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'The Art World Is Ripe for Me' : Jeff Koons' high-profile marketing and media manipulation makes his talent seem secondary

January 22, 1989|KRISTINE McKENNA

Every so often an artist comes along who really seems to bug people and Jeff Koons is this year's model. A former publicist for the Museum of Modern Art who spent five years on Wall Street selling bonds and futures, the 34-year-old Koons is so adept at deal-making and manipulating the media that his artworks are so much icing on the cake of his career.

Whereas artists have traditionally been highly discreet about marketing strategies, Koons brandishes his like a revolver, and though this bracing slap in the face has collectors clamoring for the opportunity to fork over a few hundred grand for the privilege of owning one of his pieces, (he interviews potential buyers before allowing them the honor), many observers find the artist to be symptomatic of all that is currently wrong with the art world.

"In the late '80s the art world is dominated more than ever by the almighty buck and no artist is more informed by this climate than Koons," comments New York Times art critic Michael Brenson. "At a time when artists have become known for their entrepreneurial skills, he's brazen in his entrepreneurial ambition and seems to want more money than any artist his age has ever made for art."

Koons is getting more money too. A recent series of work unveiled last December was executed in an edition of three so that the same exhibition could simultaneously take place in New York, Chicago and Cologne, West Germany. If all the shows sold out (and by now they surely have) Koons stands to take in more than $5 million. Adding insult to injury, Koons promoted the show with a series of glossy ads (shot by glamour photographer Greg Gorman) starring Jeff Koons, made up like a male model and posed at the center of six different scenarios, one of which depicted the artist perched on a throne, proclaiming himself king of the art world.

Shameless grandstanding of this sort doesn't hit the art world too often so it does tend to make people sit up and take notice. "This is a fabulous time to be an artist, " crows Koons. "The art world is absolutely ripe for someone like me."

With his career best described as a series of carefully executed advertising campaigns, Koons has done a masterful job of fabricating an easily identifiable persona for himself, however, his high profile doesn't necessarily mean he's well-loved.

"Jeff knows the mechanisms of advertising and media extremely well and that seems to disturb a lot of people," observes Ann Goldstein, a curator for MOCA who selected Koons as one of 30 artists to be included in "Forest of Signs," an eagerly anticipated show that opens in May. "His knowledge of those fields is an integral part of his work, which explores the power of representation in the mass media."

And what do Koons' explorations of the power of mass media look like? His recent show included "Popples," a porcelain knock-off of a stuffed rabbit with blue nose and yellow hair ($50,000); a life-sized polychromed wood replica of Buster Keaton on a donkey ($100,000); and a gilded Rococo mirror in the shape of Christ ($150,000). In short, the sort of stuff you'd expect to find in Liberace's garage. Ostensibly an inquiry into the hidden life of objects and how we relate to our possessions, Koons' oversized Hummel figures vibrate with the garish, hysterical cheerfulness we associate with shopping malls and amusement parks.

The Koonsian sales pitch that accompanies this bizarre melange of stuffed animals, pop stars and lawn statuary goes something like this:

"My pieces are very bourgeois--in fact, I want them to be the epitome of bourgeois because that is the rallying call of the middle class," Koons said in an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel. An impeccably mannered man whose unctuous manner leaves a grease stain on every sentence he utters, Koons goes on to explain that "right now I'm very interested in banality and see banality as a savior. The bourgeoisie feels tremendous guilt about their moral position in the world today, but I say to them, embrace your guilt, embrace your banality and move forward. I want to remove the guilt we feel for responding to banality."

Fed on mass media, Koons is big fan of the advertising industry and has formulated the ideas about class struggle, desire and manipulation that inform his work simply by being a child of his times. His hotel room is littered with popular magazines like Spin, Rolling Stone and the Face, and he confesses that when he watches television, he constantly flips through all 35 channels. Asked what's currently inspiring him, he mentions rock group Guns N' Roses. "I like their tattoos and the way they've marketed themselves," he explains. He admits to having been influenced by the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, however, his real hero is Michael Jackson. "The responsibility of the artist is to seduce, manipulate and win his negotiations and Michael Jackson is a great negotiator," he said, glowing with admiration.

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