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Jeff Koons: Koons, Moons, Balloons

Jeff Koons: Koons, Moons, Balloons

As he sends his work into space and with a landmark exhibition in Hong Kong about to open at Art Intelligence Global, the world’s most expensive living artist talks exclusively to Prestige.

Photography and Creative Direction Kristian Schuller at Ray Brown Represents   
Styling Cara Benevenia and Gennady Oreshkin
Grooming Sandrine Vanslee, using KÉRASTASE
Project Management
Gillian Gaughan

Midway through my conversation with Jeff Koons in his New York studio last month, on the eve of a tantalising exhibition of his early work at Art Intelligence Global (AIG) in Hong Kong, he matter-of-factly delivers a portentous line about his long-delayed Moon Phases project, through which he plans to send his own artwork to the Moon. “We’re scheduled for this in the early morning of February 15, so right now, all systems are go,” he announces. “The Lunar lander is inside the capsule; everything is being readied at the Kennedy Space Center. So I’ll be down there next week to watch the launch.” 

The 125 miniature Jeff Koons: Moon Phases sculptures or artworks, each approximately an inch (2.54cm) in diameter, are displayed together in a sustainably built, transparent and compartmentalised cube, and depict 125 unique phases of the Moon; 62 phases of the Moon as seen from Earth, 62 views of the Moon as seen from different points in space and one lunar eclipse. Each sculpture is associated with the name of one of the most influential persons from human history (think Confucius, Plato, Nefertiti, Leonardo da Vinci and Mahatma Gandhi). Meanwhile, there are equivalent stainless-steel sculptures that will stay on Earth, and NFTs that correspond with each sculpture on the Moon and the Earth.

“I’ve always had great interest in space,” beams Koons. “I’ve been involved with large telescope projects being built in space, and I look in awe and wonderment. I have memories of JFK [former US president John F Kennedy], I was born in ’55, so I carry the impression of the optimism of that time, that we can achieve things together. The feeling is very strong within me.”  

In two consecutive Instagram posts after the launch, Koons writes, “The launch of Intuitive Machines Nova-C lunar lander on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was a spectacular event. [It was, somewhat surprisingly, his inaugural launch-watching experience.] In person, the scale, the forces, the experience of space being penetrated was unbelievable! We are on our way to the Moon! What a pleasure to work with Intuitive Machines, 4Space, NFMoon, my studio team, and Pace Verso.  I’m very proud of “Moon Phases” and its desire to enhance connectivity! Please follow for updates on the landing scheduled for Feb 22!”

Not content with being the world’s most expensive living artist (cue inflatable stainless-steel Rabbit, sold by Christie’s in 2019 for US$91 million-plus), Pennsylvania-born Koons has taken a giant aesthetic leap of an otherworldly order. On the afternoon of February 22, a lander met the selenic surface and deposited the spheres in the Mallapart A region near the lunar South Pole. 

The mission is notable for an array of reasons, not least of which is that this is America’s first moon landing of any kind since Apollo 17 in 1972. That’s more than half a century. Meanwhile, the Russians are there, the Chinese and, most recently, the Indians and the Japanese. And now Koons, who watched the first Moon Landing as a 14-year-old. Although art has gone into space before, it just hasn’t landed on the Moon: Ghanian artist Amoako Boafo, for example, sent three paintings on a Jeff Bezos-powered Blue Origin rocket ship in 2021, which were then returned to Earth.

“This Moon-based project, the scale of which aligns with Jeff Koons’ monumental career and impact in the arts, confirms his legacy as one of the world’s greatest creative visionaries,” says Pace gallery president and CEO Marc Glimcher, who through Pace Verso is selling a limited number of the Moon Phases.

And breathe.

“Our achievements in space represent the limitless potential of humanity,” Koons adds. “Space exploration has given us a sense of our ability to transcend worldly constraints. I wanted to bring meaning to the dialogue, to communicate people globally how we can transform our lives through art. Moon Phases deals with global aspiration for humankind; beyond the Earth into the universe.” 

Three-two-one, exhale. And exhale again. 

We spoke to Koons several days before Valentine’s Day, following the announcement of British monarch King Charles III’s cancer diagnosis, and news that 14-time Grammy winner and pop royalty Taylor Swift might fly from her planet-wide Eras Tour in Japan to support her Kansas City Chiefs’ superbeau Travis Kelce at the 2024 Super Bowl in Las Vegas on February 11. All of which has us discussing legacies and pop music, though not necessarily in that order.

Outfit, Zegna

One of Koons’ works showing at AIG in Hong Kong this month is the seminal porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles – the latter being the King of Pop’s pet monkey – from 1986. Derided as high-kitsch lowerarchy by fine art’s elite, it’s become iconoclastic over time via art’s increasingly stratospheric commerciality, and influenced more artists than many artists and their dealers might care to acknowledge. Given Koons’ penchant for global pop culture and his own “stadium artist” aura (think comparisons to Willy Wonka and Walt Disney, or latter-day Leonardo), could we expect a contemporary marble totem to Her Royal High-est-ness Taylor [Swift] anytime soon?

He laughs. And exhales. “I love contemporary culture and I have a daughter who’s 13 and we went to one of Taylor Swift’s Eras-tour concerts,” he tells me. “It was phenomenal; she’s an amazing performer with an incredible work ethic, and communicates a lot of very strong values to people.” Which sounds a lot like Koons himself. But wait, is he a full-on Swiftie? He doesn’t say as much, but his allegiance lies elsewhere. “I was listening to Alicia Keys’ ‘No One’ yesterday, and I thought: what an amazing song. How she uses her vocal range. It makes me think back to birds, and how parrots could be a symbol of sexuality – that was all contained in Alicia Keys and her vocal chords.” Koons, as you’ll come to understand, talks often of birds – the flying variety that is. 

Cognisant that his pop taste seems too girlie, he muscles up the musical reference, mirroring the same way his art went from exhibiting pristine new Hoover vacuum cleaners in glass cases in the early 1980s, to floating basketballs in water – One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank – in 1985 (also on show at AIG). “I love Elvis, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles – all were a phenomenon.” He elaborates. “Certain people at a certain moment capture us, and I’m moved by that culture. And coming into contact with the gestures of others gives us an essence of our own potential, our own ability to feel.” He pauses. “I try to create a non-intimidating situation with my work, the same way they did as musicians, and when you’re able to do that, people can open their being up to the world. And I think that’s the gift
of an artist: to communicate, to create a setting, and let the viewer or listener feel.”

All of which you can be the judge of at his ground-breaking grouping of early work, which constitutes something of a world first for Koons. His Nelson Automatic Cooker/Deep Fryer looks more like a prototype iMac design, so pristine and curvaceous is the vibe. And his Inflatable Flowers (Tall Purple/Tall Orange) of 1979 could be luxury products, as could almost all his art, having taken production values to such exacting standards in his work.

“I believe this is the first time that Michael Jackson and Bubbles will come to China, and so that’s exciting,” he enthuses. “The same with One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank; it does make me very excited that people can have
a direct experience with the early work.” Given that they’re more commonly seen in magazines than in person, “it’s nice that people can encounter the works in reality. And Ushering in Banality [see page 184] has always been one of my favourite works.” 

Koons has cultivated highly influential and polarising art for more than four decades. Through his famed stainless-steel pieces and paintings that engage with popular culture, mass media and art history, he’s been instrumental in shaping contemporary aesthetics. His work can be understood in conversation with Conceptual art, Minimalism and, of course, Pop Art. 

Yet his remark about Banality, is trademark Koons. And of a kind that riles and perplexes both naysayers, his most ardent supporters and even (and especially) fashion designer Tom Ford, who wondered if the great man isn’t full of something other than sincerity in his musings about – and taste for – art. 

US-based French-Vietnamese artist Julie Curtiss, who exhibits around the world and
in Hong Kong with White Cube, has worked in the studios of both Jeff Koons and KAWS [aka Brian Donnelly]. How does she assess his contribution? “It’s really hard to sum up why Koons is so good,” she says, “but for me it’s how he elevated the kitsch. How he combines the low and high culture, the abject content of his work wrapped in a glossy/luxury aesthetic. And on the cultural level, it’s all about context, popular American culture … But I think it’s way more complex than people give him credit for.” In other words, Koons’ career – and taste – and the visual cultural trajectories he’s ushered in and ridden, may well be the perfect microcosm for 20th- and 21st-century United States of America.

Which is paradoxical for a man who considered himself something of an “aesthetic loner” as a teenager – and even
a grown adult. But then, they broke the mould when they made Koons. This was a man who said he wanted to partake on a grand scale in the art world and rub shoulders with the Picassos, Mondrians, Michelangelos, Brancusis and more from the get-go. To wit: as a teenager, Koons cold-called Salvador Dalí in his hotel room at the St Regis in New York to get a private audience with him. And succeeded. Dalí met him at a gallery in Manhattan and Koons
took the great man’s photograph. Again, as an adolescent, Koons had his handwriting analysed by the graphologist who’d analysed the handwriting of Lee Harvey Oswald, reputedly the killer of Kennedy in Dallas in 1962, for the Warren Commission. What did the graphologist make of it?

“I can’t tell you what he said about Oswald’s,” says Koons, “but I can tell you what he said about mine: that my handwriting and the way I wrote my name was very similar to a bird, and the flight of a bird, and that I was looking for freedom through my gestures and through my art.” Koons pauses for a seemingly rare moment of spontaneous self-reflection. “And you know, to this day, I make drawings all the time with little birds. There’s something to that theory.” 

Meantime Koons sold tickets and introduced the notion of added-value memberships for the Museum of Modern Art in New York with such success he was offered a full-time post. Cognisant of his smooth-talking sales-y persona, he worked instead as a broker, to support the cost and ambition of the art he was inspired to make. 

And when Koons wanted to know in the early ’80s how he might suspend basketballs in perpetuity in a salt/water solution (an idea later used to dramatic effect by Damien Hirst and his shark), he cold-called the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, off the back of an article he’d read in Time magazine. Feynman, among many talents, was integral to the development of quantum electrodynamics. Fact: when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded in mid-air post-launch in 1984, who was NASA’s go-to expert to assess the root cause? Feynman.
“It involved a seal on one of the rocket covers. It had cracked, and Feymann took a piece of the material and showed that the problem had been the temperature of the seal. He got to the bottom of that very quickly,” Koons assures us. 

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Outfit, Giorgio Armani

When I tell Koons his contribution to culture feels Walt Disney-esque, his response is the customary deferral, but a revealing one. “I remember on Sunday evenings we used to watch the Walt Disney Hour. We’d rally around the television with a sense of warmth and community, and you’d get a story that was about yourself, but also the greater whole, a place larger in the world. As a storyteller, I like that. But, on that note, can I mention John Dewey? I love mentioning him. He wrote a book called Art as Experience. He was saying that the fundamental element in looking at art wasn’t just the material ‘work of art’ itself, but the development of an experience that ran alongside it.”

In other words, there’s a continuity between the refined experiences of works of art and everyday activities and events. Here’s a line Dewey wrote in 1932: “The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are the things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip.” 

Which is what defines so much of Koons’ work, where everything is on the same level, whether you’re looking at an inflatable stainless-steel rabbit or a Michelangelo, or one of his impossibly sheeny blue gazing balls on a Michelangelo, a one-ton Hulk made in bronze, or basketballs suspended in solution. As Koons himself likes to say: “Everything’s in play.”  

All of which leaves him where on the burning topic of the day, AI and text-inputted art? Should we be anxious or ecstatic over this technological development and has he already seen a way through, or around it? “It gives us the opportunity to realise what it means to be human, and how we can incorporate things that machines can’t
do. Let’s discover how machines can set us up to feel more. We have more than five senses – so let’s come into contact with them. Let’s heighten our biological strength because we’ve become somewhat complacent in our interaction with the world. Perhaps AI can lend us greater biological strength. But at the same time,
we must become better human beings.”

Outfit, Giorgio Armani

How does he think he’s going to feel when his early work goes on show in Hong Kong this month at AIG? “It’s a pleasure and a joy to come back to Hong Kong and see these works placed together, and see the connectivity between them. When I look at this body of work, or the grouping of the work, and the installations, I can see where my inspirations took me and how they were connecting me to a universal vocabulary. You know, I look at Michael and Bubbles and at the same time I’m looking at the pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Pharaohs, I’m looking at Michelangelo and Renaissance sculpture.” 

Given Koons’ predilection for transcendence, epiphanies and self-awareness, and his aspirations for mankind and the cosmos, how does he assess the work of Yayoi Kusama, given that both are linked by artistic collaborations with luxury purveyor Louis Vuitton, and notions of infinite possibility. “First of all, I have tremendous respect for Kusama,” he says. “I’ve followed her for decades, and during the avant garde of our time, Kusama was there in that moment. She’s a tremendous communicator, she has wonderful vocabularies within her work, and she’s able to create a dialogue that brings in people. Everything about her story, her personal relationship with her work, and
her external relationship with her work and larger audience is extremely relevant and interesting. She’s a tremendous role model with tremendous energy, especially given her age.”

Koons, it transpires, never met Michael Jackson. Despite their best efforts and Koons’ intent to have him come to his New York studio, the singer’s sickness prevented it. Instead, “Michael sent me some publicity stills and some performing photos. I chose the one that was him with Bubbles in the backyard laying on the grass.” Like many, Koons has been especially swayed by Jackson performing that trademark dance. “What a performance,” he says. “It was mesmerising when he did the Moonwalk on the Motown Special TV show (1983). And at that time, there was tremendous admiration for his ability as an artist to communicate his feelings. He’d use his breath as part of his singing, and different tools that he learned from James Brown, and others through the Motown era. All these great performers that he was aware of and he was able to incorporate everything of that into his art” – much like Koons does with leading artists of the world, both historical and modern. “At that moment, in the ’80s, Michael was the symbol of the times.” 

How important, then, is legacy to Koons, given his stature, the innovative Lunar exploits, his exhibition at AIG, and that one of his biggest artistic inspirations came from his cold call to Dalí? “The relevance of Dalí was generational. He came from an older generation and I was young – 18 or 19 – and able to just interact. He was very generous. But the Surrealists, the Cubists, this is transgressive work, they were creating worlds, they really changed the core avant-garde, but as for me, I just am always trying to do the best that I can do. The best artist, the best father, but in the end, that’s all you can do. So I don’t want people to think anything in particular other than what they do. I hope that I can represent good things to the world and community and through my contribution, but if it’s not there for the world, it’s not there.” He goes on to explain that the sources of his inspiration don’t change, despite his advancing years, and
he hopes they won’t. 

Outfit, Zegna

The day before we spoke, I went to London’s Mayfair and by chance ran into Kit Stokoe, the artist son of Neil Stokoe (a contemporary with – and on this evidence superior to – David Hockney), whose work was being exhibited at Saatchi Yates gallery on Bury Street. And it’s been wowing London’s art aficionados for the last two months. When I told Stokoe junior I was speaking to Koons the next day, his eyes popped out on stalks. Stokoe has a show later this year with some of his most recent artworks, two of which are “tribute works to Jeff Koons”, he tells me. “I would love
if you could show him these two artworks. When I made the pieces [one of which is a Play-doh piece directly informed by Koons], Jeff was my inspiration. I would love to talk with him about his unique understanding of art.” I shared that with Koons during our call. Koons saw the pieces, thoroughly enjoyed them and has asked Stokoe to make contact next time he travels to New York. Legacy.

But wait, post-Moon Phases, are we pre-more-cosmic-offerings from Koons? “I would not say that I never would, because I’ve had to build relationships and friendships with people who are involved in space, and continued exploration, so there are already other projects that I could participate in. But right now, this is the first authorised artwork on the Moon, so I’m honoured, it will become a heritage site, and there’s maybe more interest in trying to bring more culture into space. As people spend more time there, it’s important that they also get ties to our
human culture.” 

Grand scale, giant leap. Roll up, roll up and treasure the early work – nay, Banalitastica – of Jeff Koons at AIG, during Art Basel Hong Kong. Go gaze at the suspended basketballs, and go see the man in porcelain who Moonwalked into global ultrastardom. It’s the show to see. Art, but not as we conventionally know it, which boldly enlightens the way – like it or not – to the new and next frontier. Get with the new spacethetics. Most expensive living artist, and first ever to have a work in perpetuity in space. Double Happiness.  

Source: Prestige Online

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