Money, fame and privilege are excellent cushions. In excess they provide a soft, pillowy, isolating protection from many of life’s harsher realities.
It is impossible to know what Jeff Koons would be like as a person and an artist without those cushions. Because his artworks have consistently broken auction-house records, because he is a millionaire many times over, because he is an A-list art world celebrity, he is at this point in his career defined as much by his wealth and fame as by the shiny, instantly recognizable art he produces.
Koons is no millionaire asshole. In person he is kind-spirited; with his money he is generous. On Saturday night, the Museum of Contemporary Art honored the 62-year-old artist at its annual gala for both his artistic contributions and for supporting the institution with more than $5 million in gifts and donations. John Legend performed at the event, which was held in a tent outside the MOCA Geffen downtown. Wolfgang Puck provided balloon bunny–shaped desserts. Celebrities posed in couture in front of a hot pink step-and-repeat backdrop. Koons was fêted with all the appropriate glitz and glamour, bright colors, reflective surfaces and playful, optimistic decor his generosity, status and career demand.
Koons also has a show in L.A. right now at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills (it opened on April 27 and runs through Aug.18). The show features selections from the artist’s “Celebration,” “Antiquities” and “Gazing Ball” series. He describes the show as “quite minimal,” and compares it to going to a Donald Judd show in the 1970s. But minimalism is relative and in this case involves a room filled with an enormous plaster Hercules statue adorned with a shiny reflective blue gazing ball, two paintings (also with gazing balls) and three other sculptures, including a reflective pastel porcelain ballerina and a large blue and pink version of his cellophane-esque polished stainless steel Sacred Heart.
In conversation, Koons is soft spoken and contemplative. He enjoys talking about his artwork, technique, process, art history, transcendence, Platonism and “ideas.” He is less inclined to discuss politics, other contemporary artists or his management style as an employer.
Because he is so selective in what he chooses to discuss, Koons comes across as somewhat detached from reality. Looking up at the perfectly reflective pink surface of his giant Balloon Rabbit, he describes it as filled with air, incapable of deflation and therefore “in a permanent state of optimism.” It is a pleasant state, and one he seems to live in as well.
That perma-optimism is shatterproof, and leads to some bizarrely contradictory statements. When I ask Koons if he is a perfectionist, he replies with an emphatic no. But in the same breath he compares his fastidiousness to that of Steve Jobs. “It is really about caring about the viewer,” he says, gesturing towards his Balloon Rabbit again. “That is why I would be sure that what you can’t see underneath the sculpture is refined to the same level as the tip of the nose.”
Everything about Koons is impeccable, including the way he parts his slightly graying hair, maintains his slim physique and wears his trimly cut blue suit. He is a perfectionist, whether he wants to be or not.
He is also, whether or he wants to be or not, an instantly recognizable, meticulously crafted brand, apparent most recently in his collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Still, when asked about his brand, he insists that he “never thought of himself that way” and that he actually doesn’t “believe in branding.”
“It has never been my interest to be a brand,” Koons explains. “It has been my interest to participate. I always wanted to be part of the avant-garde –– Dalí or Picasso, Duchamp, Picabia, Courbet –– and in doing so I’ve always tried to be at the service of my work. But I haven’t been conscious of branding, because that to me just seems like trying to communicate through distribution.”
But isn’t he “communicating through distribution” with this Louis Vuitton collaboration?
Not according to Koons, whose masterful ability to split hairs in such matters is apparent once again. “Of course there are going to be bags all over the world,” he explains, “but the bags are based on ideas. It is actually quite a conceptual project for me, and I am trying to communicate through idea not distribution.”
Koons’ most bizarre answer to a question comes when I ask him about celebrity, wealth and white male privilege, and how (or if) he deals with those realities in the age of Donald Trump, when so many women and minorities feel oppressed by a president who embodies some of those same characteristics.
“Can we change rooms?” he says, picking up his chair and repositioning our conversation in front of his Seated Ballerina.
“That’s my Seated Ballerina,” he says lovingly. “The Seated Ballerina is part of the 'Antiquities' series. It is a piece that incorporates gradations that come from porcelains. When porcelains are painted, a lot of times they would do a gradation to generate a sense of heat, that there is blood flowing through that object, so you see the knees are a little darker and the feet are a little darker. But anyways, I think that this piece communicates to people of all ages and all sexes. I think it is a piece that generates hope and I think it does also communicate to women.”
“Is that your answer to my question?” I ask him.
In part, he says. He reiterates that he thinks the piece “gives women a sense of hope” and “directs to their interest.” He also says that he “never goes too directly into a certain area because there are different administrations that come and go and there are different relationships that take place all around the world.”
He addresses money obliquely as well, and with the kind of dismissal that is only available to someone with a great deal of wealth: “I never worried about sustaining myself. I never thought about money. My interest was always just to participate.”
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Jeff Koons is sincere and honest and romantic and heartfelt and genuine. But all of his sincere intentions are filtered through the lens of extreme wealth and privilege, and he seems comfortable remaining in that space and reluctant to challenge it. This is not a particularly “woke” white man. After all, he thinks a shiny porcelain statue of a blonde, white ballerina “communicates with women.” In a world where many women and minorities feel their rights are threatened, that perspective is, at the very best, naive.
“I care,” he says. “I care because I think we can experience a sublime state of transcendence. I’ve seen other artists reach this state. Picasso did in his late work. I think Twombly did in his late work. I want to be able to reach a higher level. These are my interests. That’s what I’m interested in. The other things, I’m not really interested in.”
Like his balloon animals, Koons lives in a state of permanent optimism and hope because, like his steel balloons, he is protected and impermeable. Cushioned by his money and status, that bubble isn’t likely to pop anytime soon.
"Jeff Koons," Gagosian, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills; through Aug. 18. gagosian.com.