Divisive artist Jeff Koons says he is a risk-taker

HONG KONG • To his critics, his work is overrated, overpriced and obvious. To his fans, he is a living legend - the incarnation of the Pop Art movement.

Either way, at 63, Jeff Koons prefers to see the bigger picture, which is framed within creating the art he wants to make.

His output is brash, voluptuous and carries astronomical price tags, but that has not dimmed the appetite for his pieces in Asia, where he was presenting at last week's Art Basel in Hong Kong - a top event for wealthy collectors looking to snap up new status symbols.

The American pioneer had taken some of his signature mirror-polished steel sculptures to the fair as well as his Gazing Ball series, in which shiny blue spheres are inserted into reproductions of classic European masterpieces, including works by Rembrandt and Tintoretto.

Koons set an auction record for the highest price paid for a work by a living artist in 2013 when his orange Balloon Dog fetched US$58.4 million at Christie's in New York.

But he insists the monetary value attached to his art is just an "abstraction" to him.

American artist Jeff Koons with his work, Gazing Ball (Bottlerack, 2016), in Hong Kong last week.
American artist Jeff Koons with his work, Gazing Ball (Bottlerack, 2016), in Hong Kong last week. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"I'm flattered that my works are perceived by society as having some relevant value. But the beauty to have impact with real individuals, that they can come across their own potential, that's what really brings me joy," he said.

His work can be polarising.

In January, artists, gallery owners and officials in Paris signed an open letter objecting to a planned 12m-tall "Bouquet Of Tulips" memorial designed by Koons as a tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks on the city in November 2015.

The letter described him as an "emblem of industrial art which is spectacular and speculative".

He would not comment on the controversy, but when asked how he deals with criticism, he said he tries to focus on his work.

"I think that people always find honesty very shocking. So when you are honest and just make the things you want, it reveals something about human nature," he said.

He gained notoriety for a series portraying himself and his porn star ex-wife Ilona Staller in explicit poses.

Koons said surrealist art has been a means for self-exploration since he was a teenager.

"Once you can go inwards and find where you accept yourself, automatically you want to go outside and you want to go to the external world. That's the journey art can take you (on)," he said.

He describes technology as a "wonderful tool" and recently partnered social media platform Snapchat to create a Pokemon Go-type game in which users hunt for virtual Koons sculptures around the world.

He is working on a virtual-reality project to be released in a year's time, but warns young artists not to see technology as a quick creative fix.

Most importantly, he said, they must believe in themselves, recalling how, when he started out, there was no audience for his art. He had to move back in with his parents.

"I've always been a risk-taker because I believe in going for something. I believe in the excitement, the stimulation, of trying to achieve something. If there was failure, I didn't have any option other than to go for it."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2018, with the headline Divisive artist Jeff Koons says he is a risk-taker. Subscribe