THE BIG READ | Meet Jeff Koons, the world’s most expensive living artist

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American artist Jeff Koons at an exhibition of his work in Doha, Qatar, last year. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)
American artist Jeff Koons at an exhibition of his work in Doha, Qatar, last year. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

He's famous for his Play-Doh sculptures and giant balloon dogs that sell for millions of dollars but is Jeff Koons the heir to Andy Warhol or a cynical self-publicist making trophy art for billionaires? 

The world’s most expensive living artist is slowly making his way across an elegant Florentine square. Photographers surround Jeff Koons like a flock of hungry seagulls. It’s the launch of his first big retrospective in Italy and he’s getting the kind of attention normally reserved for a Hollywood film star.

Jeff (66) is one of a handful of celebrities in the world of visual art whose name pulls crowds to museums. He is also one of its most divisive figures, whose sculptures sell to the super-rich for tens of millions of dollars.

Over the past 25 years the growing number of high-net-worth individuals has led to an explosion in the contemporary art market. According to Artprice.com, the contemporary art price index soared to an all-time high at the beginning of summer 2021 – with price increases of 400 per cent since the early 2000s.

In the past year alone, $2,7 billion (now R41,8 billion) worth of contemporary works have changed hands at auction. About a third of these sales are generated by a handful of artists: Jeff is one of them, Banksy is another.

In 2019 Jeff became the highest-selling living artist when his stainless-steel Rabbit, modelled on a child’s inflatable bunny, sold for more than $91 million (R1,2 billion) to a billionaire hedge fund manager.

Slim with a well-coiffed head of dark hair, Jeff is dressed in a navy shirt and a well-pressed pair of jeans. He looks more like a Wall Street banker than a tortured, paint-splattered creative – perhaps because he once was. He spent six years as a commodities trader before taking up art full-time.

This Balloon Dog sold for a record $58 million in
This Balloon Dog sold for a record $58 million in 2013. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Today, his work divides the art world between those who think he is a cynical salesman creating big, shiny, superficial trophies and those who see him as a great figure in the American pop art tradition, the heir to Andy Warhol.

For Jeff to be exhibited in the home of the Renaissance is an important affirmation. He may have conquered the market since he emerged from the New York art scene of the 1980s but he has struggled to conquer the critics. In 2004 the renowned Australian art critic Robert Hughes famously wrote: “Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so . . . He has the slimy assurance . . . of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida.”

But attitudes towards him are shifting and many world-class museums have exhibited his work in recent years.

Jeff’s manner is patient and polite with everyone who approaches him. When I first meet him in Florence he nervously asks me if his breath smells. Apparently there had been some confusion over his breakfast order.

“I asked for an egg-white omelette with onions, spinach and tomatoes and after eating it I realised they’d put garlic in, so if you can smell something, please tell me.”

He’s a perfectionist who likes to be in control of his environment. The unexpected garlic has clearly thrown him.

Like his artworks, he’s polished on the outside, but the carapace is difficult to penetrate. He often seems to be talking from a pre-written script, with stock phrases that are constantly repeated.

When I ask how it feels to be exhibiting in Florence, he says he’s “thrilled to be involved in a dialogue with a wider community about art. I’m thrilled because when I started, I knew nothing about art”.

He then launches into a well-rehearsed story that appears in almost every interview he’s ever given about growing up in suburban Pennsylvania. It’s an origin story that is deeply rooted in a bright and hopeful postwar American consumer culture – and a theme he will return to repeatedly during both my encounters with him, first in Italy and later at his studio in New York.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1955, Jeff was encouraged to take art lessons by his parents.

“I remember around the age of three, I made a drawing and my parents gave me lots of praise. My older sister Karen could always do things better, [whereas] art was something I was good at.”

More pieces from his Lost in America exhibition in
More pieces from his Lost in America exhibition in Doha. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

He says he learnt aesthetics from his father, who was an interior decorator at a furniture store. As a boy, Koons revelled in the constantly changing window displays in his dad’s store. He made copies of famous artworks, which his father displayed and sold — an important early validation.

In 1972, 17-year-old Jeff left home to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He moved to New York after graduating and got a job working at the membership desk of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where he quickly gained a reputation for his impressive sales patter.

His next move was to Wall Street, where he worked as a broker selling cotton futures over the phone. It was the 1980s, an era associated with yuppies and greed.

It’s part of the mythology around Jeff that his Wall Street background has somehow been instrumental in his success. But this is something the artist himself disputes, insisting that selling commodities was nothing more than a day job. He did it to fund his art.

On its website the British Tate Modern gallery describes Jeff as an artist who “uses unlikely subjects to poke fun at comfortable suburban lives and tastes, and criticise a contemporary culture driven by commerce”.

But he says: “My work is not about consumerism. I’m not making a comment on consumerism.”

So he’s not criticising suburban taste, he’s putting it on a pedestal. Working with “images that can be looked down upon” is central to his practice — whether it’s inflatable pool toys, balloons, garden gnomes, gift-shop souvenirs or household appliances including vacuum cleaners, pots and pans and pressure cookers.

His role model is the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who coined the phrase “readymade” to describe mass-produced objects that he designated as art.

Critics often describe Jeff’s work as kitsch, a word he hates because it’s judgmental.

He explains to me at length how being non-judgmental is central to his personal philosophy of self-acceptance. “The more you can remove judgment and practise acceptance, the more you are open to everything that exists in the world. Judgment leads to anxiety and segregation,” he tells me with a Zen-like smile.

To start with I’m not sure whether he believes his own patter, but after spending a couple of days with him, I conclude that he does.

Most of Jeff’s sculptures come in multiples – there are four editions of the famous stainless-steel Rabbit, one of which is making an appearance in Florence.

'Critics often describe Jeff’s work as kitsch, a word he hates because it’s judgmental'

They’re known for being technically very difficult to produce. Every seam and crinkle on the plastic toy from which it is created has been replicated in steel. But instead of being cute or childlike, there is something sinister about its dagger-shaped ears and lack of facial features. When I stand in front of it, a warped version of my reflection looks back at me like the distortion in a funfair mirror. It’s quite unsettling.

Alexander Sturgis, director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, believes that Jeff’s works must be seen in person to be appreciated.

“It’s their physical presence – the lunatic care and attention is tangibly there when you are in front of them. Some of his surfaces are unlike anything you encounter anywhere in the world, super-shiny, coloured reflective surfaces that are almost liquid.”

It seems appropriate that Jeff’s latest exhibition should be housed in the 15th-century Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, which was built by wealthy bankers at the height of the Renaissance.

On the day of the opening I watch a group of young women pose for selfies in the reflective mirrored surface of Jeff’s monumental stainless steel Balloon Monkey.

This monumental Play-Doh sculpture took him 20 yea
This monumental Play-Doh sculpture took him 20 years to complete. It’s made of aluminium. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The artist has a strong personal connection to Italy but it’s a painful one: his eldest son, Ludwig, from whom he was estranged for many years, is Italian. Jeff’s first wife, Ilona Staller, was a Hungarian-born Italian porn star, who was briefly an MP in the 1980s.

Known as La Cicciolina, she had a novel approach to international diplomacy: she once offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein in exchange for letting weapons inspectors into Iraq.

Jeff met Ilona in a nightclub and initially hired her as a model for a series of very graphic sexual paintings and sculptures depicting the pair of them in various positions of the Kama Sutra.

He called the series Made in Heaven and said he hoped it would neutralise “shame around sex”. Instead it caused outrage in the art world, cementing Jeff’s reputation as a cynical self-publicist.

The couple married in 1991 but three years later, after their son was born, they had an acrimonious divorce and a long, bitter custody battle.

It’s hard to reconcile the mild-mannered man I meet with the exhibitionist who once posed naked, simulating sex with a porn star. He comes across as a family man who is happiest when talking about his kids. He has eight in total, ranging in age from nine to 46.

The eldest, Shannon Rodgers, was conceived while Jeff was an art student. He wanted to marry her mother but she felt they were too young, and the baby was put up for adoption. Jeff was thrilled when Shannon tracked him down in 1995. He’s in regular contact with her and his two grandchildren.

His six youngest children are with his current wife, Justine Wheeler, a South African-born artist who once worked as his studio assistant and has proved to be a great stabilising influence after the chaos of the Cicciolina years.

The custody battle over his son cast a long shadow. When Ludwig was a toddler, he was taken by his mother back to Rome in contravention of a New York court order and didn’t see his father for a long time.

Jeff told The Guardian that Ludwig “was turned against me” and that the legal costs nearly drove him to bankruptcy. During that time he destroyed some of the Made in Heaven series. There was some speculation that he had done this in anger, but he is also reported as saying he did it to protect his son after his ex-wife claimed the works were pornographic.

It was clearly a very painful period for the artist who set up the Koons Family Institute on International Law and Policy to help other parents in similar situations. Though I am asked not to bring up the saga with Jeff, I am assured that he and Ludwig (now 29), are on good terms.

He gushes with pride when I ask if any of his children are artistic, telling me that one of his two daughters, Scarlet, wants to be an actress and a stand-up comedian, and his youngest son is extremely gifted at drawing.

“Probably the greatest pleasure I have is showing my children a way in the world in which they can flourish,” he says, smiling. “We drag them round museums all over the world.”

Less than a week after meeting Jeff in Florence I visit his studio in New York, where he designs his artworks with the help of about 50 assistants.

Some find his art weird but Jeff says you’ll appre
Some find his art weird but Jeff says you’ll appreciate it more if you look at it without being judgmental. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

When I ask if he makes anything with his own hands he answers, “Does the film director make the film?”

His studio is two floors of an ordinary-looking office block in midtown Manhattan. Inside it looks more like an architect’s office, filled with rows of desks.

The assistants sit in front of computer screens working on 3D scans of his latest designs, known as The Porcelain Series, which will go on sale in about two years’ time.

When I ask Jeff to explain his practice step by step, he ushers me into a small storeroom. Inside a tall gunmetal cupboard are dozens of small, garishly painted porcelain figurines: ballerinas with lace tutus and shepherdesses cuddling lambs. They remind me of the kind of thing my grandmother kept on her mantelpiece.

“I’m always searching for stuff, you know, looking on eBay and in airport gift shops.” He riffles around in the back before excitedly pulling out a 1950s china ashtray.

“I love this. My grandparents had one. They were made in Japan after the war.”

It’s a blonde woman in a bathtub with her legs raised in the air.

“Look, you can move her legs back and forth and she’s holding a fan over her breast – it’s very . . .” He searches for the right word before settling on “sensual”.

And once he has chosen an object, what’s the next step? He explains how he uses technology to capture every detail.

“I do CT scans, white light and blue light scanning until I have every measurement. We merge these different scans, take extensive photographs of the surfaces . . .”

The Koons studio is effectively engaged in reverse engineering. Although he does make some changes – altering colours or small details – authentic likeness is important. Some of the sculptures will be cast in stone, some in metal in specialist foundries in Germany and the US.

They can take years to make. But one of the hazards of this kind of work is being sued for copyright infringement. Jeff has faced lawsuits where he was found guilty of this. Part of his defence was the sculptures were “made with the intention to parody”, which strikes me as a contradiction, given that he says his work is “not a comment on consumerism”.

The longest he ever took to make a sculpture was 20 years. Described by a Christie’s catalogue as a “meticulous, epic recreation of a child’s toy”, Play-Doh was inspired by a multicoloured creation presented to him by his son Ludwig when he was a toddler.

The illusion is perfect, it looks soft and organic; you want to touch it and squeeze it in your hands, but it is rock hard and made of aluminium. There are five in existence.

In May 2018 Christie’s sold one in New York for $22,8 million [then about R319 million].

British artist Damien Hirst – who has been a fan since his student days – has one in his large collection of Jeff’s work.

But the lengthy production times have been an issue. Gagosian gallery, which represented Jeff until last year, found themselves faced with lawsuits from a hedge funder and a Hollywood film producer, who ordered artworks from a sketch and then got impatient when several years later they still hadn’t been delivered.

When I ask him about this, he says: “If you look at the history of making things, this is not unusual. Michelangelo took years to make his pieces. Remember how the Pope got impatient with him [over the Sistine Chapel]?”.

In addition to his artworks, Jeff has also indulged in what is known as “brand stretching” in the luxury goods market. It’s said you can buy a Koons porcelain plate just as you can purchase a Picasso ceramic.

Jeff was invited by BMW to create this special edi
Jeff was invited by BMW to create this special edition of the 8 Series Gran Coupé. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Then there are collaborations with the luxury goods industry on, for example, Louis Vuitton handbags.

In 2017, Jay-Z performed in Britain at the Virgin V Festival in front of a 12-metre inflatable Koons balloon dog, resulting in huge coverage for the artist on social media. And in the song Picasso Baby, Jay-Z raps: “Oh what a feeling, f*** it I want a billion Jeff Koons balloons”.

Apart from Banksy, it’s difficult to think of another contemporary artist who has entered the bloodstream of popular culture in quite the same way.

Jeff’s latest collaboration is with BMW. They asked him to make a special edition of the 8 Series Gran Coupé.

“I have a large family. I’m used to driving around in a van that can seat 11, but this is something I’ve designed for myself.”

He’s looking forward to unveiling it at the Frieze Art Fair in Los Angeles next year.

“I feel like a peacock when I drive it. I want people to look and say, ‘Wow!’ But I also want them to see the presence of meaning and history.”

That statement might work for his collectors and BMW buyers, but I’m not sure what the art critics will make of it.

© THE TIMES MAGAZINE/NEWS LICENSING

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