Jeff Koons is America’s showman artist – as much P.T. Barnum as he is Andy Warhol.
He is without question a commercial success, with a lifetime portfolio valued at more than $1 billion. His work has been featured on an array of prominent stages – from Paris museums to New York’s Rockefeller Center and even the cover of a Lady Gaga album. He played a cameo role in an Oscar-winning film, and holds the distinction of officer in the French Legion of Honor.
For most of his 35-year career, he also has been controversial – dividing his audience into lovers and haters. Some critics extol him as a pop art genius. They say his transformation of everyday items such as vacuum cleaners into art represents brilliantly biting commentary on a society obsessed with the purchase of mass-produced items. Others deride Koons as a commercial artist who has made a career of peddling kitsch to, as one critic put it, “the tacky rich.”
At the moment, Koons is the most polarizing – and most talked-about – figure in Sacramento. Last week, the City Council approved a contract to purchase an $8 million sculpture from Koons and his New York gallery to be showcased in the public plaza outside the NBA arena under construction in the city’s downtown.
Koons watched from afar as city officials and the local arts community debated whether to close the deal, which marks by far the highest price paid for public art in Sacramento history. Owners of the Sacramento Kings proposed the purchase – and are contributing $5.5 million toward its cost and maintenance. But even some of the team’s most ardent fans cringed at the notion of an 18-foot, Crayola-colored sculpture modeled after Winnie-the-Pooh’s sidekick, Piglet, as the centerpiece in front of the new arena.
“I think that’s the nature of art,” Koons said in a phone interview from his New York studio. “Some people are more open to opening themselves up to experiences, and other times, some people are a little more closed to opening themselves up.”
Rachel Teagle, director of the Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, was an assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when the museum purchased three of Koons’ sculptures. She said he has thrived in his role as a mega-celebrity who divides people – and who has unapologetically made millions of dollars in the process.
“He is unabashed in his ability to exploit the art world for what it is,” Teagle said. “He courts the biggest, splashiest public engagements and invites people to ask that age-old question: Is the emperor wearing clothes? He delights in that game.”
The sculpture headed for Sacramento is the fifth in a collection called “Coloring Book,” a series Koons said was inspired by the notion of a child coloring over the lines of an image of Piglet. Koons and his army of assistants have started crafting the piece inside a studio that takes up a quarter of a city block in New York’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood.
Opponents – including some of Sacramento’s leading artists – mocked the choice, saying it has no connection to Sacramento, the city’s culture or its triumphant struggle to keep the Kings in town. “It really comes down to one question,” said Sacramento-based painter and performance artist David Garibaldi. “Can we use art to inspire our city, or is it just for a few in art critic circles?”
But Koons said he thinks the arena is the perfect home for the piece, because it represents optimism and playful independence. The sculpture will be shaped from mirror-polished stainless steel, according to his gallery, and will be coated in a reflective surface that makes it interactive.
“When you move, the reflections change, and it really affirms your existence and the importance in every moment of life,” Koons said. “I hope that a piece like ‘Coloring Book’ can excite young children who are going hand-in-hand with their mother and father and with their sisters and their grandparents to a sporting event (at the arena), that all generations can find some contemplative interaction with the piece.”
Museums and condos
Koons, 60, was born in York, Pa., where his father sold furniture and his mother was a seamstress. After receiving an art degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, he moved to New York, and traded commodities on Wall Street for a short time before focusing on his art career.
One of his early series, called “The New,” was made up largely of name-brand vacuum cleaners hung on walls and displayed in cases. Other early series included inflatable flowers and posters of NBA stars. His use of commercial products in his work has prompted numerous lawsuits for copyright infringement, with mixed results.
Despite the lawsuits, his work would continue to draw on America’s popular culture and penchant for dime-store tchotchkes. In 1988, Koons completed “Banality,” a series that featured a gold porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson holding his chimpanzee, Bubbles, that sold for $5.6 million. The next year, he embarked on his “Made in Heaven” series, which showed Koons in sexually explicit acts with Ilona Staller, an Italian pornography star with whom Koons had a short marriage. At the time, Koons said he was seeking to eliminate the negative stigma of sex.
Over the decades, Koons has employed a large shop of assistants to help craft his work, essentially acting as conductor over a chorus of artisans who carry out his vision. His work has been featured in some of the world’s most renowned museums and galleries. He’s been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Palace of Versailles in France. His sculpture of Lady Gaga appeared on the cover of her 2013 album, “ARTPOP.”
He runs in a circle of wealthy and glamorous patrons, and much of his work is in the possession of private collectors. That includes Los Angeles billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and the royal family of Qatar, according to a profile of the artist in New York Magazine. Argentine developer Eduardo Costantini reportedly paid $14 million to commission two Koons sculptures for an oceanfront condo tower he is building in Miami.
That kind of asking price is common for Koons. At least four of his pieces have sold for more than $20 million; his “Balloon Dog (Orange),” a sculpture of a dog made of balloons, sold at a 2013 auction for $58.4 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for the work of a living artist.
Those payouts have led some critics to disparage Koons as a salesman. “He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida,” the late art critic Robert Hughes once wrote of Koons. “And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.”
Koons’ ties to Sacramento actually predate the controversy over his Piglet sculpture. As a young artist, he followed the work of painter Jim Nutt, a leader in the Chicago surrealist movement. Koons said his closest study of Nutt’s work took place while Nutt lived in Sacramento, where he taught art at Sacramento State in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 2002, Koons married Justine Wheeler, an artist who worked in his studio in the 1990s. Koons said his mother-in-law lives in Sacramento, and the couple, who now have six children, have brought their family for visits.
Koons said his family particularly likes Old Sacramento. As he began designing his sculpture “Train,” Koons said he sought inspiration from the locomotives at the California State Railroad Museum. “Train” has not been completed, but one day could be placed on New York City’s High Line, a park that was constructed atop an old elevated railroad spur.
A hands-on role
His journey to the center of a Sacramento controversy began indirectly last year, when local art patron Marcy Friedman placed a successful bid at a Crocker Art Musuem event for a tour of Koons’ New York studio. In September, Friedman and her family went to New York, where they met with Koons and toured a retrospective of his work on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art (the retrospective is now at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris).
Koons spent more than an hour with the Friedmans in his studio. “We were all blown away by how genuine he was, how completely open about his process he was,” Friedman said. “He wasn’t some politician looking past us. With all of New York talking (about the Whitney show), he could have been arrogant and he was not.”
Contrary to the criticisms of him as a director who oversees a factory-like operation, Friedman said Koons appeared to take a hands-on role with his art. As they passed a small group of assistants polishing a reflective ball, Koons stopped and placed his finger on a spot that needed attention.
A few weeks after the group returned to Sacramento, it became clear that the city had a shot at acquiring a Koons piece. Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive – a client of Koons’ gallery, Gagosian – sent word to a panel exploring the arena art choices that a sculpture in the “Coloring Book” series might become available for the arena.
The city and Kings previously had agreed to dedicate $5.5 million for public art at the arena, with the sides roughly splitting the budget. The region’s Art in Public Places program requires that 2 percent of construction budgets for public projects be spent on art. The arena’s construction cost is estimated at just over $270 million.
That initial art budget wouldn’t have been enough to snag a Koons, so Ranadive and team minority owners Kevin Nagle and Phil Oates agreed to contribute an additional $1 million apiece. Friedman donated another $1 million for purchase of locally produced art at the arena; the Kings and city are contributing $250,000 each to that fund as well.
Ranadive said the Koons sculpture “will be a symbol of hope and optimism, which will represent the aspirations of Sacramento well.”
At first, Koons said he didn’t give much thought to the fact that Sacramento would be the first municipality to own one of his sculptures. But as the debate intensified over whether “Coloring Book” was the right choice, Koons said he was struck by the role he was playing in a vibrant community dialogue.
“It’s not just one private collector looking at something and saying they’d like that and would like to have that in their collection or a museum,” he said. “This is a whole community, and it’s really very moving.”
Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat. Bee staff writer Ed Fletcher contributed to this report.