This year we’re marking Whitewall‘s 10th anniversary with the launch of Whitewall.art. To celebrate, we’re looking back on some of our favorite interviews over the past decade in a series we’re calling “Whitewall Icons.” Below, relive our fall 2007 cover story featuring Jeff Koons in conversation with Stephanie Seymour.
ART MADE IN HEAVEN
By Stephanie Seymour
As I walk through Jeff’s workmanlike studio on 29th street I feel a rush of optimism. There in his modern-day, high-tech paint shop are his aluminum sculptures, waiting to be painted in an array of sublime colors. Passing through the office space I find Jeff and Gary busy bringing up images on the computer as if it were a compass. Here I find hundreds of objects, from soft pool toys to cannons and cannonball miniatures from the Civil War. There are the big plastic Hulks and the now-famous model of the Train, soon to be a vertical locomotive, hanging head first from a 150-foot crane at the LACMA in LA.
Then, of course, there are his paintings. They are the ultimate in paint-by-number with the most precise and exact color and form. Jeff’s 50 or so assistants all seem to be connected to his vision, never seeming discontent, working alongside him as if by remote control. After many visits I’ve realized that Jeff is completely committed to perfection at any cost. He is the ultimate romantic; nothing leaves unless Jeff is convinced it’s as good as it can be. From the subject matter to his execution, he is always dedicated to making the ready-made translate into art. Each visit with Jeff and his team is a moment to remember. I love Jeff Koons.
STEPHANIE SEYMOUR : So how do you feel, you’ve had your picture taken a lot? I was reading about your shoot with Greg Gorman. I love those pictures.
JEFF KOONS: You know, Stephanie, Greg Gorman—that’s the first time that I worked with a professional photographer. And I remember I saw a photograph that he shot of David Bowie in Artforum. And the photograph looked so tight; it just looked like it was glass and you could take a hammer, and if you touched it, it would just shatter.
SS: Was it a portrait?
JK: It was a portrait of Bowie. And he was in a gold suit and it was just beautiful, very celebrity. So I called him, and it turned out that I was going to go to Los Angeles to do a shoot, and he said, “Jeff, I’m in New York. I’m doing a photo session here. Run over to the hotel.” He was at the Parker Meridien.
So I went over there, and he did this photograph of me that I used for the Artforum project called “Baptism.” Greg gave me more of a celebrity look, more of a polished look. And I ended up going out and working with Greg, and I designed these ads that I did for my “Banality” show.
SS: I love those pictures of you. I think those were the first pictures that I’d ever seen of you.
JK: So you’ve been photographed a lot.
SS: [Laughs.] I’ve been photographed a lot. It gets a little easier. I don’t think it’s so easy to be photographed all the time. If you can sort of … don’t you find it’s easier to sort of step out of yourself a little bit? When you’re being photographed, isn’t it difficult to just be you?
JK: I’ve become self-conscious, ’cause I’m aware of what imperfections I would have. So I look for a little direction a lot of times and that makes me then feel a little more secure. But I think of my family, so I’ll think of my children and usually that makes me lighten up. And I feel their presence instead of the presence of other people.
SS: Yes, that always helps me, too, so that you know if you’re feeling nervous or stiff you have to sort of relax and think about things you like. And then you always feel like you have a nice expression.
JK: I think by the end of this interview I’m going to take a nice photo.
SS: So I was reading this book last night, and I read the really sweet things about you.You know this book, right?
JK: Doesn’t this remind you a little bit like a teenage diary in a way?
SS: Yeah, it’s the perfect size — it is very much like a diary, and even the way it’s written that’s how it sort of feels. I love this book. I was reading it aloud to Peter; I think Peter really wanted to come here today and do the interview [laughs]. I think he was very disappointed that they didn’t ask him! No, he was excited that I was coming to do this today, so we were talking about you all night long. But I was reading to Peter, because he’s always fascinated with the idea that your father had a furniture showroom. But it sounds like your father did even more than just sell furniture — he was a decorator. And we didn’t know that.
JK: Yeah, my dad, when he was young and in high school, he worked for a decorating firm called Bentz, in York, where I grew up. And he started unpacking furniture and doing things like that but he started to enjoy decorating and understanding. He learned decorating there. And he went into the service, and when he came back he went back to working for Bentz. And he started to get involved in decorating and it was very natural for him. He ended up developing his own business, and in York, Pennsylvania, he was really the best-known decorator there.
SS: That’s so interesting.
JK: So as a child I really learned how color and texture and different objects can make you feel differently about things. So my father had showrooms of different fabrics and different wallpapers. And the showroom would also change all the time. One month one room would be a living room, and the next month it could be a dining room and a couple weeks later it could be a den. And I realized that I would feel different emotionally — whether it was French provincial or a modern den, you’d feel differently
SS: And there’s also something in here that says that your father would let you hang works of art in the window, and people would at times buy them. And that sometimes if somebody wanted something specific, you would paint it for them.
JK: It wasn’t even so much that he let me. I mean, he would say, “I want to take this into the store, so I want to frame it and I want to hang it in the window.” So it wasn’t like I would say, “Dad, put this up,” and he’d say, “Well, okay.” It was really his idea, so he would do that and he did get different commissions for it. So he’d come back and say, “Jeff, this couple would really like this sort of French painting,” and so I ended up making a couple Watteau imitations.
SS: That’s amazing. Do you remember what they looked like?
JK: They were nothing really special.
SS: So you sort of copied them from books?
JK: Yeah, I copied them from books. And maybe there would be some changes, but I wasn’t making changes for any copyright reasons.
SS: But you were taking art lessons, so you knew how to draw still lifes?
JK: I was always very talented. When it comes to using an aspect of art for reproduction, trying to make something look like something else, I was always very gifted that way. And at Maryland Institute I was always really known for my drawing capabilities and things like this.
SS: I haven’t seen many of your drawings. I remember there was a beautiful drawing of a basketball. I guess it was a drawing for Equilibrium. The single basketball. Do you remember when Peter curated that show at the Bruce Museum?
JK: I probably stopped drawing a lot. I mean, I do drawings now with my new paintings, but those type of swirls that are kind of like Twombly’s, and they’re my gestures. And some of the painting gestures come from my children Sean and Kurt. But the kind of “Origin of the World,” the vaginal silver line drawing, that’s one of my drawings.
SS: How do you start making these paintings because they’re done on a computer?What is the process?
JK: You know, Stephanie, one of the things that I realized is that you really can’t create art. So I just have to be very sensitive to what’s presenting itself to me, that it’s really important to me, and to follow that and trust in that and when I come into work to act on it. So hypothetically, if an image of a lobster coming in on top of a Dr. Thornton painting, if it’s telling me to do that, I have a Dr. Thornton in my hallway. And I remember for my Popeye painting, just realizing I’d like to see a lobster coming down from the top.
So I came here and I put that in there and the next thing was, “Oh, it would be great to have an image of Popeye.” So I listen to that and create something, but if I would come in here and I just say okay, “I’m going to create a painting and what can I do? I’m going to throw this in here, throw that in here,” it’s just a decorative process and doesn’t have any depth to it.
SS: No, you’re not contrived like that at all.You’re really a great vessel for communication. To me, you have an incredible way of communicating to people. It was interesting in the book, too, where you talk about going door to door and selling things and you enjoyed that . . .You would go door to door and sell maga- zines or cookies, and you really enjoyed working at a young age and talking to people. And every time someone would open the door you never knew what you would see inside and you really liked that surprise and talking to people and meeting all types of people. And it’s amazing ’cause you have this incredible gift to communicate with people.To really communicate with so many people, I mean, even getting a work of art finished, the amount of people you must have to communicate with is endless.
JK: And at the same time, as an artist, one of the luxuries you have [is that] there is an anonymity.You have distance so that you can work on your ideas and create your image or your object and then present it. Whereas some professions you have to be totally intermingled with people at every moment. So that distance is nice because it lets you kind of reflect on what you’d like to do.
But when you were speaking about being younger and going door to door, I really liked the idea of feeling that I was meeting people’s needs. And that it was a shared situation, that I was making the sale and that was nice as far as being able to have this sort of economic reward. But I felt that what they were really acquiring, whether it was gift-wrapping paper or cookies or whatever, it wasn’t that product but it was the interaction. And I think I learned how to accept people and to accept what was on the other side of that door. The odors were always different.
SS: That can be a very intimidating thing.
JK: People were just cooking, and it really just absorbs into people’s homes.
SS: I love the idea of you as a little boy, standing at the door and suddenly the door opens, and, like you said, the smells of the kitchen coming out. And the different cultures and how you could see it immediately in the furniture and the carpeting and the decoration and the colors…
JK: A lot of it is really about accepting, because you have to accept them.
SS: One of the things I really like is James Lipton. Have you ever watched his inter views on Bravo?
JK: Yeah, I like them.
SS: And at the end of all of his interviews he has these standard questions he asks. So I thought I would ask you them ’cause they’re ver y revealing.
JK: Okay, great — I’ll be very honest and direct.
SS: OK. What is your favorite word?
JK: Ah … “Bavarian.”
SS: What is your least favorite word?
SS: What turns you on personally, creatively, spiritually? JK: Equilibrium, a sense of a lot of polarities together. SS: What turns you off?
SS: What noise or sound do you love?
JK: I like birds chirping. I like the sound of birds.
SS: Me, too.What sound or noise do you hate?
JK: I also have to say that, along with the birds — I probably would change that — I really love the voice of my children and I really love hearing my children’s voices. Very abstractly I love the sound of birds but if I think about it longer, I really love to hear the voices of my children.
SS: Me, too. And what sound or noise do you hate?
JK: A truck horn.
SS: What is your favorite curse word? Please don’t censor.
SS: What profession, other than yours, would you like to attempt?
JK: I like psychology and philosophy, so I enjoy a profession that mixes psychology and philosophy. That’s what I love about art. So those two fields are fields that I have interest in.
SS: What profession would you not like to participate in?
JK: It’s tough because … you know, in a way, I would have to say sales, and even though sales and communication are something I’m involved in very much with my work. But there’s one aspect of sales that is kind of negative — it’s a lot of self-interest. And what I like about art is that it’s able to deal with aspects of communication, and the positive side of sales.
SS: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
JK: I always think that when you die, everything probably becomes so clear, that last moment of consciousness, every- thing just really becomes simplified, and you would realize at that moment, whatever gesture you really wanted to make, how simple it would have been to make. And I just hope that I make the gesture I would like to before I pass.
SS: Those are his questions.
JK: Do they change, or are they always the same?
SS: What he does is, you know on The Actor’s Studio, he will do his interview and he ends with those questions.
JK: Which profession would you not want to do?
SS: Garbage collecting. That always come into my mind [laughs]. Maybe if I really thought about it for a long time …
JK: Yeah, garbage collecting would be terrible.
SS: Smelly and dirty and nothing beautiful.
JK: And when I say sales, even though we just talked earlier about how said I like sales, if sales is just self-interest then it’s really terrible.
SS: Yeah, there’s nothing creative about it, and there’s nothing pure about it. It’s different to communicate — you want it to be pure.
JK: It’s very pure, because you know you’re giving 100 percent. You know you fail, but you know you’re giving 100 percent and there’s really no negative in that kind of communal obligation.
SS: You really seem to use your instincts and your gut and sexuality that’s at the deepest level. I see that in all your work, and in a lot of Andy’s work.What do you think it is about the disasters that’s so beautiful and sexy? Like the car crashes, why are they so sexy to you?
JK: I think it’s like Andy, in a way, has a chance to really play God and that life and death really becomes the viewer’s asso- ciation to realism, figurative realism. Andy really has this chance, and through running these images often, really for procreation. It’s his chance to really kind of create and procreate and play God.
SS: Yes, that’s what’s sensual about them.What do you collect yourself art-wise?
JK: I think what moves me chemically and what I respond to in a visceral way and that I feel a connection with the rest of humanity for.
Stephanie, I’m just jumping back to Andy for a second. I think what’s interesting about Andy is that he made up a large production, a large body of work. In a way, people look at it and see it as marketing. But I think that Andy didn’t have any choice. And for him to communicate his aesthetic, he had to give the viewer a choice. He had to show that yellow and orange blended together is equal to blue and green and white blended together and blue, green, and white is equal to green and magenta. And he had to show that all these things are equal. And the only way to do that is show all this visual choice and to make the aesthetics equal. And it wasn’t just to produce a machine product.
SS: There always seems to be a lot of spirituality and religion in your work as well as Andy’s, there’s a sort of parallel there.
JK: Well, that’s very empowering. Andy is showing people that everything is equal and everything is a metaphor for people. And it’s not important that in aesthetics red and green mixed together is as good as blue and magenta, but what’s important is people and the differences between them.
SS: And do you think all people need something to worship?
JK: I think that subconsciously people understand this empowerment, that it’s not about aesthetics, it’s about people.
SS: You know how the Marilyn or Puppy, that there are certain works of art people really want to worship in a sense; they just really feel so good when they look at it, it’s like worshipping — do you know what I mean?
JK: Well, I think there are certain artworks that make you feel connected with humanity.
SS: And they make you feel at peace.
JK: That they function as archetype, and they help us survive in certain ways and they can do it more profoundly than what we’re actually all the time feeling on the surface consciously.
SS: I think your work does have that incredible effect, sort of a soothing effect — stimulating but soothing.
JK: I strive for archetype, so when I say not always consciously aware, I think that there are some reasons.You know, if I really love a Manet painting, it’s hard to maybe be completely specific but I can look at that Manet and I can understand that it’s very similar to a Warhol. And that the reason I like the Marilyn is that it’s very similar to Olympia and one of his nudes, and you can feel all of these interconnections.
SS: And with the “Made in Heaven” pictures you often say that the process of making them was also a way of relieving yourself of guilt and shame toward sexuality — I mean, I’ve taken pictures where I have to go through that process, and I think it’s actually a very healthy process — do you feel that at the end of it that it was an experience that helped you sort of rid yourself of guilt and shame?
JK: I thought it was a great experience, I really have no downside about the “Made in Heaven” experience other than the personal situation that happened with the involvement of my son Ludwig. But other than that, the artworks that were created, the personal enlightenment that happened, because I actually believe in the transcendence that happens through sexuality. I think sexuality is a tremendous vehicle for tran- scendence. I think that’s one of the things that Puppy gives off visually. It’s a kind of shared belief in transcendence through sexuality.
SS: And that euphoria that you feel. Do you feel that you get that heightened sense of euphoria when you’re working on a body of work? Is there a certain time where you get so engrossed in that body of work that you’re in a sort of euphoric state and you’re working on a higher level?
JK: That kind of enjoyment of that transcendence is really embracing life and how life just kinds of leapfrogs and jumps and moves around. And all other activities are creating artificial structures that somehow strive to compete against life and in a certain way I’m sure that works in some Darwinian manner and changes. Maybe the edges might but I think it’s much more healthy, the embrace of life … what was your question again?
SS: I sort of would imagine that there are times when you’re working when you are at a higher state, that you sort of transcend to a higher state that you get a euphoric feeling through work.
JK: So personal transcendence for me is following my interests and focusing on those interests, and when I’ve done that things have always become very metaphysical. That, I find, is a very heightened state. And it’s always exciting — the things I respond to make me feel a certain way — so it’s a mixture of intellectual, but a chemical type of response that emotionally, physically, you feel a certain way. And I get involved in making images that I believe probably make a viewer feel a certain way, a certain heightened visual experience.
SS: When you’re working, do you get flashbacks, sort of, inspira- tional flashbacks from your childhood, things from when you were a child that soothed you or excited you?
JK: I think so. Just the other day I was thinking about something visually that I used to find very exciting, and I just went back and re-looked at some of those works, of a different artist, and I wasn’t so excited by it now or I didn’t feel a certain type of response. That was kind of interesting that at one point in your life you can have a certain response and at another time not feel that.That’s why it’s really important that artworks can be chameleonic and that they can transform so that whatever needs a viewer has now and in the future, when they change, that object still meets those needs. It doesn’t remain so fixed in a position, identity, or ideology.
SS: When you were a young boy what were some of the first images that excited you sexually?
JK: Probably pinups, but images that really excite me, I would have to say nature — I always enjoyed green grass and trees and lying down in the grass and smelling the grass. Really that sense of being connected biologically with the earth. But images sexually would have been, I mean, I always had girlfriends from a time I was very young. At four in kindergarten I had a young girlfriend up at the end of the road. I enjoyed the feminine image.
SS: Were you always a romantic?
JK: I think so.
SS: I think so. I think you’re very romantic.Were your parents romantic?
JK: I never saw my parents fight. Only once in my life did I see them quarrel. My parents never argued, and they were very, very close. They lived together for 45 years before my dad passed away; they were always very supportive of me.
SS: Your mother is amazing.
JK: My upbringing was very positive.
SS: You must have had a very positive upbringing.And you have the gift that your mother has of communicating. It seems she’s able to sit down with anyone that she barely knows and really find out who they are. She really enjoys communicating. I see so much of that in you.
JK: My mother is 82, and she’s really sharp, sharp as a tack — she’s really doing great. She enjoys life a lot, and from my mother’s side I always felt that I got a sense of politics. My grandfather was city treasurer in York, Pennsylvania, and a businessperson, and all of his brothers, my great-uncles, they were all in business. So I got a political role model and a business role model from them. And from my father’s side, I got my sense of aesthetics.
SS: That’s interesting. I’ve never seen a picture of your father.
JK: Oh, really?
SS: Was your dad handsome?
JK: I always thought he looked a bit like Sean Connery when he was younger.
SS: I bet he was handsome — he must have been very dapper and stylish to have been a decorator.
JK: You would have really liked him, Stephanie — I never met anybody who didn’t like my dad. My dad had a great personality and he really loved people, and he didn’t have self-interest. People really adored him, and you would have liked him.
SS: Was he very patient?
JK: Very, very patient — he wouldn’t argue about anything. [Picture is brought over.]
SS : Wow, you look so much like your dad! Oh, I wanted to ask you, what are your favorite movies and your favorite director? If you like movies …
JK: I do like movies. I haven’t, over the last couple years, really seen a lot of movies ’cause I’ve been very involved with my children, and the type of movies they want to see are different.You know in the evening we’re always with our kids, so I haven’t seen as many films over the last couple years.You know, I really like Scorsese and Goodfellas and Casino a lot. But I really don’t know the newest films.
SS : Those are still the best ones [laughs] — they’re really good.
JK : What are your favorite ones?
SS : Probably … I like Scorsese, too. I love Kubrick’s Lolita, the original, and I love the book as well. Did you ever read the book?
JK: I did read the book, but I really enjoyed the film. And always in my mind the film was so strong, I would always see the images of the film.
SS: Besides collecting art, is there anything else that you collect?
JK: Whistles, I have the real stuff. But I have to say I got them in one swoop.
SS: I didn’t know you had a whistle collection!
JK: I saw a great whistle collection on the Internet, and I tried to contact the guy, but he’d passed away, so his son said, “I have a hundred of these things,” and I said, “I’ll take them.”
SS: So where do you keep them?
JK: Some of them were over in the other studio and I have one in storage here. I have one of the top three largest collections in the country.