Courtesy of ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images.
I first met Jeff in 1988, when I was a teenager. I began visiting artists’ studios when I was 17 years old and I went to see Peter Fischli and David Weiss. They spent the day with me and showed me their work, and then they said, “It’s very, very important that you meet Jeff Koons.” So I wrote Jeff a letter, and he wrote me immediately that we could meet in Munich. We had this amazing first interview, which has continued ever since and culminated in his 2009 exhibition in London at the Serpentine Galleries.
Last Wednesday, during the week of Art Basel in Hong Kong, we sat down at The Upper House at an event co-hosted by Artsy and David Zwirner to talk about Jeff’s new work, and also his amazing, visionary, unrealized projects—I think it’s urgent that some of these projects can be realized.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Jeff, I wanted to begin at the beginning and ask about the new works you’re showing in Hong Kong.
Jeff Koons: All of the pieces that are at the Zwirner booth at the fair, they all involve reflectivity. I’ve always enjoyed a reflective surface because of its connection to philosophy. If you look at philosophy, the word that’s used most often is “reflect.” So that’s what pulled me to reflective surfaces. It’s a surface that affirms the viewer, that affirms you, that everything is dependent on you. And the surface also reflects everything else around you, everything else that’s possible at that moment in time.
Three of the works incorporate a gazing ball. If you think back to my rabbit that I made in ’86, when I made that piece, I was trying to reference my own history of working with ready-made objects and my upbringing. I was brought up in Pennsylvania, there’s a large German population there. Gazing balls were repopularized—they’re originally from Venice, from the 1500s—by King Ludwig II. So when the German population came to the States, they brought along gazing balls. They brought them along as lawn ornaments; they have a tremendous sense of generosity about them. If you’re driving down the road and you glance and you see a gazing ball in somebody’s yard, it’s there for you, it’s for the viewer, it’s for the neighbor. It excites you and reflects everything in the environment for you.
Instead of just referencing that in practice, I always wanted to use the gazing ball as a ready-made in my artwork. So I started with the sculptures, and then I created the painting series. I think both series deal with the idea of the eternal through biology, through procreation, through sex, the excitement of the senses.
HUO: Many of these gazing ball works also have a connection to artworks from the past. The art historian Erwin Panofsky once said that we invent the future with fragments from the past. Can you tell us a bit about how you engage with art history—and also your early encounter with Salvador Dalí? Why was he so important to you?
JK: I’ve always loved Dada and Surrealism. So when I was a student I developed a personal iconography, and through that iconography I learned that I could control my own feelings and emotions. I could create something like a drug—the creation of art was like the creation of a drug. And then you realize that you can also affect how other people feel. That was really my journey of wanting to get involved in a kind of art that moved past the self.
Growing up I remember getting a coffee table book of Dalí, with The Persistence of Memory (1931) on the cover, as a gift from my parents one Christmas. I was aware of his work and I always enjoyed his work. And my mother informed me that Dalí spent half the year in the St. Regis Hotel in New York. When I was in my second year of art school, I decided to call the hotel and I asked for Salvador Dalí’s room. They put me through. He answered the phone, and I said that I was a young artist from Pennsylvania and I really enjoyed his work and would like to meet him. And he said, “If you can come this weekend, I’ll meet you at noontime in the lobby of the hotel.”
I went to the hotel and exactly at noon he came down. He was dressed in a big buffalo fur coat and he had his diamond tie tack on, a silver cane, his mustache waxed up, really dressed to the hilt. He invited me to go see his new exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery; he said he had to meet a French journalist [there]. So I met him there. And he’s walking around with this really tall, blonde journalist with a feminine figure and I realized much later that it was probably Amanda Lear, the French journalist who was a transsexual. He walked around with her and then came over to pose for some photographs for me in front of this large painting, The Head of the Royal Tiger, a piece that was created in 1963. I’m happy to say that in my bedroom I have the study for the painting; I acquired it about 12 years ago.
HUO: From Dalí you get to Duchamp, and I think it’s interesting to talk a little bit about the role of the ready-made in your work. You said it’s not about appropriation, that’s been a misunderstanding, but that it’s actually working in the tradition of the ready-made because the ready-made is about optimism, it’s about generosity—whereas appropriation is more about theft. Can you tell us how you came to Duchamp and this idea of the ready-made?
Installation view of David Zwirner’s booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong, 2018. © Art Basel.
JK: When I came across the Chicago Imagists Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and Roger Brown, I moved to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute. I befriended Ed Paschke and worked in his studio; I was his assistant and would stretch his canvases. Ed taught me really about the politics of art and how to juggle everything and make your work and try to be at the service of your art. And after we would work in the studio all day, we would go out and he would show me where he got his source material. Ed taught me that everything’s already there; everything’s already in the universe, you just have to go look for it. He would take me to clubs where he would find different lighting that he could possibly use in one of his paintings. Maybe there would be a woman who was dancing in a club who was completely tattooed. These were the first realizations of ready-mades for me. I knew about Duchamp, but where Ed got his source material had more meaning to me. It was more connected to everyday life.
HUO: You mentioned with regard to the gazing balls the idea of empowering the viewer. The artist Tino Sehgal has what he calls the “Koons test.” Whenever a curator comes to the studio and wants to work with Sehgal, he asks them about your work. And if they cannot understand that your work is not only about objects, he explains that your work transcends objects. So I wanted to ask about this idea of empowering the viewer—independent of origin, culture, or education—which is so key in your work.
JK: Growing up, I had an aunt that lived in Philadelphia, and she took me to the Philadelphia Museum of Art a couple times, but I was never brought up with a background in art history. But on my first day of college they put us on buses and took us to the Baltimore Museum of Art. And I realized that I didn’t know Braque, I didn’t know Cézanne. And it was very important to me because I survived that moment. But I realized that a lot of people don’t survive that moment, and I’ve always wanted to create an art that would not only help me accept my own cultural background—my own history, where I could have self-acceptance, that I’m perfect in my own being—but to be able to also develop an art that immediately communicates to the viewer that everything about them is perfect. Everything about their past, every imperfection and perfection, everything is perfect to that moment, and it’s all about going forward and experiencing that transcendence and increase of our parameters.
These objects are always just metaphors for people. We’re all really curious about these images and objects that we look at. But at the end of the day, we only really care about each other, the potential that we all have as individuals and the potential that we have as a community, as a group. And so my dialogue with objects has been to communicate that, to experience that personally, to continue to become a better artist in a vaster parameter, to reach a higher level of consciousness, and to share that with the viewer. Creating a work, it’s about me coming in touch with the essense of my own potential but the power of the art itself is in empowering the viewer to come in contact with the essence of their own potential. That’s where the art is. The object doesn’t have any art in it; it’s just a transponder that can stimulate. The art happens inside the viewer.
HUO: I also wanted to talk about five extraordinary, unrealized projects of yours, which I think need to urgently be built. First, could you tell us about Building Blocks?
JK: Building Blocks was generated around the Celebration work and it comes from stacking Legos on top of each other. It’s a figure that’s a little bit like an animal shape but it’s also very architectural. It has an eye and a kind of head that looks like it’s from a horse or some other type of animal, but it would be 160 feet tall. I wanted to incorporated live plants—bushes. If you look at a piece like Split Rocker (2000) or Puppy (1992), I usually use plants that come with a flower head that’s somewhere around five or six inches. But Building Blocks was intended to use much larger bush-like plants and would be on a much larger scale. It also has a large waterfall that comes down from the back of the piece from around 100 feet in the air.
HUO: The other project which is, of course, connected to flowers is the Nordic Flowers.
JK: The Nordic Flowers, it’s a balloon structure. It’s two different colored balloons that are incorporated into the piece. The blue one wraps around and tends to be more phallic and totemlike. And there’s also a yellow flower that is more feminine in shape, almost like an orchid that is around the blue one. I called it Nordic Flowers because originally it was intended for a northern location. If it were presented in a southern location, it would be a southern flower.
HUO: Then there are the two projects, Lips and Kiss, which were initially conceived for Paris. There are drawings and renderings and one sees them floating above the Seine.
JK: Lips was the first. It’s a single pair of lips. It’s very similar to Man Ray’s Lips that you see over the Paris landscape. I came across some of the early airships that were built in Paris, and I realized that Man Ray’s Lips probably came from him seeing postcards or images of these early airships. So I designed an airship that is over three times the size of the Hindenburg. It’s over 800 meters long. It’s really gigantic. It’s an airship that would always be hovering around, in this case, over Paris. Now, it could travel. It’s completely independent with an engine that generates its own power using solar cells. And it was designed to really travel anywhere in the world. It could be outside here in Hong Kong for the art fair right now, and then it could return to Paris or go to Los Angeles. It could travel the world.
HUO: The topic of traveling now leads us to another unrealized project: the steam engine. It’s probably the most known of the unrealized projects. It has to do with movement but in a dynamic sense, in that it moves and yet it doesn’t, at the same time.
JK: I mentioned earlier that my aunt would take me to the museum in Philadelphia and one of the most moving experiences I had as a child was when she took me to the top of City Hall, and on top there’s a very large sculpture of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. It was created by Alexander Calder’s grandfather and it’s a very large sculpture, 75 feet tall. It’s a very moving experience; it was always the tallest point in Philadelphia. It connects the historic quality of Philadelphia and the awe and wonderment of this structure. The piece is sitting on the dome of City Hall. Inside, the architecture of the dome is like Jules Verne—if you can imagine Journey to the Center of the Earth—there are all these rivets that enhance the fantasy aspect. So in coming up with the idea for something like Train, I wanted to create a piece that is really moving for people who come into contact with it, and at the same time, it would be functioning as something that would unite and rally a community around it, the way some other architectural structures have done in the past.
So the sculpture is a large crane, 166 feet tall, and hanging from it is a steam engine facing straight down. The cattle catcher on the front of the train is about 30 feet from the ground. And the train would do everything that a real train does, but at a faster pace. It takes a real train eight hours to gain enough energy to be able to pull out of the station. This would be condensed into about a 30-minute time period. You would be sitting there looking at it and you may start to notice that the light is kind of flickering off the firebox, and maybe you would see a little steam coming from a valve. And then the pistons would start to fire and the wheels would start to turn and it would go “choo-choo, choo-choo,” and each time that a piston fires is one puff of steam; it’s breathing. The faster it goes is just a faster rate of breathing. And so it would go until the train would reach full speed at around 80 or 85 miles per hour with a huge plume of steam coming out of the train. And it would reach this huge climax of speed in about eight and a half minutes and then you would have this climax, “woo woo woo woo woo woo,” and then on the same bell curve along which it had been speeding up, it would also deescalate its speed to the last puff of steam.
HUO: You once compared paradise to a chemical state that you can feel from exercising your intellect or physical being. Can you tell us about that idea of paradise?
JK: I’ve always liked the idea of the stimulation of the senses. The kind of art that I like, that I respond to, is a work that stimulates and gets the different chemicals flying. When your body is stimulated in that way, it creates emotions, and those emotions become ideas. I enjoy biology and the internal life. I think that my inflatables are very much about this kind of contradiction of life. If you think about it, we’re like inflatables. We take a breath and we expand. We exhale, which is like a symbol of death: We deflate. We have a certain density within our cells where the external world is quite vacuous. When you look at the inflatables, they become more about the fact that they’re also vacuous on the inside, and because of that, the external world gains a bit more density. So I think that the viewer feels a little more secure when they look at the inflatables.
Photo of Jeff Koons at The Upper House in Hong Kong by Cheng Chun Kit for Artsy.
HUO: I wanted to ask you about collecting in the broader sense. You, of course, collect some of your own work, but you also collect art that is from the past. I always found it interesting to look at your collection with works from Courbet and Dalí. It was very beautiful one time when I asked you why you collect these amazing pieces from the past—you said the main reason was that you wanted your children to grow up seeing these works every day. Can you tell us a little about that?
JK: If you believe in the works, it’s a way of protecting them, of assuming the responsibility that they’re around for the future. The actual participation of enjoying a work or being able to find meaning in a work isn’t associated with the ownership. It’s just the possibility to interact with it. I have eight children, but I have six small children at home. My wife, Justine, is an artist. But I always wanted the children to think of us as mom and dad. I wanted the art world to always be open, that they would feel as though they can participate in that realm, that there’s a space for them. So they live with everybody’s work except for ours. They come to the studio and they’re aware of what we do. But I think it’s been very positive because they’re all very engaged with art. My youngest son, who’s five, really has a vision that he wants to become an artist; that’s what he wants to do. And it’s amazing because he’s already developed a personal iconography and it’s really powerful. But when they think of art, they’ll think of Dalí or they’ll think of Picasso or Courbet, anybody other than mom and dad.
HUO: That, of course, leads us to the importance of children to your art. You once said that when we are younger, we are more open. We aren’t judgmental.
JK: That’s why I work with the type of imagery that I work with, because of its association with childhood. It has to do with that act of acceptance, that everything is in play and you can enjoy something just for what it is. There’s no hierarchy. You can just enjoy your materialism, the directness of texture, the visual stimulation. There’s no judgement, it’s just pure acceptance. The color blue for blue, green for green, the joy of the senses and interacting with the world.
HUO: And maybe last but not least, since we talked about children, I wanted to ask about your philanthropy? You’re very involved with children’s causes around the world.
JK: I’ve always been involved in a lot of different causes, AIDS and other issues. But I was a left-behind parent. My ex-wife abducted my son and took him to a different culture. So then I got involved in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington. I realized that I was never going to get my son home, even though I’d won custody in the States. It was never going to be enforced, so I really wanted to try and help other people. I got involved in the center and also formed the Koons Family Institute, which has helped pass over 100 laws internationally to protect the rights of children. I’m very fortunate to be in a place, like many of us in the art world, where we can experience devastating things and recreate our lives. Financially, in the mid-’90s, I was picked up and shaken upside down until I had nothing left in my pockets. I had to walk to my studio. I didn’t have a dime. But we’re fortunate enough that we can recreate ourselves. We can recreate our lives. There are a lot of people out there that can’t do that. And, so, that was really my motivating force to try to help a lot of those families.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.