Mention Jeff Koons in the art world and you’ll get wildly divergent responses. Some will hail him as a genius, others as a charlatan.
Whatever your opinion, the American artist—known for elevating children’s toys and vacuum cleaners to the stature of the Greek gods, and for bringing large-scale balloon sculptures into the hallowed halls of the Louvre—is a highly successful disruptive giant of contemporary art.
The impresario of power pop art is a cultural phenomenon in his own right, so established that he is no longer affected by people’s opinions.
“Some people are very engaged with art, while others are simply intimidated by it,” he says. “They haven’t come to realise that art is a tool and can be very liberating. [But] as an artist, the only thing that really matters is trusting yourself, following your interests and focusing on them.”
Which is exactly what Koons has been doing since the 1980s, when he emerged as an innovative sculptor whose stainlesssteel statues—1986’s Rabbit being a famous example—won over curators, art historians and critics, who saw in his work a dazzling contemporary update of a broad range of heathen and holy iconography.
Koons continues to create art that falls between large-scale spectacle and boisterous carnival, constantly challenging the notion of good taste and high art. His aim, he says, is to eradicate the elitism of the art world.
“I really am just enjoying celebrating humanity,” he explains, “but also giving people the chance to rediscover themselves and their own possibilities through the work I make.”
Such ambitious, joyful intent is perhaps the main reason that, despite divided opinions about his work, Koons is one of the most famous and successful living American artists. Sales of his work regularly top the auctions.
In 2013, his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for US$58.4 million, making it the most expensivartwork sold at auction by a living artist.
People, it seems, are irresistibly drawn to Koons’ peculiar creative endeavours. And not just in the art world: in April, Koons partnered with luxury fashion giant Louis Vuitton to launch a new line of handbags, as well as scarves, key chains and small leather goods, including wallets and laptop sleeves—51 pieces in all —grouped under the name Masters.
Inspired by his 2015 Gazing Ball series of paintings featuring exacting reproductions of various masterworks, the collection sees five of the most famous paintings in history— Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses, Rubens’ The Tiger Hunt, Fragonard’s Girl with Dog, and Titian’s Mars, Venus and Cupid—printed onto classic Louis Vuitton handbags such as the Speedy and the Keepall.
“I liked the idea of finding new appreciation for things that came before us,” Koons says. “It broadens one’s perspective.”
The name of the original artist is emblazoned across the front, while Koons’ initials and the LV monogram appear on opposite corners at the bottom. The JK has been reworked in the style of the iconic LV the first time in 16 years of Louis Vuitton collaborations with artists that its closely guarded monogram has been used in such a way.
“I thought making the JK like the LV and having them side by side would give a new energy to everything,” Koons says. “It makes the bags special, but also expands Louis Vuitton’s reach and status.” The leather tag around the handle that normally secretes a lock or identification has also received the Koons treatment, transformed into the shape of his famous balloon bunny.
The result is absolutely Koons: high and low, tongue-in-cheek and humorously bold. It is great art made disposable—an accurate representation of the artist’s canon.
“I had no restrictions in the way I approached the collection,” Koons says, “which was wonderful. Working with LV was great in terms of resources, too. They have amazing materials and share my desire to celebrate craft and attention to detail. When the first samples came in, I went, ‘Wow! That’s a better sample than anything I’ve ever seen.’ The attention to detail, the quality of the leather, it all reflected what I want the public and future owners of the collection to feel: that I—we—care.”
Koons’ aspiration for the bag may sound a little idealistic, but, ultimately, that daydreamy attitude is exactly what has made him as an artist.
“For me, it’s a lot about feelings,” he says. “My art is very much about the viewer, or in this case the carrier. I want to create a form of reciprocal trust and the idea of a connection. I believe that through ideas we can change ourselves.”
Can a backpack depicting Rubens’ The Tiger Hunt trigger all that? Maybe. We certainly wouldn’t contradict the King of Pop Art.
(Text: Marianna Cerini)