King of Kitsch
Jeff Koons has made a successful career transforming lowly objects of popular culture into fine art trophies for billionaires.
By Jason Edward Kaufman
If any living artist has made a dent in mainstream American consciousness it’s Jeff Koons. He may not be a megawatt star of the magnitude of Jennifer Lopez or Brad Pitt, but the affable business-savvy Koons has become a bold-faced name, and his candy-colored balloon sculptures enjoy a modest celebrity of their own.
It makes sense that Koons would find a place in popular culture. His art is no more snobbish than a supermarket tabloid. His stock in trade is scaled-up sculptures of tacky figurines and toys, everything from Michael Jackson and topless blondes to bunny rabbits and The Incredible Hulk. His trick is to render these trifling subjects in flawlessly crafted rich materials such as porcelain or polished stainless steel. He makes kitsch on steroids that’s built to last.
Many of his subjects are straight out of Playskool – plastic inflatable pool toys, goggle-eyed cartoon characters, and balloon animals modeled on the ones clowns twist for toddlers at birthday parties. His more grownup works have included vacuum cleaners in vitrines, basketballs in fish tanks, and stainless-steel versions of ceramic liquor decanters. Most controversially, he acted out erotic fantasies with a porn star he saw in a magazine and later married (more on that debacle later), but his primary motifs have been kitsch and kid stuff.
A quarter century after the death of Warhol, there’s nothing shocking about using commercial motifs as fine art. But it may come as a surprise that some people in the art industry regard neo-Pop Koons as the leading figure of his generation. And his sculptures sell for tens of millions of dollars.
“Tulips,” a cluster of 15-foot-long balloon blossoms in color-coated steel, sold last year at Christie’s New York for $33.7 million. The buyer was Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn. That was a record for the artist and remains the second-highest price for a work by a living artist. (An abstract canvas by German painter Gerhard Richter sold for $34 million the previous month).
“Balloon Flower (Magenta),” from the same series, went for $25.8 million at Christie’s London in 2008, and a year earlier Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk paid $23.6m at Sotheby’s New York for “Hanging Heart,” a 9-foot suspended steel bauble shaped like a Valentine’s Day chocolate box.
At mid-career, Koons, 58, is at the top of his game, with collectors and museums competing to acquire his works. He regularly exhibits in the U.S. and Europe — in 2008 alone he had shows in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, on the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and in the French royal palace at Versailles. When the new U.S. embassy opened in Beijing, “Tulips” graced the reflecting pool out front, on loan from the artist.
Perhaps the key to his success is the cozy relationship Koons has cultivated with fabulously rich collectors. Los Angeles developer and philanthropist Eli Broad calls him “a good friend” and has amassed two dozen of his works. Greek construction tycoon Dakis Joannou, another billionaire, has more than three dozen pieces by Koons, including a custom paint job for his yacht. Other mega-wealthy devotees include Christie’s chairman Francois Pinault and Connecticut newsprint mogul and art-magazine publisher Peter Brant. Their deep-pocketed advocacy has boosted prices and continues to buoy the Koons market.
Earlier this year he had simultaneous exhibitions at Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner in Chelsea, archrivals among the world’s most powerful galleries. Dealers generally prefer to have exclusive representation, but Koons, like a number of star artists, can call the shots. He is more CEO of a corporate brand than an artist in the traditional sense, overseeing fabrication of new product lines in a factory-like workshop in Manhattan.
“Balloon Dog” (1994-2000) is his icon. The 10-foot-tall canine – which comes in mirror-finished blue, magenta, yellow, orange and red steel — is one of the most recognizable works of contemporary art, matching Damien Hirst’s notorious pickled shark (a dark riff on Koons’s floating basketballs). It may be a king-size child’s toy, but “Balloon Dog”’s voluptuous pneumatic volumes and lustrous reflective surface dazzle audiences from K-12 and beyond. His menagerie includes similarly seductive balloon swans, rabbits and monkeys, typically issued in editions of five uniquely colored examples.
His most picturesque work is “Puppy,” an adorable 43-foot-tall Westie composed of tens of thousands of flowering plants shelved on an irrigated armature. First exhibited in Germany in the early 1990s, a second version of the topiary terrier permanently guards the famed Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and another is on the lawn of Peter Brant’s Greenwich farm. Would-be detractors often come away reluctantly enthused by the technical perfection, exuberant visual effects, and childlike innocence of such seemingly silly sculptures.
How did he become such a phenomenon?
Path to Prominence
Born in 1955 to a middle class family in York, Pennsylvania, he took art lessons as a child and sold his Old Master-style paintings in his father’s furniture store. “I always believed that I got into art because my parents encouraged me to feel I had more skill in that area than my [older] sister,” Koons says. He studied at Maryland Institute College of Art and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Manhattan in 1977 where he sold tickets and memberships at MoMA then quit to tele-market securities on Wall Street.
After his first solo show in 1985 he quit Wall Street to focus on his art, creating the well-received “Statuary” series – including stainless-steel renditions of the Jim Beam train decanter and a 41-inch inflatable “Rabbit.” Their high-polish silvery surfaces transformed cheap mass-market items into objects that critics and curators deemed intriguing updates to the tradition of sculpture.
His next series, “Banality,” offered more kitsch, now in painted wood or porcelain made to order by European craftsmen. Ceramics included a topless starlet embracing the Pink Panther and a Rococo gold-and-white Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles. Another piece featured a painted-wood pig being pushed by babies titled “Ushering in Banality.”
Before critics had made up their minds whether to snicker or gag, Koons came out with a body of work that nearly ended his career. He hired La Cicciolina – a Hungarian-born porn actress and member of Italian Parliament – to collaborate on a porn film. Instead they posed for photographs of hardcore sex acts that were exhibited amid sculptures of flowers, cherubs, puppies and a marble bust of Koons rising heroically from a base of rock crystals.
When the “Made in Heaven” series was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and a year later at a gallery in New York, the Culture Wars were raging, with conservatives railing against “obscene” or “blasphemous” art, and the work was seen as a publicity-seeking provocation. Many critics found the images repellent rather than erotic, and Koons, who had married the porn star, was spouting loony patter about the series’ relationship to divine love and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It looked like Koons would go the way of fellow eighties art stars whose careers evaporated in the market downturn.
The scandal got ugly when Koons and La Cicciolina divorced in 1992 and she absconded to Italy with their son Ludwig Maximilian, prompting Koons to spend millions seeking to regain custody. He came back with flower “Puppy” in 1992, then dropped out of sight and began working on “Celebration,” a series of child-themed paintings and sculptures in honor of Ludwig that included “Tulips,” “Hanging Heart” and “Balloon Dog.”
To finance fabrication a consortium of billionaire collectors prepaid for works, but costs spiraled out of control and he and his business partner, former Citibank art adviser Jeffrey Deitch (who later became director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles), handed over production to Larry Gagosian for the exclusive right to sell the series. With powerful collectors and dealers invested in Koons’ future success, it was no surprise when in 1999 his porcelain “Pink Panther” sold to Peter Brant for $1.8 million, six times the artist’s previous auction record. By 2001 his “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” had sold for $5.6 million and the Koons boom had begun.
Pitchman or Parodist?
It couldn’t have happened if Koons were not a pitchman par excellence. He’s trim, clean cut and always wears a dark suit and white shirt, looking like a used car salesman or FBI agent. He speaks deliberately in a near monotone, exuding the tranquil calm of a Valium addict or glassy-eyed evangelist. And he has his schtick down pat, repeating aphorisms with the practiced skill of a politician or pastor. He says that people can be intimidated by art, and he doesn’t want them to feel that they have to disavow their true feelings in order to appear more sophisticated. The antidote he preaches is salvation through banality, claiming we should tolerate all levels of taste and celebrate the least.
And he ladles out a mix of pop psychology, spirituality, and sexuality that he says lies encoded in his work, enough to keep theory-minded critics guessing. But it’s not clear if his appropriated images are parodies or not. Is he debunking American culture, pointing to cartoons, consumer goods, tchotchkes, toys and pornography and asking us to disdain all the banal garbage that some people love? The late great critic for Time Magazine, Robert Hughes, dismissed him as a “parody of parodies,” but others suspect that Koons is simply naïve and that theorists read satire where none is intended.
Koons says that his affection is sincere and that he presents undemanding subjects to endorse populist taste, and his supporters swear his populism is heartfelt. Yet, part of his appeal is the apparent irony of his overt bad taste.
Mastering the Art Business
Koons’s success as an artist is all the more astonishing when one considers that he takes his motifs directly from popular culture and hires others to do the fabrication. He says he is in the lineage of Marcel Duchamp, who first used “readymade” found objects as artworks, but Koons has had to settle a number of copyright infringement lawsuits for what courts deemed his piracy of images.
He has professionalized Warhol’s concept of the artist’s studio as “Factory.” His block-long Chelsea workshop is a light-manufacturing facility, replete with front office and a maze of rooms devoted to phases of production. He employs as many as 80 assistants at a time, grouped into teams making digital mock-ups, transferring images to canvas, mixing pigments, painting canvasses or metal casts, or polishing sculptures fabricated by Carlson & Co. near Los Angeles.
By making art that mimics sleek consumer products in exquisitely fabricated industrial materials, Koons celebrates consumerism and provides his patrons with durable long-term investments. “I’ve always wanted the viewer to feel a sense of security in the work,” he told Calvin Tomkins for a New Yorker profile, sounding like the Mr. Rogers of contemporary art.
Koons himself has become a wealthy family man. His has four children with his second wife, Justine Wheeler, his former production manager whom he married in 2002. (He won custody of Ludwig who remains in Italy, and has become close to a daughter who was put up for adoption when he was a college student.) He lives in a town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – reportedly filled with works by Courbet, Magritte, Dali, Lichtenstein and contemporary artists – and escapes to the farm in Pennsylvania that belonged to his grandparents.
His career is flourishing with a retrospective planned for 2014 that will travel from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to the Whitney Museum in New York and the Pompidou Center in Paris. He has received honorary degrees and awards, and was commissioned to create a limited edition “Balloon Venus” container for vintage Dom Perignon. Recently he cast classical antiquities in plaster and affixed blue-glass lawn “gazing balls” to their bodies – a combination of art history and suburban aesthetics. He currently is making replicas of the Liberty Bell and The Dictator, a Civil War cannon with a 2 ½-mile range that he says he looks forward to firing off.
But Koons seems to know that his best work is public monuments like the flowering “Puppy” that have a magnetic appeal to broad audiences. His most spectacular ongoing project would create an iconic landmark in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard. The idea is to dangle a full-scale 70-foot-long metal replica of a 1943 Baldwin steam locomotive from a 160-foot crane. Several times a day, the wheels will spin, the funnel will smoke, and the whistle will blow as the train picks up speed then slows to a stop. The spectacle will no doubt thrill visitors, especially children. But it could be seen also as a dramatic emblem of post-industrial America: the iron horse that facilitated Westward expansion and economic boom hoisted like a still-kicking carcass. The $25 million cost has delayed the project, but one day it may be realized, assuring Koons another page in the annals of art history.
Jason Edward Kaufman//
This article appeared in Black Card Mag, Fall 2013, pp. 230-242.