x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Jeff Koons: the art world's anonymous rock star

The artist Jeff Koons talks about what inspires him and what role art can play in people's lives.

Art students Hessa al Khalifa, left, and Ghaleya Saeed get autographs from the artist Jeff Koons at Abu Dhabi Art at the Emirates Palace hotel.
Art students Hessa al Khalifa, left, and Ghaleya Saeed get autographs from the artist Jeff Koons at Abu Dhabi Art at the Emirates Palace hotel.

The man in the plain lightweight suit, dark tie and polished black leather shoes walked unnoticed through Abu Dhabi Art. With his neat haircut and unassuming manner he could have been anyone, a banker, perhaps, or an art-loving tourist.

That's the way Jeff Koons likes it. In fact, outside the condensed atmosphere of an art fair he positively revels in his anonymity.

"One of the wonderful things about art is that artists can be anonymous. It's not like being a rock star or a film star. You have a tremendous political platform and you can do the things you want to do in life and be engaged, but at the same time you have complete privacy, you can go anywhere. Here at an art fair it's different, but in the real world you have complete freedom. You can imagine what it's like for Bob de Niro - he can't go anywhere," says the quietly spoken 55-year-old American, whose stainless-steel Hanging Heart sculpture broke all records at Sotheby's in 2007 selling for $23.6 million (Dh86.7m).

If the truth about his conservative style of dressing be known, it's just that Koons can't bear to go shopping and says his wardrobe contains smart suits on the one hand and the sweats and T-shirts he wears in his studio on the other. There's nothing in between.

"When my wife Justine first met me she said: 'I'm going to have to get you out of those sweat pants.' When I'm in my studio I'm in very casual clothes because I'm dealing with different materials and my life is casual. And then there are my children, I want to pick them up and throw them up in the air."

Koons lives with his wife and their five children all under the age of 10 in New York and on their farm in Pennsylvania and says it's a simple and family orientated lifestyle that is far removed from his rock-star status that he holds in the art world. He is sorry the family aren't with him in Abu Dhabi, but their baby daughter Scarlett is just three months old. "We were all here last year and the children loved it, but at the last minute my wife realised it would be just a little bit too much."

It has given him more time to look round the art fair that ends this evening and he says he is impressed at how it has grown and developed in terms of the global search for a "universal vocabulary" in art. "If you remove some of the surface things, what we are really seeking through the arts is a sense of place, a sense of what our future can be, how far we can expand as individuals, how we are able to look at our past and encode our past and try to preserve our past."

He draws heavily on his own life experiences in his work, some of it painful. In particular, he mentions the long, drawn-out custody battle with his first wife over their son Ludwig, who is now 18. When their marriage disintegrated in 1992, his Italian wife Ilona took their son to her native Rome.

It is clearly still something that troubles Koons deeply, and he poured his frustration at the lack of contact with his son into his work. Several of his most famous series of artworks owe their conception to this period.

He explains: "My son was actually involved in a parental abduction because my ex-wife took my son from his home and took him to a different country, and so I felt a tremendous sense of injustice and I was really losing faith in humanity. I had to hang on to something and my art really let me get through that. My 'Celebration' works, my balloon dog, my inflatable flowers, my paintings of Play-Doh and these things were how I was able to hold on. I tried to communicate to my son from a distance. I realised that I couldn't help him so I put my energy into the art."

Koons also became involved with the International Centre for Missing Exploited Children and created the Koons Family Institute, a think-tank that deals with children's issues all over the world.

"Ludwig is 18 now and I just saw him last week. Now he is of an age that we are very hopeful of the future. He says he understands, but these things have dramatic effects on children and I'm sure that in time hopefully everything will become clear to my son, but these things do take time."

Koons, who also has a daughter Shannon, now 36, from an earlier relationship, grew up in York, Pennsylvania. Koons' own father was an interior decorator and both parents encouraged their talented son from an early age.

"My father had a furniture store, so I learnt aesthetics through my Dad. He was a perfectionist and he really taught me about caring for something and committing to something. I learnt about colour and textures and how these things could make you feel a certain way. I also learnt about the power of display. In my father's store a lamp would just display itself or a chair."

He learnt to be independent and would go around door to door after school selling sweets and wrapping paper to earn a little cash. "Some of these images come into my paintings especially in the 'Celebration' series. I just wanted to be independent. I learnt to take care of myself and after you take care of yourself, then you automatically take care of others," he says.

As a teenager he was passionate about the work of the Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, and when his mother informed him that Dali liked to spend the winter months at the St Regis Hotel in New York, he simply telephoned the hotel and asked to be put through to the great man's room. Unbelievably, Dali answered the phone.

"He was fantastic - he was so generous. I told him I was a young artist from Pennsylvania and I loved his work and I wanted to know if I could come and meet him. And he told me 'sure' that I should meet him in the lobby at noontime on a Saturday, and I went there and sure enough right at noon he was there.

"He was dressed so elaborately. He had a wonderful fur coat on and a beautiful elaborate silk tie with diamond pins and a silver cane and he had his moustache impeccably up at the ends. I recently read an interview by the daughter of the photographer Philip Hausmann, who photographed Dali a lot, and she said something beautiful: that he dressed every day as if he was attending one of the most important moments of his life, and it's true. He made you feel as if it was an important occasion."

Koons spent two hours following Dali around an art exhibition and says he was extremely nervous. "I was scuffling around for my camera and he would pull his moustache up and tell me to 'come on, I can't hold this pose all day'."

It was an experience he would never forget, and he treasures a gouache that hangs in his bedroom that he bought years later. "It is a gouache for the Head of the Royal Tiger painting. It impossible to think of pop art today without Dali." Dali's kindness to the struggling young artist is also remembered and as he walks through Abu Dhabi Art he is surrounded by a group of excited young art students from Zayed University patiently signing autographs, even scribbling a sketch for one of them.

While setting himself up as an artist, Koons worked at the Museum of Modern Art selling memberships and was so successful that he was offered other jobs selling commodities. "But always as an artist to support my own art work," he says.

Today, he works with a team of 150 artists in his vast studio in New York where he often develops several concepts at the same time. It could take a year to conceive, develop and construct a piece of Koons art with many people contributing. "I do have a large studio because I do have several ideas I like to be working on at one time. It takes a long time to make the works. Each painting is usually a year, my average sculpture takes about two years and I would like to be productive in my lifetime.

"Everything's an extension. If I'm just working alone in my studio and I pick up a brush and my mind tells my hand to put it right here and make this circular gesture, it's the same in the studio working with the different artists. I've created all these different systems for them to follow and every mark is really as if I had made that mark myself. I'm constantly going through the studio and looking at everything, directing the management. All the paintings are very elaborately broken down beforehand into colours and textures."

On top of that, there is the company he works with in Germany that makes his stainless-steel pieces and another in upstate New York that helps with the aluminium pieces, plus computer companies to create a whole new raft of effects.

The Geisha painting, worth about $5 million, which dominates the Gagosian stand at Abu Dhabi Art was inspired by a woodblock of a train meeting a horse and buggy that reminds Koons of the Amish community in his native Pennsylvania.

"When I have an idea for a painting, usually I'll have a little doodle, or if there's a certain image. The woodblock is almost a symbol of one technology replacing the other, so there's a certain tension that's there, so that aspect is in the Geisha painting."

Geisha, from the Hulk Elvis series, makes reference to Andy Warhol's Elvis paintings and Koons points to the colours and textures that are all meticulously chosen and executed to invoke a response in the viewer,

Says Koons: "I always enjoy things that have a certain exuberance to them because I enjoy life, I'm an optimist, I believe in life and I enjoy being alive and I find it intriguing to use the senses, sight, colour, exuberance. And I do think that art affects us chemically in a way.

"There's a certain type of art that people enjoy that their body responds to in a certain way. Geisha would make you feel exuberant. The colour is strong and there's a sense of activity to it. If you look very closely, you will see that the silver is a complete mirror, it's just sprayed on to a texture of the canvas because I always try to keep the viewer aware of their own existence, their own physical reality.

"It's beautiful when you walk into a museum and the floors crack. If you are in a gallery and you hear different noises created by your own movements, it really keeps you aware that you are a participant and this is your life, you are viewing it and that's why I like to work with reflections."

It is this compulsion to communicate with people and to find a connection with past and present artists and the arts in general that drives Koons. He says that money and fame has never been his motivation.

"I went to art school not even having any concept of how art ties the different disciplines together. I just thought it's a way of creating a three-dimensional image. I had no idea of what art could be. When I was a young artist I started to realise that I wanted to participate more than others. All my friends and I would sit around and we all wanted to be artists and be in shows and we would be in group shows. But slowly they weren't there any more and the reason they weren't there is that at the end of the day I wanted to participate more. I wanted to be in the dialogue with other artists. I wanted my work to communicate with Manet and Praxiteles. It had nothing to do with anything being special about myself other than I just wanted to participate. I enjoyed art; I enjoyed encountering works; I enjoyed how art made me feel," he says.

He doesn't want people to feel awed or inadequate in their knowledge when they look at his artwork. He wants them to be "empowered" by it and says people do not need any special knowledge to appreciate it.

"But art can be used another way. It can be used to disempower by making people feel very insecure about their own history, their own past. Temporarily whoever is flaunting that work, creating that work, they might feel superior but they are not letting art do its work.

"The word 'cynical' is used a lot. If somebody is being cynical, they're acting as if they know more than what they truly do. They gesture like they know a little more than they are revealing, and I really believe in revealing all that you possibly can."

He hopes that his legacy will be to inspire others to push themselves to do whatever it is that will fulfil them.

"I do hope I'm participating in trying to help realise what the gestures are that people can make. I would like to be an example of somebody making the gestures that they would like to in the world, but it's hard to do. I'm really speaking about the furthest gestures we can make, the grandest, the most meaningful, the most profound. There are many different layers of things that keep us from doing that, but it's really just anxiety that keeps us from doing them."