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Words of Wisdom from Jeff Koons

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This Friday, July 11, artist Jeff Koons will visit Crystal Bridges to give a Keynote Lecture about his work. Koons’s Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), which was added to Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection early this year, is on view in the Museum’s restaurant, Eleven.

Jeff Koons poses for photos with his sculpture "Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta)" in the Museum's restaurant, Eleven.

Jeff Koons poses for photos with his sculpture “Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta)” in the Museum’s restaurant, Eleven.

Back in February, I had the privilege of conducting a telephone interview with Koons for C magazine, our membership publication.  I’ve interviewed many artists in the three years I’ve been at Crystal Bridges, and it’s always a little nerve wracking.  Not having any artistic talent whatsoever myself, I’m always a little bit afraid I’m going to ask something incredibly stupid during an interview, and the wildly gifted artist I’m speaking to will be shocked at my ignorance.  I try to compensate for this by being really really well prepared before I go into an interview, and by pretending I’m Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s interview program Fresh Air.  Generally, within a few minutes of starting the conversation, I remember that artists are people, too, and the interview becomes more comfortable.

I was especially anxious about talking with Jeff Koons.  Koons is a Superstar. His work is recognized around the world.  A retrospective of his work recently opened at the Whitney in New York. It is the largest show devoted to a single artist that venerable museum has ever staged. He has all the gloss and glamour of any celebrity:  he appears, naked,  in a recent issue of Vanity Fair, for crying out loud.  Many of my colleagues were equally starstruck, so they sympathized with me when I told them how nervous I was about the interview. I suspect that they were both jealous that I got to talk with Koons … and glad as heck they didn’t have to do it.  I have them to thank for this historic photo taken of me at my desk… proof that I was reallio, trulio talking to Jeff Koons!

Me talking to Jeff Koons on the phone in my office.

Me talking to Jeff Koons on the phone in my office.

Turns out Koons is a real person too, if a very smooth-talking and cosmopolitan one.  We had a nice hour-long interview, and he was very gracious and generous in his responses to all of my questions.  Below is a short excerpt that didn’t make it into the magazine, for your enjoyment.

Friday is your chance to meet the Mighty Jeff Koons.  Get your tickets before they’re all gone!

I read that you met Salvador Dali when you were a young man:  how old were you met him?  Can you talk about that experience and what you gained from that? It was 1973. I was 18, and my mother told me that she had read in a magazine that Salvador stays at the St. Regis Hotel for half the year in NYC, and so I thought “well, you know, I’ll call up the hotel and I’ll see if he’s there”.  And I called the hotel and asked for Dali, and they put me through to him.  I told him that I was a young artist and I loved his work and I would enjoy very much to meet him. And he said “Fine, come to New York this weekend, I’ll meet you on Saturday in the lobby of the hotel at noon and, you know, I’ll see you then.”

I went, and sure enough right at noon he was there. He had a big buffalo fur coat on– it was huge– and he had… you know he had his famous cane with a silver head on the top of it. I don’ t know if was like the head of a swan, but very elaborate, big diamond tie pin, and you know, his pencil mustache twirled up.  I went up … I was shy in a way,  and I told him it was such a pleasure to meet him; and he asked me if I’d like to see his exhibition that he had at the time at the Knoedler Gallery. So we went to the Knoedler Gallery, and he was just showing then … he was working with holograms with Alice Cooper and he had an incredible painting there, this painting of the head of a royal tiger, and then you stand so many feet back and it’s three heads of Lenin, it’s one of his really well-known works. He painted it in ‘63. And so he posed for me in front of that painting. I was nervous, I was kind of shuffling around with my big Nikon camera—remember how big cameras were then—and he would tell me he couldn’t hold that pose all day, “hurry up kid!” you know. And he was fantastic.  It was so generous to take the time there, to even pose for a photograph, to invite me up there.

I acquired the gouache for the study of that painting, this head of the royal tiger. I have that in my bedroom. And so every morning when I get up I look at that. It makes me think about Dali, but it makes me think about connecting with people, generosity. It’s nice that when you do collect something, that there’s a reason for it, there’s not an arbitrary connection for that acquisition.

What year did you acquire it? Around 2006. I was thrilled.

What other artists have inspired you? In the last decade the artist that  truly has been life-changing for me is Picasso; and in a way it sounds so conservative, almost, because Picasso people will think of as an artist who’s very subjective. It’s very much about personal iconography. I learned through Picasso—and I learned this through acquiring one of his paintings, a Kiss painting from 1969. In 1969 Picasso was 88 years old and he was painting with such tremendous freedom, absolute freedom, and the power that he is exercising there is so objective and it makes such connections it represents every man, every woman, all of human kind, all aspects of history of desire of fear of death of conquest, of just everything. And it was really then that I learned that it’s a full circle—that through the subject you come right around to the objective.  Picasso has liberated me in the last decade so that I feel tremendous freedom to do anything, absolutely anything. I really feel quite free of the limitations of the concept of the objective that I picked up as a young artist, or my interpretations that Duchamp was starting to represent to me. Duchamp is a great liberator and the concept of the way he presented the readymade is completely freeing, and it really does have the power to turn everything upside down. But at the same time, I have to say that the great vastness of representation of allegory and metaphor and just ability to profoundly communicate what it means to be human and our human potential… I have to say I’ve become very much in awe of Picasso and feel that it’s really helped just change my work.  My last series of work, the Gazing Ball series, is very much an outcome of Picasso’s work.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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