamous in the art world, best known by society as the guy who sold a sculpture for $58.4 million dollars, the highest amount ever paid to a living artist? Well, you start from the beginning.
“I’m originally from York, Pennsylvania,” says Koons. “York, unofficially, was the first capital of the United States. It’s where the Continental Congress met and used the words ‘United States of America’ for the first time. There’s a sense of history in York. I was brought up with this aspect of awareness of a community.”
Koons comes from a long line of merchants, who, he says, cultivated community interaction within his family. This sense of community was only enriched by Koons’ interest in art, which he says was the first activity that gave him a sense of self. He started taking lessons at age seven and continued through high school, becoming more skilled in drawing and painting. “Eventually it becomes time to go to college,” says Koons. “I never really developed an interest in anything other than art; I ended up going to art school.”
It was during his first day at the Maryland Institute College of Art that Koons had an epiphany. “They took us to the Baltimore Museum of Art. When I went through the museum I realized I knew nothing about art. I did not know who the artists were. I may have heard Matisse’s name, but probably never saw one,” says Koons. “And I survived that moment. Not everyone survives that moment, in fact most people don’t survive that moment.”
Koons survived — and thrived — throwing himself into learning and creating art. Influenced by Chicago Imagist Jim Nutt’s restrospective at the Whitney, Koons transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago for his final year of college. He befriended another Chicago Imagist (a group of representational artists who exhibited at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center in the late ’60s), Ed Paschke, and started creating works that dealt with personal iconography. “I learned I could control my emotions and the emotions of others through art,” says Koons.
But he wanted more. “I wanted the work to go outward and to go outside the self. I heard Patti Smith one night when I was in Chicago. She had just released her Horses album and she started talking about the scene in New York, all the young artists and poets. I hitchhiked the next day to New York and I’ve been here ever since,” says Koons.
In New York Koons got a job at the Museum of Modern Art’s membership desk. A 2014 Vanity Fair article, written by Koons’ former MoMA colleague, Ingrid Sischy, describes the young artist: “I often spied him in the lobby in his eye-catching outfits and attention-getting accessories, such as paper bibs, double ties, and store-bought inflatable flowers around his neck.”
These banal objects must have sparked something in Koons; some of his first works are careful collections of found objects. A piece from 1978 utilizes sponges and mirrors. “Sponge Shelf” is, quite literally, a shelf with sponges stacked upon it, facing a mirror. “I wanted my work to be objective,” says Koons. “I didn’t want it to be about myself, but about the universal.”
Inevitably, some of Koons’ work has been about himself. In the late ’80s Koons met and fell in love with porn star Ilona Staller and proceeded to create a series of works, Made In Heaven, inspired by their relationship. Small glass sculptures like “Blow Job,” “Ilona on Top — Outdoors,” and “Couch” are, if you hadn’t guessed, detailed representations of the couple having sex. Needless to say, the series made a big splash in the media, for better or for worse.
Art critics panned Made In Heaven and the works, which had been expensive to produce, did not sell well. Koons’ personal life took a dive too, with Staller running off to Rome with the couple’s young son, Ludwig.
Koons, who now lives with new wife Justine Wheeler and their six children, harnessed this tragedy and created Celebration. This is perhaps his most famous series of works, which he started in 1993 as a way of showing Ludwig, who he wasn’t allowed to see, how much he missed him. You may have seen “Balloon Dog,” “Tulips,” and “Cracked Egg” before — they’re large, mirror-polished stainless steel sculptures that are both sterile and playful at the same time. They are, certainly, more objective than the intimate portraits featured in Made in Heaven.
That sense of objectiveness, and part of the works’ universal appeal, is the way in which they’re made. Koons has approximately 130 employees who work at his studio, utilizing the best in cutting edge art technology — CT scans, light scanning, software, and more — to craft works that can cost millions of dollars to make.
The cost of production may be part of the reason for the art’s hefty price tag, but Koons explains it a little differently. “After I had that experience in art school, I always wanted to participate, and to the best of my ability. This desire for participating is what’s of value to me. Works develop a certain economic value. Hopefully they are just signs that there’s relevance found by the rest of society.”
With three retrospective exhibitions in the past three years, we think Koons’ relevance is here to stay. “My motivations aren’t market,” says Koons. “My motivations are life experience and to reach the highest level of consciousness of myself, and share it with my family and friends.”
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