Jeff Koons in front of one of his sculptures (Photo by Art Comments via)
Sometimes, when I'm at the cashpoint, withdrawing the last £10 of my overdraft, I think about Jeff Koons. I think about the man whose orange sculpture of an inflatable dog sold for £37.1 million, the largest sum a work by a living artist has ever fetched at auction. If I had £37.1 million, I would almost definitely spend it on a massive Italian castle over a steel balloon-animal, but clearly there is more to this blow-up dog than meets the eye: I'm told that, as you stare into its gleaming exterior, you see a warped version of your reflection looking back – kind of like those fun house mirrors, but more profound.
I met Koons recently at the Guggenheim in Bilbao – the final stop on his career retrospective: a comprehensive survey of 40 years of work, including his iconic " Michael Jackson and Bubbles" and his silver "Rabbit", two pieces that are equally recognisable for both their shininess and their creepiness. The show arrived here from the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and, before that, the Whitney in New York. It broke both galleries' records for the number of tickets sold.
In person, Koons is about as hard to size up as his great big balloon dog. I watched as he straightened his suit and led a frenzy of photographers between his works, stopping to pose at each, grinning with every single one of his teeth. For the photos, he stared at his own creations – an 8ft knock-off of the Greek statue " Farnese Hercules", for example – as though awestruck by their sublimity. I assumed he was taking the piss, in a knowing, arch sort of way. But then he started talking.
"I hope you see that a great artist gets better," he said of the retrospective, before extolling the "raw power of his early work" and comparing his "DNA" to Picasso's. He spoke in self-help book jargon, discussing his journey to "self-affirmation". I don't know what exactly I was expecting from Koons, but it was clear almost immediately that I'd found the Kanye West of contemporary art – a man whose conceitedness actually makes him more compelling.
Koons was born in 1955 to a mother who made bridal dresses and a father who ran an interior design shop. He claims that he began painting at the age of three years old. Previously overshadowed by an older sister who, with age on her side, could walk, talk and do literally everything better than him, painting was something little Jeff was finally good at.
Koons says he revered the work of Salvador Dali throughout his childhood, and, at 18, after enrolling at the School of Art Institute in Chicago, gave the Spanish painter a call to request a meeting. For whatever reason, Dali agreed. "He was incredibly generous," recalled Koons, who was expecting a few minutes with the Surrealist, but got an entire afternoon.
After meeting Dali, Koons "knew he could do it". He knew that he could be one of the greatest artists the world has ever seen. This self-belief manifests itself in Koons' persona, and his debt to Dali is apparent throughout his canon, from the surrealist landscapes to the recurring use of lobsters, echoing a number of Dali's works. Clearly, the experience was pivotal.
By the mid-1970s, Koons had relocated to New York to "hang out in the heart of [his] generation". Here, moving in the same circles as artists David Salle and Julian Schnabel, he says he "automatically started to have the confidence to go in strong, and to be involved with the dialogue of art". Salle and Schnabel introduced Koons to influential gallerist Mary Boone, who took an interest in his series of inflatable flowers and rabbits set against mirrors – inflatables he'd buy from cheap shops downtown, before turning them into conceptual pieces at his studio on East 4th Street.
During this period, Jeff the burgeoning artist worked a job selling memberships at MoMA to pay his way. Scott Rothkopf, curator at the Whitney and the man behind the retrospective, says "Jeff was always a salesman" – which might be why, for a brief period in the early-1980s, he became a commodities broker on Wall Street to fund his art practice. This piece of Koons trivia would be dredged up again and again in discussion of his work as commodity.
Because much of Koons' work is related to value, which, he says, is "really about potential" or, more specifically, "seeing or realising the potential in something". Evidently, Jeff saw the value in himself – his own skill to turn something innocuous into something resembling a masterpiece. As examples, he offers up his " Puppy" art work – the giant, flower-covered sculpture of a terrier that stands outside the Guggenheim Bilbao on public display – and, once again, that "Balloon Dog".
Interested in digital art? Check out the art section on our technology website, Motherboard.
"It's like something you'd get at a children's birthday party," he said of the latter, standing in front of it proudly. "But it's also like a Trojan horse".
I walked the halls of Frank Gary's Guggenheim, taking in Koons' monsters, from the sinister, metallic "Popeye", to "Equilibrium", a series of basketballs suspended in tanks of distilled water. Like the ballon-dog-cum-Trojan-horse, they're each a trick in their own way – something disguised as something it's not.
Koons will often use cheap or industrial materials like steel to create the effect of more expensive finishes, like silver or platinum. Rothkopf calls this "material transubstantiation" and relates it to Koons' "Statuary" series, in which the artist would take something like a small junk shop statue of Bob Hope and recast the actor almost like a religious figure – a cheap disposable item becoming a coveted auction piece.
I stared into a Rococo-style gold mirror in the "Banality Room", where a porcelain pig sat behind me, across from a porcelain statue of Jacko and Bubbles the monkey. This is the campest room I've ever been in; kitsch relics of low culture reproduced for a gallery setting. By elevating items out of the banal and into the baroque, Koons comments on art practice itself – and its ability to imbue something with value.
Is this a deliberate and self-effacing critique of art as commodity? Or an earnest attempt to create something that circumvents the boundaries of taste altogether? It's difficult to know, and Koons isn't in the business of letting on: "I ask for the acceptance of everything as perfect in its own being," he offered, explaining how it was early on in his career that he called for the "removal of criticism".
"Made In Heaven" is Koons' most controversial series of works – a collection of garish and erotic pieces made in the late-80s and early-90s, inspired by the concept of a fictional film.
"When I made 'Made In Heaven', I wanted to remove guilt and shame with the acceptance of biology," said Koons. To do this, he employed a number of artistic techniques, from the mock-movie poster of him posing with then-wife and former porn star Cicciolina, to a marble bust of him kissing Cicciolina, through a life-sized plastic statue of him fucking Cicciolina and, somewhat incongruously, a poodle made out of wood.
Needless to say, the project wasn't too well received, and the public condemned Koons as a raving narcissist. But for Koons, it was liberating – "Like a sex tape," says Rothkopf, "the work was emancipatory."
These days, Koons' work has descended into a caricature of itself; his faux Greek statues feel tired, repeating the same old tropes as seen in the "Statuary" series, only in reverse, with Greek-style busts cast in cheap materials like plaster, and made kitsch with adornments like flower pots. The blue "Metallic Venus" from 2010-2012 doesn't feel remotely new in the trajectory of Koons' career. Nor does "Gazing Ball", a plaster-cast statue of the Greek mythological character Ariadne balancing a metallic blue sphere on her stomach. By this point – the final room in the retrospective – I was bored.
That said, seeing Koons' work almost in its entirety (there were 100 pieces in the show) and in loose chronological order did give me a newfound appreciation of it. Until now, I had thought of the "Duchampian" readymade – existing objects re-appropriated as art – as a pretty lazy form, but was now able to understand how, in Koons' pop art-influenced world, it made sense as a meta-statement about just how the fuck someone can reproduce something so simple and make so much money out of it. If you added up the retail value of every balloon on the planet and compared it to the auction price of Koons' "Balloon Dog", the figures probably wouldn't be so different. Also, they're both useless items – decorative, at a push.
Koons maintains that art should be objective rather than subjective, and that although some art may have more "significance" to the viewer than other art, value systems are inhibiting and only without them can you achieve universal appeal. Perhaps this explains Koons' success: that he makes art without value. "My joy has always been to participate in the dialogues surrounding art," he said. "The economic aspect is so far removed and abstract to me."
Whether Koons' works are intentionally critical or otherwise, the real irony is the zeal with which the art market has consumed them. No wonder Jeff looks permanently amused.
'Jeff Koons: A Retrospective' runs at the Guggenheim Bilbao until the 27th of September.
More stuff like this: