Touted as the world’s most expensive artist—an edition of his famous Balloon Dog sculpture sold at auction for $58 million last year—Jeff Koons has been getting kudos for his unique brand of appropriation art since the mid-1980s. Celebrated for his repurposing of everyday objects, pop icons and cultural artifacts, Koons has preserved vacuum cleaners for eternity, put Michael Jackson and pet monkey on a pedestal, documented himself and his porn-star girlfriend a state of sexual bliss, and turned cartoon characters and holiday tchotchkes into dynamic works of art. FLATT contributing editor Paul Laster recently spoke with the elusive artist to discuss his philosophical ideas on life and art, his highly popular Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective, and his public art project at Rockefeller Center.
PAUL LASTER: How has art defined your life?
JEFF KOONS: From the time I was a child I developed a sense of self through art and it’s been a way of not only having a form of self-identity but a connection to the outside world—a community outside of myself.
PAUL LASTER: What is the narrative that interests you?
JEFF KOONS: The path to enlightenment—to be able to fulfill one’s self, to be able to achieve the maximum vastness that you’re capable of reaching in life, to experience being with the sensations of feelings and touch and excitement and at the same time reaching intellectual capacity and abstract thought while embracing the freedom that we have in this world for gesture and comprehension.
PAUL LASTER: What did your breakthrough series, The New, represent to you?
JEFF KOONS: I wanted to add to the Duchampian tradition of working with the readymade. Individuals reveal integrity by participating in life, but objects display their integrity from birth. By not participating, these objects remain in eternal states of newness.
PAUL LASTER: How did you develop this interest in display and presentation of common objects?
JEFF KOONS: It came from my childhood. My father was an interior decorator who had a furniture store. Objects were displayed in the store and our home for their own sense of being.
PAUL LASTER: Your reflective sculptures Rabbit and Balloon Dog, which are based on inflatable toys, have become contemporary art icons. What’s your reoccurring interest in mirrored surfaces?
JEFF KOONS: Affirmation—a reflective surface lets the viewer know that he’s important, while revealing where he’s at in the vastness of the universe and in the moment.
PAUL LASTER: What’s your fascination with inflatables?
JEFF KOONS: I’ve always liked inflatables for their anthropomorphic nature. We’re inflatables. When we take a deep breath, we inflate and are full of life’s energy and optimism. Exhaling, we deflate, which symbolizes of our last breath and death.
PAUL LASTER: The Whitney didn’t shy away from showing several works from your Made in Heaven series. What works from the controversial series were you most excited about including in the show?
JEFF KOONS: I’m thrilled to be showing the Made in Heaven billboard, which is the first work from the series. The Whitney asked me to make a media–related work for the 1989 exhibition Image World. I made a billboard project advertising an imaginary film, Made in Heaven, starring Jeff Koons and Cicciolina, in which I incorporated Italian actress Cicciolina (Ilona Staller, who later became my wife) as a kind of readymade.
PAUL LASTER: Why does sexuality so often permeate your work?
JEFF KOONS: Acceptance—one of the first things that people have to overcome is their relationship to their own sexuality so that they can have self-acceptance.
PAUL LASTER: When did you start to develop these concepts of acceptance and transcendence?
JEFF KOONS: These ideas have been around since the time of the first inflatables—the acceptance of store bought objects, which is where the Whitney show begins. There was a consciousness, even early on, about accepting my own experience as being valid. I didn’t need validation of cultural experiences that I didn’t experience myself. I started to articulate these beliefs in the Banality series—the acceptance of one’s own cultural history. My recent Gazing Ball series dealt with the idea of acceptance through something that people use as lawn ornaments—an object that can take you from the joy of affirmation to Platonic notions of pure form, the vastness of the universe, and absolute eternity.
PAUL LASTER: Where do you acquire your philosophical outlook?
JEFF KOONS: It’s through everyday life, but I’ve studied some classics—Plato, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Nietzsche. Philosophy has always been important to me, but I really believe in everyday interactions, remaining open minded, keeping everything in play, and reacting to things that have relevance to me.
PAUL LASTER: How much are you involved in the actual production of your work?
JEFF KOONS: The work is a total gesture from me. It doesn’t exist without my articulation of it. I’ve created systems so that things can come into existence and go from concept to execution, while staying true to my original vision.
PAUL LASTER: What does it mean to be the last show in the Whitney’s Breuer building?
JEFF KOONS: I’m really honored. The shows there have had a big impact on me. Scott Rothkopf, the exhibition curator, has tremendous insight into my work and brings a shared vision and scholarly point of view to the show.
PAUL LASTER: You concurrently showed Split-Rocker, a sculpture made from an armature with 50,000 live plants, at Rockefeller Center in New York, where you had previously exhibited Puppy, which most viewers know from the Guggenheim Bilbao. How did you come up with the idea to make these monumental works with flowers?
JEFF KOONS: I started thinking about what Louis XVI of France might want to see if he looked out his window in the Palace of Versailles one morning and a folly in the form of Puppy came to mind.
PAUL LASTER: What was the source for Split-Rocker?
JEFF KOONS: My son had a plastic rocking horse and I noticed that it had a seam. I thought that if I took it apart and put it together with something else it would be somewhat Cubistic, like a Picasso, an artist that I admire. I later found a dinosaur rocker that had the same type of handle and put them together.
PAUL LASTER: Flowers are a repeating motif in your work. When did you start using them and what’s the significance?
JEFF KOONS: I started taking art classes when I was about seven years old and my teacher had me draw flowers. Flowers express the beauty and energy of life.
PAUL LASTER: You once said that art has the power to astound and inspire. Do you still believe it?
JEFF KOONS: I think art is life changing! I experience it everyday. If I come across a great work of art and I can trust in it and get lost in it, then it can really change my life.
PAUL LASTER: Speaking of life- changing moments, how has becoming the world’s most expensive living artist changed your existence?
JEFF KOONS: I don’t think about it. Then again, I’ve always wanted to have a platform for my work; I’ve always wanted to participate. If you compare life to playing basketball, I’ve always wanted the ball thrown to me so that I could go in for the lay-up shot. But that’s the only meaning it has for me. The excitement that I have about waking up and going about my work comes from an engagement with life, art, and family—it doesn’t come from any form of economics.