Jeff KoonsThe Time Traveller

photography by Guy Aroch
written by Bill Powers


Jeff Koons by Guy Aroch

BP Yesterday I was looking at a Martin Kippenberger hotel drawing where he did a portrait of you next to a self-portrait. You guys were friends, right?
JK Martin came to New York with Max Hetzler and saw my “Equilibrium” show and really loved it. They invited me and several other New York artists to show in Cologne in 1986 where I brought some statuary pieces. I remember hanging out with Martin at the Chelsea Hotel and going to the Paris bar. I always felt that our relationship was paralleling a Beuys/Warhol situation.BP I noticed on your Twitter that you were at the Louvre Museum a few days ago?
JK Yes, I had four hours free before my flight home so I went to the Louvre and I have to say those four hours went by in a flash.BP Which area of the museum did you visit?
JK I spent a lot of time with the Greek and Roman antiquities looking at vases. I was amazed because earlier that day I had been at a breakfast where they had this Picasso painting, a fantastic beach scene with two female figures. The forms are cubistic, but classical in their mass and size. The figures have a reddish brown clay feel to them set against a silvery gray blue sky. So then later I’m looking at these Greek vases in the Louvre and – bam! – I realized that the Picasso colors come from the vessels.BP Won’t you be having an exhibition at the Louvre with your balloon animals soon?
JK At the very end of November, my show will open at the Centre Pompidou and then in January we are planning an installation in the 19th century galleries at the Louvre where they have “The Raft of the Medusa,” “The Coronation of Napoleon,” so many great paintings.BP Which is funny because we were just talking about Kippenberger who famously did a whole body of work based on “The Raft of the Medusa.”
JK I loved that series of Martin’s and the original is so profound. When you look at it, you can almost feel the people clawing their way up the surface of the painting.BP Will your retrospective at Centre Pompidou be mounted differently than the way it was presented at the Whitney?
JK The core of the exhibition will be the same. In New York we had approximately 125 works and in Paris we’ll have approximately 100. Now of that 100, I would say 70 works will be the same: some of the liquor paintings, some of the “Made in Heaven” works, the vacuum cleaner pieces, but then in Paris we will show the Play-Doh painting instead of the Play-Doh sculpture. Some of that just has to do with the scale of the space.

BP Will your Dictator cannon make it to Centre Pompidou?
JK No, but I will have a new work of seated ballerinas, actually it’s just called “Ballerinas,” which we’ll show for the first time. We go back and forth with what we call new works in the studio before they are titled.

BP I think Picasso had that experience where other people ended up naming the works later on.
JK I always name the pieces. Picasso was different. He never titled any of his work. Even “Les Demoiselles D’avignon” he never liked as a title, but because the painting had such grand success, he stayed with it.

BP Interesting how the studio nomenclature can be different from the rest of the world. In Joe Bradley’s case, he has these modular paintings, which most people refer to as robot paintings even though that’s not what he calls them.
JK Sometimes people refer to my studio as a factory, but it’s nothing like a factory – there’s no production schedule, there’s very low production, in fact – it’s very much a studio. I mention this because you’re talking about how words matter, what we call things.

BP Have you ever thought that your work might have been better served if you lived under a monarchy instead of a democracy? Only in that you wouldn’t have to concern yourself with galleries and other business considerations.


JK Of course, I’ve thought about it because as an artist I’ve been ambitious, but my work is extremely democratic and my philosophy is democratic: opening up the experience of art for people so they don’t feel left out. I never wanted to create a dialogue where I’m speaking down to people. I remember going to the Baltimore Museum of Art on my first day of college and I didn’t know any of the artists. I didn’t know Braque. I didn’t know Matisse. I didn’t know Cezanne. And I survived that moment where I feel that a lot of people don’t survive that expe- rience. Sometimes people use art for self-empowerment by intimidating other people, making them feel like they have to come to the table with something pre-prepared. I’ve always believed that people come to the table with their own personal experience and whatever that is, it’s perfect; it’s your history. Nothing more and nothing less is perfect for that moment.

BP I heard that you own a Hercules painting currently on view at the Met and the largest of your gazing ball sculptures I believe is of Hercules.
JK And I own some large plasters that are friezes from the Temple of Zeus.

BP So what is your attraction to Hercules?
JK In my life outside making art, I enjoy other art. It’s the only thing I know. I want to inform my children about life in every aspect that I can. One of the most important things to me is that they understand art is something much vaster than their father and their mother, you know, both of us being artists. And so I got involved in collecting. We can live with things which show them the vastness of art. So when they think of art, they’ll maybe think of the Hercules painting by Cornelis van Haarlem.

BP Or the Poussin painting hanging over your bed in Pennsylvania?
JK That’s “The Triumph of Silenus” by the studio of Poussin. I originally saw a version of this painting in the basement at the National Gallery in London.

BP And you own another Poussin painting of a man leaning over a sleeping woman as cupid looks on.
JK It’s of Jupiter and Antiope. I saw it at Christie’s auction house. I looked at it and thought, “This is fantastic, but something seems a little odd to me.” One arm seemed strange. So after we got it, I took the painting to the Met to be x-rayed and it turned out that in 1859 it was exhibited in London and it was overpainted. So the conservators removed that paint and under it, Jupiter has his hand going in between Antiope’s legs.

BP How insane that they would overpaint a Poussin because it seemed too racy for the public? I mean, either show it as the artist intended or reject the painting altogether.
JK It’s really amazing. When you get into these Old Masters, especially the more sensual paintings, a lot of times they’re damaged because people would take pencils or any sharp object and if they looked at an image and got excited or aroused, often they’d jab out the eyes of the figures… so to paint over something was nothing to them. I mean, they used to paint fig leaves over nudes.

BP Isn’t that what happened to Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden”?
JK That’s powerful work. I’ve seen it in Florence. She’s in the pudica position. I’m not sure you can fully see the male figure because of the way he’s standing. That painting is one of the reasons I made my “Made in Heaven” series. Overcoming the guilt and shame of the body, of nature. BP I’m pretty sure that Adam’s genitals were overpainted for a while. JK I love the sense of time travel I get looking at Old Masters or Antiquities. You’re having a dialogue, you know, how you feel as a human being today – your interpretation of life – and then viewing how people in the past lived – their life energy. You can go back 5,000 years and still get an essence of their consciousness.






Jeff Koons Studio, New York

BP Tell me about the little rock with the vaginal carving that was serialized into some of your Antiquity paintings. I heard it’s actually a piece from your personal collection?
JK It’s called the “Raglan Carving.” I found it on the internet when I was looking up Paleolithic artwork. I’m always looking for source material, following my interests. I contacted the owners, because I wanted to photograph the carving and it turned out that they were a little embar- rassed owning the piece. Basically they discovered it in their backyard. They live in England close to the Raglan Castle where in a pile of stones by an old fence, they uncovered it. So I ended up acquiring the carving from them. Most of the experts believe that it’s probably a pediment from a church dating back to early Christianity when they still celebrated the rites of spring and fertility, when there was still this paganism to Christianity. It’s a phallus vagina, but if you look at the carving from the back, it’s like rear end cheeks.

BP The “Metallic Venus” sculpture in your Whitney retrospective echoes Roman statuary in that it has a supporting pedestal built into the base. Is that something you were thinking about?
JK “Metallic Venus” comes from a late 19th century Hungarian porcelain. It makes reference to Praxiteles who is considered the first sculptor of antiquity to make a woman nude. The first sculptor to put the head at a three quarter angle, to make the body limber and to have the narrative incorporated into the support; instead of having the support just be a block, he would make it into a tree trunk or a column with fabric draped over it. So “Metallic Venus” is having a dialogue with Praxiteles which means Praxiteles is alive again.

BP But I wondered if you were more interested in the Greek sculptors pursuit of the heroic ideal or the sense of realism sought after by the Romans?
JK I guess I love the directness of the Greeks. But I also love how information flows and gets developed on top of each other. I’m always looking at the toes, looking for clues. Is this Greek? It’s interesting how everything turns to ashes. I mean, there’s so few original Greek pieces left. Everything’s a copy. And then how do you trust in that copy?

BP And then there’s another Antiquity sculpture of yours, “Pluto and Proserpina,” that’s in dialogue with Bernini so I was curious what you like about him?
JK When I think about Bernini, I love the motion and the passion, but what I really like to look at is the surface. We think of his work as being highly detailed, but it also has a roughness to it. There’s an economy there. If you look at his hounds of hell, the way the chest hair on the dogs is rough but works so beautifully.

BP Richard Prince said that a long time ago, you sold him some gold coins with a Dali impression on them. Does that ring a bell?
JK Yes, but I don’t know whether Richard wound up getting any. They were silver minted medallions. I always liked Dali.

BP Funny that you met Dali at the St. Regis Hotel, which is also where Calvin Tompkins first met Duchamp. Tell me about that experience.
JK I was 18 years old. My mother was interested in him because she wanted to buy me a Dali print for Christmas. She told me that Dali was staying at the St. Regis and I thought, “I’ll call him up.” He answered the phone at the hotel and I explained how I was a young artist and would enjoy meeting him. He said, “Okay, next Saturday meet me in the lobby at noon.” So I got on a bus from Baltimore and came to New York and at exactly 12 o’clock he came down in a big buffalo fur cape, his tie studded in diamond pins. I believe it was Philippe Halsman’s daughter who said that when you met Dali he would make you feel like it was one of the most special moments of your life. And it’s true. Then Dali invited me to come to his opening that same night at Knoedler uptown. He had a fantastic hallucinogenic painting there, the head of a royal tiger. I went home that evening feeling like this could be a way of life for me. And now I have the study for that Dali tiger painting hanging in my bedroom.

BP In terms of numbers, do you think that odd ones are better than even? What is your ideal number?
JK As an idea, I would have to pick infinity. But in practical terms, I like even numbers: twos and fours and eights.

BP I know you say that you like wood because it was alive once and therefore there’s an innate spiritual quality, so what is you attraction on a material level to stainless steel and porcelain?
JK Wood always stays alive because it’s constantly moving with fluctuations in temperature and humidity. I like working with stainless steel for its permanence and reflectivity. Porcelain is interesting because of its sexual quality, its tightness. Porcelain shrinks 19 percent in the oven, that’s where the tightness comes from. And I love the economic aspect to porcelain, because it originated in the king’s kitchen, but today it’s completely democratized.