PARIS (AFP) - Jeff Koons may be the highest-selling artist alive, but on his first day at art school he had a crushing realisation: he "knew nothing" about the world he was about to join.
Koons smashed world auction records when his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold last year for US$58.4 million (S$76 million) - the most money for any work by a living artist and the most for a contemporary sculpture.
Today likened to the pop art icon Andy Warhol, the teenage Koons was lucky to survive the bolt that hit him as a 17-year-old newcomer to the Maryland Institute College of Art.
"We went on a bus to see a great cubism collection. I didn't know who Cezanne was, who Matisse was... I didn't grow up with that background," the US mega-artist said ahead of a retrospective opening in Paris Wednesday. "When I was 17, I realised that I knew nothing about art."
The Pennsylvania-born Koons had been taking drawing lessons since the tender age of five, and as a young teen was already copying works by the old masters, proudly displayed in the window of his father's home decoration store.
But that did not stop the budding artist feeling utterly belittled by the history of art with a capital A.
"I survived that day but I think that a lot of people never survive that moment," he said. "They become lost. They feel like it's already too late for them to ever participate."
Koons did more than survive, he not only went on to break auction records but his fame extends beyond the art world, hitting the headlines for his colourful personal life and association with celebrities such as Lady Gaga, who made his art a centrepiece of her most recent album launch.
For three years in the early 1990s, he was married to Ilona Staller, a former Italian lawmaker and porn star widely known by her stage name Cicciolina, who once offered to have sex with now executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to avert the first Gulf War.
It was this marriage that provided the inspiration for Koons' most controversial work, Made in Heaven, a graphic depiction of the couple having sex that sparked outrage.
Keenly aware of his tricky first brush with high art, Koons says he wants to make his art "accessible through the experience of it... which does not intimidate".
"Not necessarily that I want my work to be popular but accessible," explained the artist, today rivalled only by Britain's Damien Hirst in commercial success.
"When I make an artwork, I want the viewers to feel that whatever their background, they never feel unworthy." He has been no stranger to criticism, including in France, where an exhibition in 2008 at the historic Palace of Versailles featuring a bright red inflatable lobster and a spaceman-like silver "rabbit", split opinion to say the least.
Does the artist feel misunderstood?
He replies cryptically: "I believe criticism and judgements prevent people from experiencing art."
"I remember I made art magazine ads. In one of them I had myself photographed with a big pig and a baby big in my arms," he said. "I wanted to call myself a pig before anyone else could."
These days Koons wants to be an example to the six children he has had with a former assistant and with whom he now divides his time between a farm in Pennsylvania and New York.
The 59-year-old, looking relaxed and impeccably dressed as ever in a sharp suit, explained he was on a "very balanced diet" and gobbled down a nutty protein bar before the interview.
He looks fondly on France, the first country he set foot in apart from the United States and recalls a lunch with former president Jacques Chirac in 2000.
"For an American artist, it is unbelievable to sit down and have lunch with the president of a country like France. It was such a symbol of the openness of this country," Koons said.
The retrospective runs at the Pompidou Centre in Paris from Wednesday until April, where it then moves to the Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish city of Bilbao.
It was previously displayed in the artist's hometown of New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art.