Interview with Jeff Koons on the eve of his summer show at the Serpentine: Pop culture meets art history

Koons talks to us about the artists who inspire him, his studio system, and what he hopes to communicate to the public through his work


Touring Jeff Koons gigantic Chelsea studio in anticipation of his big summer solo show at the Serpentine in London (until 13 September) is rich in discombobulation. This is partly because the place is just so large: endless cavernous rooms, one after the other, teeming with workers and assistants, more than 120 of them, all hard at work in intense silence producing paintings and sculptures, maquettes and studies, a high-tech laboratory somewhere between a James Bond set and a Warholian super-studio. But it is also because Koons himself, always unfailingly polite, gracious and soft-spoken, is a genius not so much at self-promotion as self-deflection, seemingly ignoring some questions only to later reveal that he has been pondering them secretly. Koons likes to concentrate on technical descriptions of the work at hand mixed with sudden bursts of cryptic oratory, a sort of self-help conceptualism minted from Andy’s deadpan American optimism. Just as Koons’s work remains ever-ambiguous about just how dumb or smart it really is, likewise the man can seem like a New Age huckster repeating banal platitudes only to surprise one with the sheer smartness of some observation. If Koons and his steady ascension to wealth and fame might seem reminiscent of “Chance the Gardener”, as played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 film Being There, a simpleton whose simplicity is confused with sagacity, there is no denying his current status. Indeed it is when Koons runs one briefly through a selection of his art collection on his computer—from the Poussin on loan to the Metropolitan which he keeps as his screensaver, to the Manet, the Courbet, the medieval wooden sculpture, the Pharaonic head, the Magritte and Dalí paintings, the major Picassos—that one realises not only just how rich he must be but how deep his interest is in art history and how obsessively he can talk about one image in intricate detail. This large and impressive collection may be cunningly intended to make one see his own work in the very grandest historical context, to make even the toughest sceptic grant him the benefit of the doubt. And it works.

The Art Newspaper: Your show at the Serpentine is of the “Popeye” series of paintings and sculptures, which you began in 2002, but a lot of the works are being made here, right now.

Jeff Koons: Some works have been here since 1994, it can take a very long time to complete a series. The “Popeye” series began in 2002 but most of the pieces are only just being completed and shipped directly to the show. Here’s a Triple Popeye painting sprayed completely with a reflective surface, with what looks like a brushstroke, to give that sense of gesture to it, to give a sense of movement, a sort of abstraction.

TAN: All your work has this very long incubation period?

JK: My newest work, that comes after Popeye, is all in production and will take a couple of years to be completed, there’s always this long development time. Basically if I have an idea today I have to wait at least two years [until the work is finished].

TAN: The “Popeye” paintings are hand-painted images of what look like mechanical reproductions of hand-painted images. It’s like Roy Lichtenstein painting artificial looking brush strokes.

JK: I don’t feel they’re so like Roy’s fake-gestures, each of these broad sweeps is hand-painted with very small brushes, we never use sponges or anything larger. The whole art work is a gesture and all these gestures are about doing something with your life, about what you really want to do. This is very fluid, at a distance you can see the imagery, but up close it is very abstract. They’re about [the] history of European art. I love it when there’s a revelation in art, when you see things you have not seen before, connections that you make yourself, not that you’re supposed to make, when those things are there for you. There are French 19th-century brushstrokes we’re painting alongside the Magic Marker lines…they really work together. I like the sense of warmth that comes from an actual painting and that’s why I returned to making paintings. I like a certain power of image, but it’s not that it has to look artificially made, I would like a greater warmth than that.

TAN: Can one judge the success of these paintings in old-fashioned terms of skill?

JK: We’ve really captured the richness of these gestures, I made these gestures, some my children made, they’re very well painted, some of the best painting we’ve done. Different people have different skills, but it’s about continuing to show people how to look at things. That’s why the paintings have continued to develop, when people realise they can create anything, to be able to see it, look at these sources and to understand, I don’t have to paint it wet-into-wet, I can capture that more as a printed-type image.

TAN: You own great work by Lichtenstein and Courbet, do you see your work as a sort of synthesis?

JK: Absolutely, this line drawing could refer to Courbet but you could also see it as a young man walking his dog in the Swiss alps, the dot pattern starts to almost create its own brushstrokes, to gather up and create its own fake gesture.

TAN: As a teenage student you called up Dalí to meet him.

JK: I own the wash study of the painting of tigers that Dalí stood against when I met him. I saw this other Dalí painting at a recent auction, [Untitled (Nature morte au drapé blanc), 1969], and there was something very familiar about it. The last painting Dalí made, The Swallow’s Tail, if you look at it and then the movement inside the shroud [in the painting I just bought] you can see the connection. So I was absolutely thrilled to be able to have this. I can see the same shapes that he has used repeatedly over the decades.

TAN: Dalí is an artist you always acknowledge.

JK: Dalí is very important to me. I think Dalí had moments of real genius, and he had moments of great generosity—being generous to me, a young artist from Pennsylvania who called him up and said: “I’m an artist; I’d like to meet you” and he just said: “Sure, come and meet me.” That was really generous, likewise Roy Lichtenstein. I think that sense of generosity is so important in art. I love having a sense of a connection with these artists, with those who have made art history. A connection in the sense of really being open to their vocabulary—trying to articulate and incorporate the vocabularies they spent a lifetime developing.

TAN: Your art collection is mainly of old masters and 19th-century European painting. You also have works by Jenny Holzer, Hirst and Prince, but you seem less interested in collecting your contemporaries.

JK: I used to have Kippenberger’s self-portrait that’s on the cover of the Taschen book, the one with the hammer and sickle, and also work by Albert Oehlen. I’ve always lived with Struth and with Lichtenstein. Roy was great, a tremendous man, and very supportive, I have his easel right here, which he designed himself, with the colours of the paint of the landscape Roy was working on [when he died]. But I’m so involved in contemporary art myself that I’m much more interested in art from a different time. I have a little bit of a sense what it’s like to be alive today, to try and make work today, so contemporary art isn’t so important to me. I’m more interested in what it meant to be alive, to be trying to make art, in other times, in a very different culture.

TAN: It may not be obvious to all viewers but you have this very precise sense of your own relation to art history.

JK: This sculpture is from a tiny wax gorilla from [the shop at] the Los Angeles Zoo, we have scanned it and are building it out of hand-polished black granite to an extreme finish so it will look like wax. This is a take on a 19th-century French sculpture, Gorilla Carrying Off a Woman, 1887, by Emmanuel Frémiet, really the origin of King Kong. Here’s a pink granite ballerina with live flowers planted within the stone, so the narrative really just jumps back to Pagan art, back to Venus. There’s a modern narrative in Popeye, but where the spinach normally is, there will be begonias.

TAN: A lot of artists now outsource the production of their work to Asia and you could get this work done at half the price in China.

JK: The studio for me is a sense of family, of community. One of the wonderful things about art is that you don’t have to be so conscious of the bottom line, though you have to be somewhat aware of budget, you’re dealing with the impractical, the impossible, you’re pushing things to the edge. It’s always been important to me to feel self-reliant but at the same time I like the sense of providing for a community.

TAN: It must be daunting running an operation of this scale. Are you ever tempted to go back to making work by yourself?

JK: I used to make all my own sculpture, my paintings, but if I did that it would severely limit the range of projects that I could be involved with. I follow my interests in some way that feels profound to me, those that seem to have a deeper meaning. I feel completely free to do whatever I want to do. But I have to edit my work a lot, because of the process, the amount of time it takes to actually make things, you really have to make the things you want to make, otherwise you’re wasting a lot of energy.

TAN: How important is the assumed innocence of childhood to your aesthetic?

JK: I remember my own childhood, it was just like enjoying green, green grass, breathing in and feeling its moisture and loving it. As a child, there is just an acceptance, you don’t feel that something is expected of you. Some people don’t accept themselves, their own histories, they debase themselves by external forces which want to fill them with insecurities, people end up feeling their own cultural history is insufficient or incorrect. None of that operates in childhood, it is just acceptance, you know you love pink because pink is pink.

TAN: Is there a notion of art as deception, for example, with your inflatables that should be light but are actually heavy—the opposite of Richard Serra’s notion of the integrity of weight, that sculpture must weigh what it looks?

JK: I don’t think of it as deception but as “either/or” or “Ying & Yang”, I think of the inflatables as anthropomorphic, we are ourselves inflatables, we take a breath, we expand, we contract, our last breath in life, our deflation. By contrast these objects have a permanence to them, they maintain a non-divisible sense of life, of continuity. Maybe it’s also almost like learning to swim, that extraordinary experience almost like birthing, the independence of when you finally can swim yourself. The viewer feels their own possibilities and whatever their interests are, they feel more excited to meet their own potential, that’s what I hope the viewer experiences.

TAN: Was your own sense of potential directly unlocked by coming into contact with art?

JK: When I was younger I remember that I started to draw and my parents would make me feel as though I had a gift. For some reason I could make a beautiful drawing, do something that was special. I had an older sister and because she was three years older I always thought she could do everything better than me, but with art I felt I could do something better. Art always created a certain amount of anxiety, because: What is it? What’s art? As a kid taking art lessons I enjoyed sitting round with the others making art, that sense of community, but I was never really sure what art was. It wasn’t until I got to art school that I realised how art continues throughout human history, everything opened up. For me it’s always been this journey about the removal of anxiety. Then you learn to trust in the self, developing a sense of personal iconography that gives you the ability to work in a biological way, getting people to feel certain sensations. Then eventually you just become so bored with the self you want to start looking outside yourself which leads to the ultimate, which is trusting in others…

o “Jeff Koons: Popeye Series” is at the Serpentine Gallery in London from 2 July to 13 September. The artist’s work will also be included in “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” at Tate Modern, London (1 October-17 January 2010)