Jeff Koons: Art Changes Every Day

Jan 29, 2014 9:20PM

The following is an excerpt from a previously unpublished interview between Art21 and artist Jeff Koons originally conducted in 2009, wherein the artist talks about his relationship with art, his 2008 exhibition at the Château de Versailles, and misrepresentations of his work.

ART21: Talk about how your relationship with art has evolved over time?

KOONS: One of the amazing things about art is that it changes every day, and its meaning to you changes every day. When I was young, it was really a vehicle that gave me a sense of self. My sister was three years older—so I couldn’t do anything as well as she could. She could always do everything better. But when my parents saw me draw, they made me feel like I could finally do something at her level. From that point I had a feeling that I had a place, and it gave me a sense of being. I started off having no idea what the power of art could be. As I developed a sense of personal iconography I learned that you start to become comfortable with yourself, to accept yourself. Once that happens, you want to go external. You go from subjective to objective art, and art becomes a journey, which is really about sharing with people. When I was young I really didn’t have a base in art history. My first day in art school, we went to the Baltimore Museum and at that moment I realized how naïve I was. I didn’t know who Braque was. I didn’t know Manet. I knew nobody. I knew Dali, Warhol, and probably Rauschenberg, and Michelangelo, but I had no sense of art history. I survived that day and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m here now. I was hungry to learn. I wanted something to transform my life. And art has that ability to present everything in the world, all the disciplines of the world, and to unite them.

ART21: How would you describe your personal iconography, and is there something you can look back and see consistently in your work?

KOONS: Artists are asked quite often whether there’s anything repetitive in their work. If I look at all the work that I’ve done over the years, I can see that I continue with certain themes. I like flowers; I like certain sensual images. There are certain things that I like to work with: it’s really how you look at life, how open you are to life and its spiritual aspects. A lot of things come into play. If I look at a Warhol soup can or a urinal by Duchamp, these are cries of communication. I don’t think they’re about the objects. Duchamp would probably roll over on hearing this—but I think that objects are metaphors for people. So it’s not about accepting the object in high-mode culture; it’s about acceptance of others. I think what people want from art is gesture. And when I say gesture, I don’t mean just a physical gesture but a form of gesture that everybody wants to live life to its fullest and to feel life within their blood system. What does it mean, to be alive? What’s my potential? That’s what you look for from art, whether you’re looking at dance or listening to music or looking at a visual artist’s work. You want gesture: you want the person to be in the moment to show you how far you can go, and the freedom of what that means. So the job of the artist is to make a gesture and really show people what their potential is. It’s not about the object, and it’s not about the image; it’s about the viewer. That’s where the art happens. The objects are absolutely valueless. But what happens inside the viewer—that’s where the value is.

ART21: Is that, coupled with your own pleasure in making things, what motivates you?

KOONS: I’ve always enjoyed interacting with people. From the time that I was a child, I would take care of myself. I was brought up to be really self-reliant. I would go door-to-door, selling gift-wrapping paper, candies, chocolates—and I always enjoyed that I never knew who would open the door. It’s the same interaction that happens as an artist, wanting this communication. All of a sudden that door opens and you don’t know what odor is going to come out of the house. You don’t know what’s on the stove, cooking. You don’t know what the furniture is going to look like, what type of clothing the person’s going to have on, if he or she is going to be old, young, grumpy, happy. You just dive into that moment and start trying to communicate, to have an interaction in which both of you can find meaning.

Jeff Koons was first featured by Art21 in Season 5 of the series, "Art in the Twenty-First Century." Read the full interview and watch videos featuring the artist at

Additional images: Installation views of "Jeff Koons: Versailles" at Château de Versailles, France, 2008. Production stills from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Fantasy," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.