PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

Jeff Koons

KATY SIEGEL: Let’s begin with your move to New York from Chicago. What year did you come here?

JEFF KOONS: I originally hitchhiked here at the end of ’76, but I didn’t officially move to New York until January ’77. In Chicago I went to the School of the Art Institute, and I enjoyed it because I was studying with people whose work and passion I really respected, like Ed Paschke and Jim Nutt. But I lost interest in my own work, which had been in kind of a personal iconography, and I realized that different things were happening in New York—different communities, the New Wave music scene. And that’s what really pulled me here.

KS: Were you part of the New Wave scene?

JK: I had a friend from Chicago who knew people like the Talking Heads, and I liked them and Patti Smith and the New York Dolls and Jonathan Richman. I wasn’t directly connected with them artistically, but I appreciated their sense of community and the work they were doing.

KS: When you first got here, you were friends with Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Was your work connected to theirs?

JK: I met Julian at the Mudd Club around 1980. He was very supportive. One time he brought me back to my apartment from the Mudd Club and saw my work and told David to see it, and told Mary [Boone] to see it—that was how I was going to have a show at Mary’s, even though it didn’t happen.

KS: What kind of art interested you most at the time?

JK: I had other friends here in New York who were involved with a different part of the art world. I liked what was going on at John Gibson’s gallery. I liked Bill Beckley; I worked at the Museum of Modern Art, and Bill had a show in the Projects gallery. I also liked Bill Lundberg, one of the first projection artists I saw, and James Carpenter and Dennis Oppenheim. It was an exciting gallery. And I always felt a very, very close connection to Martin Kippenberger.

KS: Was there anything that pulled this work together for you, that characterized it?

JK: The work was conceptual, but it represented itself more as “idea” art—it wasn’t as dry as classic Conceptual art. The presentation had a certain concise kind of character about it, not necessarily Pop, but very focused.

KS: How did you move from painting into your object-based work?

JK: My father was an interior decorator and had a showroom where things were on display, so I was brought up around objects. When I ultimately lost interest in painting, I enjoyed seeing art that used display, like Robert Smithson’s. My own earliest works present themselves as Smithson-type displays.

KS: Were you making a joke about Smithson by using commercial, mass-market objects?

JK: No, I really wasn’t being ironic. I just enjoyed the simple abstraction of mirrors and how they brought the viewer into the work. Then I added the kind of readymade that I was attracted to. New York is different now; I don’t think there’s anything like the way Fourteenth Street used to be. Back then there was a lot of street activity—people would be selling plastic beads and little birds that chirped—and I got involved in finding things I liked. I was losing interest in my paintings, and they were becoming three-dimensional. Finally one day I made a big mound and covered it with artificial leopard skin—I probably saw Mink DeVille and liked Willy DeVille’s leopard-skin guitar. Then I put some reflective, shiny, folded metallic fabric in a star shape and mounted a porcelain figure of a woman on it. On a table underneath there was another porcelain figure with an inflatable on either side of it: One was an inflatable panda, and the other was an inflatable elephant. This was 1977.

KS: Your first New York show was in the window of the New Museum in 1980. You called it “The New”—but what was new? Was it the vacuum cleaners? Was there a new sensibility?

JK: The object was new. Before, I had been working with objects and infringing on them—I would bolt or glue them to something. But when I did the New Museum window I was really just displaying the object: If it were a vacuum cleaner hanging in a Plexiglas display box, it would have a hole in its handle, and the only thing I would do was hang it from a hook mounted on the Plexiglas.

KS: That 1980 exhibition was not just your first exposure in New York but your only show for a while. You went home to Sarasota in 1982. When you came back to New York did things get better?

JK: Before I left, there was really no one there for the work. I was supposed to have had that show with Mary Boone, and then I started to work with Annina Nosei a little bit, but that didn’t go anywhere either. That’s when I went home for a while. I saved up enough money to come back and have a small apartment downtown, and eventually I got a gallery. I had been in a group show in Venezuela earlier [“Art of the Eighties,” Galería Durban, Caracas, 1980], and a young artist there, Meyer Vaisman, saw the show. Meyer got a little older, moved to New York, and opened a gallery on the Lower East Side, International With Monument. And some people who were going to show with him, like Richard Prince, mentioned my work, and Meyer said, “You know Koons? I always liked his work. I saw it in Caracas. How can I see him?” Peter Halley was also at the gallery, so it could’ve been through Peter too—he had done the “Science Fiction” show [John Weber Gallery, New York, 1983]. I was in a lot of good group shows from 1982 to ’85.

KS: What was the reaction to your first solo show there, in 1985?

JK: I think people liked the vacuum cleaner pieces I had shown earlier, but they wanted to see more, to see that I had a little wider reach. And I think “Equilibrium” did that. It was quite a narrative show.

KS: What was the narrative?

JK: Well, it dealt with states of being that really don’t exist, like the fish tank with a ball hovering in equilibrium, half in and half out of the water. This ultimate or desired state is not sustainable: Eventually the ball will sink to the bottom of the tank. Then there were the Nike posters, which acted as sirens that could take you under. I looked at the athletes in those posters as representing the artists of the moment, and the idea that we were using art for social mobility the way other ethnic groups have used sports. We were middle-class white kids using art to move up into another social class.

KS: Going from ’85 to ’86, with the “Luxury and Degradation” exhibition at International With Monument: Were those stainless steel sculptures also about social place in some sense?

JK: Yes, the sculptures represented a range of economic levels. Within these levels there were different temptations—luxury in different strengths. Eventually degradation would set in, and your economic and political power could be taken away from you. So it was a warning: Don’t be a fool, keep your eyes open.

KS: What was your attitude toward the culture that produced the Jim Beam decanters and the inflatables that you translated into stainless steel, the things that were the subjects of those works?

JK: They were symbols of my own cultural history, or of mass-cultural history. I’m always trying to create work that doesn’t make viewers feel they’re being spoken down to, so that they feel open participation.

KS: Critics grouped you with Vaisman, Halley, Haim Steinbach, and Ashley Bickerton. Did you feel you fit into neo-geo? Or did it seem like the critics were trying to make a movement that wasn’t there?

JK: Neo-geo felt like every five years the art world wants a new art world, a new emergence, new artists. Was there really a neo-geo? I don’t think so.

KS: When Sonnabend took all of you on at the same time, were you disappointed that people saw you as part of a movement instead of separating you out as an independent phenomenon?

JK: [Laughs.] I don’t know. Mostly I was excited to work with Ileana [Sonnabend], and my work changed. The main reason for making a piece like the stainless steel rabbit was that it felt like there was going to be a new audience for the work. And then after that I did the “Banality” show.

KS: Did that change things for you and your career?

JK: I think so. After I started showing with Ileana in ’86, I spent a lot more time showing in Europe, and I even started manufacturing in Europe. But Sonnabend has always been about art, not money or commerce.

KS: When you did the “Banality” show, in 1988, you were featured in magazine ads with women in bathing suits. Why?

JK: I wanted to make ads without any specific image of my work, just allude to the ideas in the show. At the time, it felt like our culture was so Hollywood-based that you weren’t participating in it unless you were involved with film. I remember seeing a photo in Artforum of David Bowie in a gold suit; it was such a tight, sharp photograph that it looked as if, if you took a hammer and tapped it, it would shatter like glass. The picture was taken by Greg Gorman, a celebrity photographer in Los Angeles who shoots a lot of people for film. I was making a project called “Baptism” for Artforum [November 1987], and I hired him to photograph me. After that, I decided I would design these ads and use myself as subject. I was trying to compete as a cultural identity with the Hollywood system.

KS: Do you think your work is understood differently now than it was in the 1980s? Has the art world changed since then?

JK: There are different types of mechanisms, or different types of packaging, because people don’t have enough confidence in art. It feels as though they have to spread their interests out—they have to be interested in not one but ten artists. I also think artists in the ’80s were trying to do something, trying to give to the viewer. I know there was some cynicism in the art world, but I don’t think that was the prevailing attitude. I think it was a generous time.

New York–based contributing editor Katy Siegel is assistant professor of contemporary art history and criticism at Hunter College, City University of New York.