By the looks of the audience at New York’s 92nd Street Y, young artists don’t have much interest in establishment figures such as Jeff Koons. I only recognized maybe three or four Chelsea personalities at the artist’s talk with Artforum critic Katy Siegel last week. This came of something of a surprise given the market’s continued investment in his work, and I left thinking that contemporary professionals had missed out on one of Koons’s more revealing talks. He certainly faired considerably better than he did earlier this month with New York Times reporter Carol Vogel. He demonstrated his deep investment in the process of art making, and what appeared to be a genuine disinterest in his market value. Siegel’s amicable demeanor and insight made Koons's familiar slick facade and penchant for clichéd aphorisms a bit more palatable.
Koons started out discussing his investment in art as a child and a student. This helped dispel the myth that the artist began as a stockbroker (he went into it after art school) and the assumptions that frequently follow — that he had no artistic background or training. It also prompted one of the more illuminating observations of the evening, where Siegel responded to Koons's reflections about his father’s occupation as an interior designer, and his experiences in the family’s showroom.
“I think there’s an important tension in your work between the temporary — the idea that things change — and the idea of the more permanent,” Siegel said. “And so I wonder if that comes from the experience of seeing something that looked like a house when you were young, but that was always changing in a way that our houses don’t.” Siegel clicked to a slide of plexiglass vitrine Koons made in the early 1980s featuring his male and female-like “breathing machines” (vacuum cleaners). The slide not only showed the appliance to be very specific to his interest in an object's relationship to change and permanence — and sexuality — but drew a very clear connection to his father’s showroom and his own use of display.
Such observations helped substantiate Koons’s familiar and often plain weird shtick about how methods of display reveal our “sense of self” and how his choice of subject matter is often an attempt to assist us with “self acceptance”. This a process that apparently begins when a child takes a bath and “investigate[s] their bod[y] for the first time”. Koons dwelled on childhood, especially his own, as though every anecdote were of interest or merit. “At around five years old I stuck our vacuum cleaner in the toilet, and I got in a little bit of trouble.” Shortly thereafter, he speculated about the origin of his interest in vacuum cleaners, which he displayed in fluorescently-lit vitirines in his early-1980s series The New. “I would imagine [my interest in the vacuum cleaner] also comes from being a child, being confronted by a machine that’s kind of strong”¦” While many of these childhood experiences clearly influenced his work, such references lack currency among most professionals, presumably because most of us understand as a given that our early environment shapes our perception, but expect greater complexity in the ideas the work attempts to address.
To read the full piece click here.