Mega art star Jeff Koons’s first New York museum solo opens Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It serves as the last waltz for the museum’s uptown Marcel Breuer building before the museum’s move to the Meatpacking District. Including over 120 works, the show surveys the controversial artist’s career to date, including several works that were finished, as curator Scott Rothkopf pointed out at a press preview Tuesday, “literally last week.”
Among the early works in the show are some that were included in his first New York solo show, at East Village gallery International With Monument, in 1985. One of the newest, on display in the courtyard, is a gigantic version of a girlie-themed ashtray that, the artist wrote in A.i.A.‘s current issue, was one of his earliest inspirations. Some pieces are as heavy as 15,000 pounds (Gorilla, a 2006-11 granite sculpture) and have traveled as far as 4,023 miles (in the case of the 2003 painting Moustache Lobsters, which came from Regensburg, Germany).
The artist is perhaps best known for his gigantic, steel balloon dogs, and for gargantuan re-creations of trinkets such as Hummel figurines. Also on view are the notorious, billboard-size photographs of Koons having sex with his then-wife Ilona Staller, aka La Cicciolina, the porn star and Italian politician.
Despite the sometimes sinister and always provocative nature of his work, Koons consistently talks about wanting to confirm, rather than challenge, his audience’s tastes. Critics might call it pandering, but the lofty language with which he discusses work based on even the kitschiest sources makes it seem like it’s all an ongoing piece of performance art.
The artist spoke with A.i.A. on the museum’s fourth floor on Tuesday, near two towering sculptures, one representing a balloon dog and another based on a pile of Play-Doh. He talked about following his intuition, his admiration for young artists and how he takes his high auction prices in stride.
BRIAN BOUCHER You’re known for incredibly high-cost, high-profile, complicated projects. Do you ever lose sleep over these things?
JEFF KOONS No. Because this is really my interest. This is my pleasure. These are areas I’m interested in investigating, in bringing to conclusion. I enjoy the excitement of pursuing something and then the rationality of bringing it to realization. It’s a totality, and I enjoy all the moments of it.
BOUCHER How do you maintain that faith and confidence?
KOONS I try to follow my intuition. I’ve learned in life that if you don’t follow your intuition, if your intuition is telling you something and you don’t listen to it, you end up going in a bad direction. But if you focus on your interest, it always takes you to a very metaphysical place. It connects you to a kind of archetypal, communal vocabulary.
BOUCHER You’re 59 years old. You’ve been making influential, of-the-moment work since the late ‘70s but you’re having a New York museum solo only now. Why has it taken so long?
KOONS I did show three works on the roof at the Met five or six years ago. But that’s a very small number. Part of it is my own doing. I wanted to have enough works completed to show the interests that I’ve had over the last couple decades. It just felt like it was time. It was time to have a communication, to share with younger artists, and it’s a way for me to be more aware of their interests and to share information back and forth.
BOUCHER Speaking of which, are there young artists that you follow these days or feel a particular connection with?
KOONS I don’t know how young you would consider them, but I’ve always enjoyed Dan Colen’s work and Nate Lowman’s work. I like all of them. I really do. I’m open to everything. I love all artworks. I really believe in not making judgments and being open to everything. Everything is in play then. Everything can be used in a dialogue. As soon as you make judgments, you isolate, you segregate and you disempower. A lot of people think they know my work, maybe they’ve seen an image of a Balloon Dog, but they never really physically encountered one. Maybe they never saw Michael Jackson and Bubbles in person or Bear and Policeman.
BOUCHER On November 12 of last year, you became the highest-selling living artist at auction, when your Balloon Dog (Orange) brought $58.4 million. Do you recall what went through your mind?
KOONS Well, it happened earlier too. These titles come and go. I had it when Hanging Heart sold at auction prior to that. [Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold) sold for $23 million in 2007, then an auction record for a living artist.] And then another artist’s work came along and sold for more. Damien Hirst sold for more. It changes. It moves. I always have wanted to participate and I’ve always wanted society hopefully to find value in my work, but I’m talking about intellectual value. The economic value is of secondary interest.
BOUCHER Your show is the swan song of the Whitney’s Upper East Side location. Would you have been just as happy to initiate the new downtown location? Or do you feel like this building, with its very particular architecture, works well for this show?
KOONS When they first offered the exhibition, I thought, “Well, maybe I want to inaugurate the downtown museum. Doesn’t it sound better to be opening something than closing something?” And I realized, no, this would be much more meaningful. I love the architecture here. This has been a fantastic museum. I’ve shown my work here in different biennials that I’ve enjoyed. I remember sleeping here one night. I was here 24 hours doing an equilibrium tank. I saw Jim Nutt’s work here for the first time, in 1974, and it had a tremendous impact on me—I changed art schools because of it. I’ve had great moments here, and it’s amazing architecture. I think everything looks great here. Aspects of meaningfulness are being communicated. The Whitney itself is meaningful. And I hope that my work comes across with the meaningfulness of a desire to interact, to communicate and to have communal significance.