Public Art Fund Talk at the New School: Jeff Koons
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
New School, John L. Tishman Auditorium, University Center, New York
Is it possible to be indifferent to Jeff Koons? For many years my attitude toward the artist’s work has been impassive and disinterested. It exists whether I like it or not and has some visual interest, but I’ve never cared enough to form an opinion beyond that. Among the most successful living artists, Koons is comparable to Jay Z or U2: a talented mainstream artist whose early output is considered groundbreaking but whose later works are noteworthy more for their high production values and their exorbitant, multimillion-dollar price tags than their aesthetic worth. Over the years Koons has managed to stay relevant, with critics and journalists dutifully covering his exhibitions and appearances, just as they would report on Bono’s activism and Hova’s exploits.
A retrospective covering Koons’s entire career, organized by Scott Rothkopf, sits in the Whitney Museum of American Art until October 19, the final exhibition at the museum’s Upper East Side location before a move to the Meatpacking District. The exhibition was among the reasons for tonight’s sold-out talk at the New School. Dressed in a navy suit, a pale-blue open-collared shirt, and black dress shoes, Koons delivered an hour-long, well rehearsed lecture in which he presented himself as an animated but never overbearing orator, using a variety of hand gestures, movements, and poses that enhanced his spoken words. At one point he even crouched down to greet an imaginary dog. Woof!
After thanking the Public Art Fund, which sponsored the talk as well as the sculpture Split-Rocker (2000), a large outdoor floral arrangement on view at Rockefeller Center during summer 2014, Koons talked about his upbringing and his understanding of and approach to public sculpture, the subject of this lecture. He first became aware of the genre through a childhood encounter with the statue of William Penn that stands atop Philadelphia’s City Hall building. Created by Alexander Calder’s grandfather, the work embodies, Koons said, a history of society’s values on a mystical scale. Art deals with issues of interior and exterior, he continued, that elicit emotional responses. Further, experience and emotion form the vocabulary of art, and to interact with public art in physical space is a “communal activity.”
Koons emphasized what he called the “unitative,” explained as something bigger than us but at the same time collectively shared. The York fairground in the artist’s Pennsylvanian hometown, founded ca. 1765, was the first fair in the United States, he said, and there he experienced games, visual stimulation, joy, pleasure, and terror—both as an individual and as a group with other fair goers. Fireworks, parade floats, and houses decorated with Christmas lights also inspire him, providing “excitement, awe, and wonder.” “Our governments,” Koons even said, “are a form of public sculpture.” If by this he means the socially engaged practice of argument and debate, with the elation of progress and success and the frustration of stagnation, then art is like not only politics but also science, business, religion, and myriad other things.
Koons’s vacations were also formative experiences. As a kid he and his family visited Dolphin Land or Dolphin World in Florida (perhaps he meant the Miami Seaquarium), where he internalized the relationships between humans and animals. These relationships are evident—in some way or another—in his Antiquity 3 painting, which depicts a woman riding an inflatable dolphin. Recalling the aquatic-theme-park performances of jumping dolphins and such, Koons applied abstract ideas about the surface of the water versus going underneath to sculpture. Indeed, surface and depth are the core—if not the most important—qualities of Koons’s art.
At this point Koons switched to autopilot, pulling ideas from the usual spiel he gives when discussing his own work, trotting out stock phrases about generosity, transcendence, perfection, communication, and sharing, like he most recently did on Charlie Rose and The Colbert Report. “As soon as things become public, there’s a sense of generosity,” Koons said. People share the transcendence created by art collectively, the artist explained, and there is no private experience. Deflating the importance of his artistic production, the artist said, “There’s not any art in that object,” which instead acts as a “transponder” for the art experience. Transponders, he noted, both send and receive. Later Koons said, “We don’t care about objects—we care about people.” I have no obligation to the object, he continued, but rather to the people and their trust. I wonder if he gives the same populist rap to the elite collectors who spend millions on his work.
Koons traced the beginnings of his involvement in outdoor, public sculpture. His first foray was the stainless-steel Kiepenkerl (1987), made for that year’s Skulptur Projekte Münster in West Germany. The hot metal accidentally bent during the casting process, damaging the work in several places. Since there wasn’t enough time to redo the piece, the artist faced a grave decision: either pull out of the exhibition or attempt a hurried fix. “I went with the radical plastic surgery,” Koons said cheerfully, giving the punch line to this story for the umpteenth time.
Koons described several more public artworks from the past twenty years, expressing amazement that Macy’s included a gigantic version of his mirrored inflatable Rabbit for its Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2007. He also revealed that he had been looking at Baroque and Rococo art when conceiving the monumental Puppy (1992), a large floral arrangement in the shape of a dog that appeared outside Rockefeller Center in summer 2000 (among other sites); he wanted to put those historical styles into a piece of his own. Issues that Koons grappled with for Puppy included biology, ephemerality, symmetry/asymmetry, and internal/external. Ultimately—and this was the highlight of the talk—Koons described Puppy as “a piece about control,” the kind of control a person exercises or relinquishes in his or her life. “It’s whether you want to serve or be served,” he said. This commentary evoked not only the “greed is good” mantra from the 1980s, but also the exercises and abuses of power in any political or economic dictatorship —all frightening stuff, even threatening. Here the menacing qualities of Koons’s seemingly happy, carefree art bare its fangs.
Returning to formal and logistical issues, Koons professed that photographs of Split-Rocker typically show the piece in a pristine state, when it was first erected in early summer. Koons, however, intended the work to get “shaggy and chaotic” over time, which it had certainly done when I visited the work in mid-September. An unrealized outdoor work called Train, Koons explained, will feature a functioning, performing steam locomotive dangling from a crane. “It’s a metaphor for an individual” that huffs and puffs in a determined manner, he said, and the train experiences an “orgasmic moment” when it hits one hundred miles per hour. “To me, that’s William Penn,” he said, reiterating his themes of history, power, and the connection of an individual’s experience to something bigger.
Koons also returned to his biography, recalling the showroom of his father, who was an interior designer. The elder Koons had sold paintings by his young son in the store window, integrating them into arrangements of furniture and other household objects. “He gave me great confidence,” the artist said of his dad. Koons also gave a shout out to W. Bowdoin Davis Jr., his art-history professor at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, who revealed the many operations in play in art, such as psychology, religion, sociology, and symbolism.
Koons revealed his Balloon Venus sculpture (2008–12) as a hermaphroditic fertility object and announced that the Gazing Ball series (2013) is among his favorite bodies of work. Coincidentally it was at that moment when I noticed the artist’s intense blue eyes as he showed images of several Gazing Balls. With an image of his oversized sculpture Play-Doh (1994–2014) hovering onscreen, Koons told us “I’m trying to make works you can’t have any judgment about.” If you make judgments,” he decreed, “you’re limiting yourself.” He advised his critics to “Open yourself up and keep everything in play.”
The event organizers had collected written questions for Koons earlier in the lecture, and Nicholas Baume, director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund, read a selected few to the artist. Did Koons ever fear there was a time when he felt that his career was over, and what did he do? In his early years the artist admitted to going broke a couple times, leaving New York to live with his parents. But he came back to the city because, in his own words, “people want to be involved in dialogue. People depend on you.” I cannot imagine anyone taking that statement at face value.
When has technology not kept up with your artistic vision, asked another question. Koons claimed he prefers not to use new technology, which implied an apprehension of his work being tied to a particular method or process or—worse—appearing dated. Yet as the Friday symposium “The Koons Effect Part 2” determined and as Michelle Kuo noted in her catalogue essay, the artist uses complex software and highly intricate three-dimensional modeling to fabricate his recent work. Some even say that his level of technological perfection is higher than is needed by the aerospace industry and the military. Again, Koon’s modest words can be readily dismissed.
Someone wanted to know how Koons can manage his studio workers and still be creative? Acknowledging his longtime studio manager Gary McCraw, who sat in the audience, the artist said he is always walking through the studio, watching and educating his loyal workers. How loyal are they? The average tenure of an assistant, he pointed out, is nine years. In the end, tight organization and long-term stability give the artist his creative freedom. Another Q&A dealt with the white skin color of the porcelain figures in Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). At the time, Koons replied, radical changes were happening to the performer’s body, and the Italian craftsman who fabricated the piece wanted to know “How am I supposed to make his nose?” when it was constantly changing in real life. Koons noted that porcelain was the “king’s material,” so he wanted Jackson to appear godlike, as in a pieta. Further, he said, the thick black outlines surrounding the singer and monkey’s eyes alluded to Egyptian art.
How would aliens from the future interpret your work? “They’d see a lot of the world, from our day-to-day lives,” Koons responded, pointing to the archetypal, universal qualities from our present historical moment embedded into his art. To what do you owe your fame and commercial success? “My family,” he replied, as if giving an Academy Award acceptance speech. When he was child, Koons remembered becoming ecstatic when his parents told him he could draw better than his older sister, whose life, he perceived at the time, had until then been superlative to his in every way. I wondered what that sister is doing now. What don’t critics get about your work? Koons repeated the transponder argument and boasted that negative people aren’t “prepared” for his art and are “insecure.” While seemingly arrogant, this response isn’t so atypical for an artist, though many would probably not state it so baldly. Koons does receive a healthy amount of negative criticism, but it’s rare for an artist to be so untroubled by it. Koons’s attitude may serve as a model for other artists. Or not.
I wish someone had asked about appropriation and copyright. Koons has been the subject of four lawsuits: he lost the first three on weak parody defenses but won the fourth with the transformation argument. The losing cases—Rogers v. Koons (1992), United Feature Syndicate v. Koons (1993), and Campbell v. Koons (1993)—each involved works from the Banality series: String of Puppies, Wild Boy and Puppy, and Ushering in Banality (all works 1988). The last, Blanch v. Koons (2006), focused on a photographer’s complaint that Koons used an image she took in a painting from his Easyfun-Ethereal series.
Toward the end of the lecture Koons returned again and again to his aphorisms on affirmation, acceptance, participation, and mutual support. It was hard for him to go off script—I doubt that he can—and the audience questions picked for him were relatively tame. In many ways Koons speaks like a politician, like Barack Obama on the presidential campaign trail. And like a politician Koons doesn’t offer truth or salvation but favorable, enthusiastic rhetoric about those things. He proposes a welcoming, populist frame of interpretation for his art, not to foreclose other people’s ideas but rather to make sure his intentions are being discussed. You can take his words at face value, scrutinize them, or dismiss his sermon, but you can’t deny that Koons is smartly shaping the reception of his work. After this talk I still felt indifferent toward his art but appreciated hearing about it from the source.
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