It’s not very often we get to be conscious, living witnesses to history in the art world.
Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Diego Rivera, Andy Warhol - they all had success in their lifetimes. But Jeff Koons has exceeded them all in terms of success by a living artist. In November 2013 his orange Balloon Dog sculpture sold for more than $58 million, surpassing Andy Warhol as the highest amount paid for a single work by a living artist.
And the fact Koons is only 59 means he has a lot more time to make a lot more art.
So in other words, this guy is someone your grandkids and great grandkids (and on and on) are going to be studying, and you’re living through his heyday. Right now.
Pretty cool, right?
Last week I saw his retrospective exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City and it was an engaging mix of what seems to be eye candy (inflatable pool toys, paint-by-number inspired paintings, a mound of Play Doh) but really is a series of poignant statements about his life and American life in general.
Last year Koons appeared on Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report, when Colbert observed this about the balloon animal sculptures:
“A lot of them are shiny, you know,” Colbert said, “so when I look at them I can see me, and then I’m really interested in it.”
Koons agreed and elaborated with “Art happens inside the viewer… and the art is your sense of your own potential as a person.” These giant glowing balloon sculptures “just trigger that information in you.”
What I love about Koons’ work is that it’s outwardly silly, but it doesn’t in any way exploit the fact that it’s silly. It’s silly in a deeply reverent way. And that’s magic.
Not to mention the craftsmanship! It boggles my mind how he’s able to get metal sheeting to look exactly like inflated vinyl. I was literally 5” away from his metal sculptures and believe me, even from that close they still looked exactly like vinyl. I swear you could smell the vinyl that wasn’t even there. Utterly amazing.
I also love that he looks like my neighbor. Not literally of course, my neighbor is a former member of the Croatian national basketball team and looks nothing at all like Jeff Koons. Figuratively speaking Koons looks like he could be my neighbor. He looks and speaks like an everyday Joe rather than a highbrow elite and that’s incredibly refreshing and inspiring. It fills me with hope and thoughts of limitless possibility, rather than dragging me down over what I’m already not.
Watch 10 Questions with Jeff Koons on YouTube to hear him speak about accessibility and vision (beware there is a scene early in the video with an adult-themed piece of his). I loved the glimpse inside his studio. Oh to be a fly on those walls!
This quote from the museum wall at the Whitney Museum sums up his point of view with such clarity:
“Art can be a horrible discriminator. It can be used either to be uplifted and to give self-empowerment or to debase people and disempower them. And on the tightrope in between there’s one’s cultural history. These images are aspects from my own, but everybody’s cultural history is perfect, it can’t be anything other than what it is - absolute perfection.”
A world famously acclaimed artist saying that my own history is perfect?
That might be the best definition of a living legend yet.
And although this isn’t my favorite work in his show, it is my favorite photo that I took, because like Stephen Colbert, I’ve actually become part of the show (look carefully and you can see the straps of my green sandals, my legs, my skirt and my orange bag on the right side of my body).
Exactly what he wanted all along, I suspect.
Watch Jeff Koons’ appearance on The Colbert Report here.
And watch an hour-long interview with Koons on the Charlie Rose show here. (The whole piece is great but the bit about Koons calling up Salvador Dali is worth watching it alone - can you imagine?!?!)
Better yet, treat yourself to seeing these amazing, thought-provoking works for yourself with a visit to the Whitney Museum in New York City. The exhibit is up until October 19, 2014.