Controversial pop artist Jeff Koons brought his unique perspective to the Carpenter Center Thursday night (April 3), speaking about his work and philosophy to an invited audience of just over 200.
Koons, who first made a name for himself in the 1980s by mixing high and low culture, innocence and jadedness, commercialism and kitsch, has been called, by turns, brilliant, notorious, subversive, egotistical, opportunistic, hilarious, cynical, hollow, revolutionary, and “chillingly puerile.”
Though the two Koons sculptures that are perhaps best known by the public at large — “Rabbit,” his 1986 stainless-steel take on an inflatable toy bunny, and “Puppy,” a 43-foot-high, Chia-like, well, puppy, first shown at Rockefeller Center in 2000 and permanently installed at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain — are cute and cuddly, many of his sculptures and paintings are overtly sexual, even, some say, pornographic. Yet his own deconstruction of his works on Thursday suggested the messages behind his media are high-minded.
“I was really saying artists have used art to achieve social liberty like others were using sports,” he said, discussing his “Three Ball 50/50 Tank,” an aquarium with a triptych of basketballs suspended in water. “Every day, our relationship with art is developing.”
Koons has taken Marcel Duchamp’s idea of “readymades” — epitomized in Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain,” a signed urinal — to new levels, creating an aura of desire around everyday objects. His “Jim Beam J.B. Turner Train,” for example, was a limited-edition replica for Jim Beam of a novel container for their product: whiskey. He cast the replicas in mirror-finish stainless steel. “When I first saw [the original in a shop] on Fifth Avenue,” he said Thursday night, “I thought, This would be a great object to transform. But how do I maintain its soul? So I went back to Jim Beam and they put the tax-stamp seal on with alcohol inside.”
Maintaining — or revealing — the soul of the mundane appears to be one of Koons’ overarching goals.
“Somewhere [banal objects] are dealing with archetype,” he said during the question-and-answer session after his talk. “Some things our society can just grab ahold of. We have to be able to find value in them, some meaning, or they just get discarded.”
When discussing “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” for example, a life-size gold-plated porcelain statue of the singer holding his pet chimpanzee, Koons said, “I used Jackson there as a spiritual figure to give people reassurance that it’s OK to go along with banality, to go with the things they respond to.” He noted that the piece “makes reference to King Tut, the pyramids, the Madonna, and Christ.”
Koons admitted to “using the tools of art to manipulate,” adding that all artists do but that along with it comes “moral responsibility.” Art, he said, “informs us of how we embrace our own being” — which is part of the reason he gave for the sometimes graphic representations of sexuality in his work: to liberate viewers from the “guilt and shame” associated with the body.
As he discussed selected works from the 1980s through the current decade, he pointed out influences as diverse as baroque and rococo art, the Renaissance period, the early 20th century avant-garde movement, Duchamp, of course, and other Dadaists and surrealists, such as Dali and Man Ray, and pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Regarding philosophical influences, he mentioned Kierkegaard, Sartre, and existentialism.
“I love the dialogue in art,” he said, “because it’s a way of connecting” to the “social history of humankind.
“I want to feel like I can go back and have references to the Venus of Wellendorf or to Manet’s ‘Luncheon on the Grass,’” he continued. “It’s part of the freedom we have as artists.”
Everything in his art, he said, is “a metaphor for the acceptance of others.” He encouraged the artists in the audience to follow their interests. “Everything is already here. You just have to look for it, and when you look for it, it reveals itself. … If you have vision, you can do anything.”