When the artist Jeff Koons told the crowd at LACMA last Thursday night that he’d sometimes worried that his signature pink blowup-bunny piece said a little too much about his sexuality, museum director Michael Govan responded wryly, “I’m going to be thinking about that for a while.”
It was an evening of surprises, some small, some deep, one of them huge — literally — as Govan sat down with Koons in the first of a promised series of conversations with artists. The two men sat to the right of a screen displaying slides, primarily of Koons’ work.
Govan, who came to LACMA from New York’s Dia Art Foundation last year, is young, attractive, smart and knowledgeable, and, significantly, enthusiastic. His pleasure in Koons’ work and in the task at hand was palpable, and bodes well for the future of the institution and the city — as would become abundantly clear before the night was out.
Koons, meanwhile, has always seemed the sort of clever, wildly successful artist-cum-businessman one could afford to hate, or at least to distrust with bilious envy. But if the audience were expecting someone who wore his intellectual flair on his body, along with, say, funny hair and multicolored tennis shoes, they were disappointed. (There were some funny-haired people in the audience, and they were sitting together — does LACMA provide a special row?) Either he is a very good actor, or Koons is in reality a soft-spoken, thoughtful and articulate man who believes that the artist’s “journey” begins with the “acceptance of self.”
At one point, a questioner in the audience addressed the result of Koons’ own self-acceptance, suggesting that his work is “cynical.” Koons seemed to take a slightly deeper breath; he’s heard this before.
“I’m not cynical,” he said with deliberation. “My definition of cynicality is when you have more information than you reveal. I try to reveal everything I know. Every day I try to be as generous as I can be.”
Govan showed slides from Koons’ childhood in Pennsylvania, where his father was an interior decorator. It was the senior Koons’ showroom in which young Jeff would first show his artwork.
“I learned my aesthetics from my dad,” he said, and indeed you could see in the showroom the sort of cheesy baroque quality found in much of Koons’ work.
Another slide showed little boy Koons and his sister with their Easter baskets: think bunnies and eggs. And balloons. And puppies.
“I believe the only thing an artist can do is trust their instincts,” he said later.
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Govan moved on to a slide of Salvador Dalí in front of one of his paintings. The photo was taken by Koons himself when, as a teenager, he’d gone to New York and met the great surrealist. Today, Koons owns the Dalí painting, which tells us quite a bit about not just his success but also his interest in the past, both personal and artwise. He also owns a couple of Magrittes, including one of the better ones in LACMA’s current exhibition (“Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images,” which ties Magritte to a number of contemporary artists). Of course, Koons is himself represented in the show, with a stainless-steel bunny, a bronzed lifeboat and a train engine cast in steel, which sits on a pedestal close to one of Magritte’s most famous images (Time Transfixed), of a train emerging from a fireplace.
Koons has another train piece in mind, and Govan has it in mind for LACMA. If it happens — and it will take considerable effort and funding — it will be big, very big. (See laweekly.com for a picture.) Govan showed a slide of a toy-train steam engine hanging nose-down from a crane. He followed that with a short film of the piece in action: the engine cranking up, its wheels slowly beginning to spin, faster and faster until it’s going full bore, with steam puffing from its chimney, its whistle blowing; after a minute or so it slows and stops. It may be difficult to imagine this, but watching the engine do this hanging in midair is very cool.
And that was just the model. Govan wants the full-scale, 161-foot-tall piece at the museum, and LACMA has begun feasibility studies. To be located at a redesigned entrance on Wilshire Boulevard, between the Ahmanson Building and the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (which will be home to the Broad collection’s many Koons), the finished sculpture would be visible, Govan said, from downtown to the east, Sunset Boulevard to the north, the 10 freeway to the south and Canter’s Deli to the west. (Actually, he didn’t say that last bit, but it’s true nevertheless.) The engine would start up three times a day, at noon, 3 and 6. It wouldn’t be a real train engine, Koons said (this is not a train), but it would be “an absolutely authentic visceral experience.”
Koons noted earlier that his aim as an artist is to take people on a journey. “And maybe,” added Govan, “even to the museum.”