Jeff Koons' Balloon Dogs Are Sex Machines, and More Surprises From the Artist
The Broad museum isn't set to open for another year, but founders Eli and Edythe Broad are building buzz well ahead of time with the Un-Private Collection, a series of high-profile artist talks that last night featured John Waters in conversation with Jeff Koons. At the sold-out event at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A., Broad museum director Joanne Heyler introduced Jeff Koons as the King of Kitsch and John Waters as the Pope of Trash. Waters, 67, and Koons, 59, both made career-defining work in Baltimore in the 1970s - Waters with his trashy classic, Pink Flamingoes, and Koons as a painter-turned-bunny-sculptor at Maryland Art Institute College of Art.
Last night, both men cleaned up well in their suits, skinny ties and shiny shoes, but the conversation still managed to get trashy, even despite Koons' esoteric detours about enlightenment and transcendence. Indeed, for every one of Waters' questions, it seemed Koons had a holistic, thoroughly-prepared anecdote about his idyllic evolution as an artist: how he became aware of his artistic talents at the age of three (he repeatedly drew sailfish jumping out of the water), took art lessons in his native Pennsylvania at the age of seven, became overwhelmed with his own ambition at the age of 16, attended Maryland Art Institute College of Art in 1972 (where he was exposed to modern art for the first time), and moved to Chicago shortly after, where he became massively influenced by Chicago Imagists like Jim Nutt.
Throughout the night, Koons also revealed strange revelations about his own work, including the fact that even his most innocent-looking sculptures are actually incredibly perverse. We took notes on the wildest things he said all night, but after reading this, you may never look at balloon dogs the same way again.
Photo: J Swann
Led Zeppelin Taught Him About Feeling
Koons first started to become ambitious after hearing Led Zeppelin, a band that he said taught him a lot about feeling. He remembered "being 16, driving around in my car and wanting more," and realizing that he wanted to get out of small town Pennsylvania. "I started to become somewhat more isolated because I wanted more," he said, reflecting on the band's influence on him.
He Thinks Humans are Inflatables
"We're all inflatables. You take a breath, you're inflatable. It's a symbol of optimism," he said, but some of his inflatable-looking sculptures are actually pretty dark. His "Chainlink Fence" sculpture of two steel turtles caught in a chain-link fence was directly inspired by his son Ludwig's "abduction" to Italy by his mother, Italian porn star Ilona Staller. The notion of inflatable objects as art was inspired by trips to his own mother's house in Florida, where he saw inflatable lobsters and inflatable dolphins ("it was like creating a contemporary Aphrodite") at tourist shops.
He and Lady Gaga are Pals
Koons met Lady Gaga at the annual fashion ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about five years ago, and she confessed her fandom to him. "Gaga used to smoke a lot of pot in Central Park and talk to her friends about my work," Koons recalled. (When Waters asked Koons what kind of drugs he had experimented with, Koons said that of course he had tried pot, but that he mainly "drinks a lot of beer.") Naturally, when Gaga asked him to create the artwork for her 2013 album "Artpop," he obliged, creating a sculpture of her and photographing it for the cover.
His "Celebration" Series Was Originally Supposed to be a Calendar
Koons set out to make a calendar for his friend, London gallerist Anthony d'Offay, until he started photographing objects for the project and realized that, like most of his art, "this is too good to be a calendar!" So, rather than photographing the heart-shaped pendant he found in a shop window on Lexington Avenue in New York City, he decided to make a 3,000-pound metallic replica of it, which was purchased by Crystal Bridges Museum of Art earlier this week. (A nearly identical piece sold in 2007 for a reported $23.6 million.)
He Always Thinks About "The Moment of Death"
Throughout the course of the talk, Koons often turned simple questions about his art (i.e. "Do you think your art is ugly?") into whimsical digressions that more closely resembled stream-of-consciousness psychoanalyst-speech. For example, he often stated that his art "is about not feeling inferior to culture or taste" and that "as soon as you accept yourself, you can begin to have transcendence." When Waters asked Koons about how he perceives bad reviews of his work, Koons was absolutely indifferent to it: "Whatever they respond to [in my art], it's perfect. It's fantastic."
His answers to Waters' witty, direct questions were so ridiculously optimistic that the whole thing almost seemed like a performance in and of itself, wherein Koons was a patient on Waters' admittedly Freudian couch (Waters' first question was "Did you have a secret art life as a child?"). Koons used every opportunity to elaborate on his childhood and his sexual fantasies (one of which involved his grandparents' ashtray with a figurine of a girl that lifted up her legs when you ashed a cigarette on them.) But for all his fantastical optimism, the darkest thing Koons said during the whole talk is that he "often thinks about the moment of death," and the idea that your life flashes before your eyes before you close them for good. That idea of enlightenment has driven him to create art, because he never wants to face his moment of death and think about all of the pieces of art that he should've made. YOLO, Koons.
His Sculptures of Bunnies, Balloons and Vacuums Are Super Perverse
A formally trained painter, Koons' paintings became so massive during art school that he realized he needed to branch out into three-dimensional sculptures, which he's best known for today. One of the first sculptures he made after art school was "Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White, Pink Bunny)," a vinyl sculpture of a childish inflatable bunny rabbit holding a carrot. But lest you think the playful bunny rabbit is just child's play, Koons is quick to assert that he "feels a sexual stimulation" towards the bunny rabbit. Not only that, but Koons said the bunny might suggest a Playboy bunny, and the carrot in his hand can be seen as a metaphor for masturbation.
Of his famous "Balloon Dog" sculptures, Koons said that the dog is "a little bit like a Trojan Horse. And a little bit like another Trojan, too," referring to the latex condom material that the steel sculpture is designed to suggest. While the balloon dog is cartoonishly devoid of genitalia, "he's still prepared to have sex," Koons assured us of his stainless steel balloon dog with a phallic nose and tail and vagina-like legs. You may never look at balloon animals the same way again, especially considering that Koons' orange dog, one of five in the series, became the most expensive work by a living artist to sell at auction when it was sold at Christie's for $58.4 million last November.
Even his series of vacuum cleaners in plexiglass cases aren't devoid of sexual connotation. In Koons' mind, the vacuum breathes in and out, and as such, is anthropomorphic of human beings, right down to its pseudo-sexual orifices (i.e. cleaner bags, nozzles and hoses.) If that idea's not perverse or Freudian enough for you, then look no further than Koons' 1990 exhibition of pornographic photos of he and Ilona Staller. Without any hint of irony, Koons referred to a photo titled "Ilona's Asshole" as his contemporary ode to Gustave Courbet's infamous "Origin of the World" painting of a woman's vagina.
"We all benefit from being around transcendence," he said, gloating like the ostentatious King of Kitsch that he is. If that's the case, then the crowd of 2,500 all benefited from Koons' self-appointed transcendence last night, whether we actually believed in it or not.
Jennifer Swann on Twitter:
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