Conversation with Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), 1994-2006.

Jeff Koons, Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), 1994-2006.

Conversation with Jeff Koons

by Gloria Maria Cappelletti and Fabrizio Meris, photography by Gloria Maria Cappelletti

The Fondation Beyeler is presenting this summer the first exhibition ever devoted by a Swiss museum to the body of work by American artist Jeff Koons in his three most important phases: “The New”, “Banality” and “Celebration.” The exhibition is an incredible emotional journey that seems to really leave a deep impression in the mind of the visitor. We had the pleasure to share some observations with Mr. Koons who is perhaps the most famous living artist


We would like to not simply ask you questions. Instead, we would like to share some ideas with you. We’re reminded of an existentialist philosopher named Jean Paul Sartre. Your body of work seems to be a reminder of his writings, especially of Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness.”

Jeff Koons:

I’ve always loved Kierkegaard and Sartre. On my Shop-Vac vacuum cleaner pieces, it says “Wet/Dry.”  To me that’s like either-or, Kierkegaard, “Being and Nothingness.” It’s existentialism.


So it was a good reference that we thought of.


Absolutely, yes.


While thinking of your work, we made a small schema starting from the idea of “Being and Nothingness” noting that the idea of your first body of work, “The New,” represents the being in itself. In other words, it’s the idea of an object that purely exists in itself, here, now, in this moment. There is no idea of consciousness about it. This is the way we see the work portrayed.

In your body of work “Banality,” we see the being for itself because there is consciousness coming into play, and the idea of circumstance. It shows the human related to the object. So you have this gap which is consciousness.

In “Celebration”, which is your last body of work, and still not concluded, our idea is that it will actually never be concluded because there is a tension between “The New” and “Banality”. It’s kind of a dialog to achieve a third state of experience – which is a kind of a dialectic movement.

Do our observations work for you?


I think that you are very very perceptive.

So, “The New”, absolutely, is a dialogue. Art always tries to become life’s energy. So you rally-up all these kinds of energies and they always want to get on top of life’s energy and become life’s form itself. But it always fails. And they just remain inanimate.

This type of Gestalt experience when you view something, that’s what “The New” was trying to deal with. It’s about self acceptance and the notion that the integrity of oneself is perfect. You can just display yourself.

These objects don’t perform. They have their integrity of birth. I thought of them in an art historical reference as being similar to theology – like the eternal virgin. These were objects that were presented in a similar way. They were dealing with eternal, where they were trying to confront some of the weaknesses of organic life to try to overpower life.

It’s a dialogue back and forth about the strength of organic life against the inorganic. But here the inorganic is inanimate and trying to overpower and say that it is better prepared to survive longer – a greater aspect of the eternal.

There are also references to communal and human history, in my work. The “Tripledecker” [three vacuum cleaners encased one on top of the other] become almost like classicism. There’s also family structure taking place in that the “Tripledecker” can almost be seen as a Papa Bear. The vacuum in between is Mamma Bear. Maybe Baby Bear at top. If you look at the other encasements, there’s a sense of family or community interaction.

The “Banality” work goes from taking a more distant perspective of participating, almost like an external experience from the self. Even though you feel it internally, there’s not so much internal play going on other than the Gestalt of this confrontation between the object and inorganic/organic life. “Banality” is very much trying to communicate that you have to have self acceptance. And when you have self acceptance, you can have transcendence into the objective realm.

In a real sense, I try to target cultural history because art can either empower or disempower. It empowers by letting the viewer have their own being as a foundation – their own complete history. It disempowers by making the viewer feel unprepared; not able to participate. So I tried to communicate to all viewers that they are perfect.

I tried to use materials such as porcelain to bring up sexual tension. One of the things that make people feel most insecure about themselves, and not have self acceptance, is sexuality. So I tried to use porcelain for the aspect of their own discovery of their bodies, which generally takes place in the bathroom. So you have this play with porcelain. Which also alludes to an economic aspect of where they come in socially. Because today a material like porcelain is completely democratized. We all can have it, not just an emperor or a king.


Yes, we talked about this aspect when viewing “Banality”. Originally, porcelain was so rare and precious that it was used as a kind of currency between kings.


That’s right. So, that democratized quality, where even the bathrooms are coated in porcelain; the tub, the toilet, the urinal. So, “Banality” is very much about self acceptance.

And then, I have to say that “Celebration” wanted to take on much more the realm of the mythic, of communal history, of the archetype. It’s a turn going away from external coming back into the internal. It deals with the cyclical year, with time.

There are images, like a “Cracked Egg”, that can represent Easter. A “Hanging Heart” that can represent Valentine’s Day. “Tulips” represent Spring. “Party hats” might represent a birthday. There are aspects of one’s relation to the external world that’s past the self. It’s communal and towards the mythic. Like the “Balloon Dog”, which is also very equestrian; like the Trojan horse.

Here at Beyeler I end with a hybrid which is the “Ballon Swan”, which wasn’t originally “Celebration.” I made “Celebration” from 1994 to 2000. I conceived the work in 1994 and everything was designed within a two year time period.

“Ballon Swan” is a piece that is much more Paleolithic. It’s like a totem with a sexual harmony that becomes both masculine and feminine; then completely feminine.

And I have to say that Picasso had a force of understanding objective art. Coming to a realization of trust in the intuitive, and trying to achieve ones freedom of gesture in life to open myself up to physical gesture again. Because the Duchampian dialogue really limited a whole generation from the physicality of internal life.


That’s perfect. Thank you so much. That’s exactly the direction we wanted our exchange of ideas of go!


I am glad it worked out.


Jeff Koons at Fondation Beyeler, Photo Gallery: http://www.collectortribune.com/2012/06/27/photo-gallery-jeff-koons-the-fondation-beyeler/

For further information:

Baselstrasse 101
CH-4125 Riehen / Basel


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4 Responses to "Conversation with Jeff Koons"

  1. What a load of bullshit! Koons is not exactly in the same class as Kierkegaard (NOT Kirkegaard!) & Sartre. Koons is in kindergarten…

    • The Collector Tribune says:

      Thanks for the spelling note! We actually did not want to compare Koons with Kierkegaard or Sartre. Nevertheless kindergartens are fun places!

  2. Bill Vielehr says:

    Does Koon’s real visual inspiration come from looking at Communication Arts Magazine? HIs work looks like it was done by graphic designers for advertisements.

  3. You’re welcome. Kindergarten might be fun if you’re a kid, but if you’re an adult..?!?
    Is it true that Koons worked at Wall Street before he became an “artist”?

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