Norman Rosenthal (left) and Jeff Koons in conversation yesterday Â©Katherine Hardy
Jeff Koons: “If people say they don’t like my work, I feel like a failure.”
The Art Newspaper: "The usually enigmatic Jeff Koons grooves on Led Zeppelin, admires the French painter Poussin and spaghetti Bolognese is his favourite dish. And he recently bought a painting by Salvador Dalí. These were just a few of the intriguing details extracted by independent curator Norman Rosenthal during a freewheeling chat held yesterday morning, launching the week-long annual Art Basel Conversations series.
Rosenthal didn’t waste any time establishing Koons’s credentials as one of the most influential contemporary artists of the age. He described an early encounter in 1992 when he saw Puppy, a 40-foot tall sculpture of 60,000 flowers. “I screamed when I saw the thing,” said Rosenthal. “If Louis XIV saw this thing, he would have made him [Koons] a Marquise right away.”
Koons sounded Obama-like in response to Rosenthal’s queries, ducking controversy and remaining polished and thoughtful for the duration of the interview. On the subject of artists placing works directly at auction, as Damien Hirst did at Sotheby’s London last autumn, Koons said: “It’s open, I think it’s great—I don’t really think about it.” He did reveal elements of his personality and themes emerged. “If people say they don’t like my work, I feel like a failure,” says Koons.
When 17 of his sculptures—including Balloon Dog and Pink Panther—were installed among the gilded treasures at the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris, “The guards would walk around and hide their eyes,” Koons revealed. “A couple had to be fired,” he said, explaining that the guards were agitating visitors and the exhibition organisers were “worried something would be damaged”.
Koons told Rosenthal that he made art as “a journey of removing anxiety”, sounding like a man on the therapy couch. “A lot of people get destroyed because they don’t accept themselves,” said Koons. “This is a journey of self-discovery.”
Reminiscing, he said he was raised “to be self-reliant”, which prompted him to sell candies and gift-wrapping paper for pocket money as a boy. Later, as a young artist trying to fund his work, he took a job at New York’s Museum of Modern Art selling membership. He was such a successful salesman that Blanchette Rockefeller, president of the museum’s board, appointed the 23-year-old Koons as the museum’s “senior representative”.
The artist’s working method was another topic. Koons relies on computers, but he doesn’t wield the mouse. “I have people who know how to activate and use different programmes,” he said. “I’ll sit and say: ‘Add a little more magenta or green,’ or tell them about scale.”
Koons employs 120 people and keeps a tight rein over his operation. “It is my work and everything is controlled by me,” he said. “I get nervous when I am away for more than a couple of days.”
Koons revealed that he feels these days his art is becoming “a little abstract, but everything is figurative based”. There are fewer layers of images in his paintings, which are becoming “more minimal."
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