Jeff Koons has two exhibitions on this autumn. One is at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, built in the 15th century by Renaissance banking tycoons to flaunt their wealth. The other is at the Qatar Museums Gallery, built in the 21st century by Gulf oil tycoons to flaunt their wealth.
Koons certainly suits that purpose
Indeed. The 66-year-old’s brash, Pop Art-inspired work is loved by plutocrats the world over. Koons holds the record for the most expensive piece of art by a living artist sold at auction: Rabbit, a metre-high stainless-steel rabbit sculpture, was bought by a hedge funder for $91.1m in 2019. Puppy, a 43ft-high, 44-ton puppy sculpture made of steel and live flowers, costs its owner, newspaper tycoon Peter Brant, $75,000 a year just to maintain. As for Koons, his net worth was $100m in 2013, and contemporary estimates put him north of $400m. But not everyone’s a fan. The late art critic Robert Hughes said he had “the slimy assurance of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida”. When the artist eavesdropped on the crowd at an exhibition of his in the Palace of Versailles, he heard one security guard’s appraisal: “Merde, merde, merde.”
Where did Koons’s art career start?
As a 12-year-old, growing up in Pennsylvania, he painted copies of Old Masters that his interior-decorator father then sold. After studying painting in Baltimore and Chicago, Koons moved to New York and started working on the membership desk at the Museum of Modern Art. His avant-garde get-up – dyed red hair, a Dalí-style pencil moustache and a sequined jacket – concealed a ruthless salesman who shifted five times more memberships than anyone else. Impressed by his patter, one of his customers invited him to Wall Street, where he worked as a commodities trader for six years.
Did his art-making stall?
Koons used his finance money to fund his artwork. Early pieces included the Equilibrium series, a collection of basketballs suspended in distilled water – he roped in a Nobel laureate to help out with the physics. His 1988 exhibition Banality was his springboard to international fame: the pieces were made in triplicate so the show could be staged simultaneously in New York, Chicago and Cologne; adverts for it featured Koons posing with bikini-clad women. Banality brought in $5m, of which Koons took half.
Koons was leafing through a magazine when he spotted a picture of Ilona Staller, an Italian porn star, parliamentarian and chess fiend who once offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein if the dictator let weapons inspectors into Iraq. Koons hired her as a model, and their on-set chemistry led to Made in Heaven, a series of extremely graphic paintings and sculptures of the pair in various amorous positions. Art dealer Ileana Sonnabend, then in her seventies, bought Red Butt (subject self-explanatory) and hung it above her office desk. Damien Hirst, a friend of Koons, owns Exaltation, whose subject matter is best not explained. “Ilona uses her body in the way another artist uses a paintbrush or a chisel,” Koons told Vanity Fair in 1991. “And she communicates a very precise language with her genitalia.” He never learnt Italian, so the language barrier meant they communicated largely through Koons’s secretary. And other means.
Did the relationship last?
Long enough for them to get married and have a child, Ludwig, who became the subject of a vicious custody battle that involved at least one kidnapping. Koons had to sell most of his private art collection to finance the proceedings. He is now on good terms with Ludwig, 29, and his first daughter, 46-year-old Shannon Rogers, who was conceived with his college girlfriend and put up for adoption. Koons has had six more children with his second wife, Justine Wheeler, a 49-year-old South African artist. He drives a modified 11-person van to fit them all in.
Where does the brood live?
Between a $36m pair of Manhattan townhouses and Koons’s grandfather’s farm in Pennsylvania. The artist’s studio occupies two floors of a Manhattan office block, where about 50 assistants meticulously craft his creations, often painting by numbers. (“Does the film director make the film?” Koons retorted when The Sunday Times’s Kirsty Lang asked if he gets hands-on himself.) His sculptures, which often involve aluminium and steel mimicking much softer surfaces, are expensive and time-consuming to make, “a bit like the way Fabergé eggs were made in the past”, says art journalist Georgina Adam. Koons has faced lawsuits over tardy work – one impatient buyer tried to sell his piece on before it was finished.
That really is treating art like a financial asset. What’s next?
Next year Koons plans to release some digital art in the form of NFTs (non-fungible tokens). It’s sure to cost a fortune – though transport and maintenance costs should be mercifully low.
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