Artist-Phenomenon Jeff Koons Captures Montclair Art Museum Stage
It was the kind of amazing opportunity that packed Leir Hall with a sold out crowd of about 400 fine arts students, artists, art collectors, art lovers and the merely curious.
It was also quite a show—one part dizzying tour through Koons’ stellar career and globetrotting life (including marriage to porn star Cicciolina), one part Koons’ philosophy of art, one part motivational speaker: “If you have a vision, you can do anything,” Koons said. “The things we want to do the most in life, we put off because it’s anxiety. For me, it’s removing anxiety.”
Let’s back up and start with the official Koons image (pictured here) by Martin Schoeller. Koons, dressed in sartorial white splendor, runs smilingly across an urban landscape. He’s also carrying an inflatable lobster
For starters, the 56 -year-old superstar, has a lot to smile about. MSU’s Fine Arts Department’s Andrew Atkinson shared a partial list of Koons’ honors: Honorary Royal Academician of the English Royal Academy of Art and Officier in the French Legion of Honor. Koons’ solo exhibits include shows at major museums in London, Berlin, Tokyo and New York, including his hit summer 2009 rooftop turn at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The $23,000,000 one of his “Hanging Hearts” fetched in 2007 might contribute to that smile, too.
Back to the photograph: Koons projects the air that dressing head-to-toe in urban white and carrying an inflatable lobster is ordinary.
Nothing about Koons’ life or art is ordinary, except for Koons’ acceptance (as observed by Montclair attorney and singer songwriter Bob Mellman) of “the magical in the ordinary.”
Lobster imagery recurs in many of Koons’ paintings: For Koons, the lobster represents both female and male regenerative powers and—to mix metaphors as well as species—artist as sacrificial lamb. “This lobster looks like it’s been burned at the stake,” Koons said, pointing to the screen. “If you stay in the public eye long enough, it is like being burned at the stake.”
Sculpturally, Koons—whether working in his early inflatables or later, in large scale, polished stainless steel or monumental topiary on steel– favors the other end of the cuddly scale: bunnies and puppies. His stainless steel-and-floral, 43-foot-high “Puppy” sits permanently in front of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania, around this time of year, there were Easter bunnies on the lawns; the rabbits are references to my childhood,” Koons said. “I see the inflatables as anthropomorphic,” Koons said. “Inflated, you breathe air into them–symbols of life. Deflated, they are symbols of death.”
Koons returned to themes of the commodification of desire and celebrity throughout his talk. Perhaps, the most self revealing part of the evening was his discussion of his now notorious “Made in Heaven” series (oil and silk screen on canvas): highly sexual, glamour images of himself and then wife Cicciolina (Ilona Staller) as stars in a Hollywood movie. Koons showed an R-rated version; not shown were the later X-rated depictions.
“People must accept their history and be open,” Koons said. “Art can save you, if you trust in yourself. Look at the world without judgment, place yourself into the highest state of enlightenment.”
The initial “Made in Heaven” work was done for a Whitney Museum group show, “Image World.” “I had become an art star, so I needed to be seen as if I had made a film,” Koons said. Hollywood is the ultimate expression of celebrity, he explained.
Throughout the night, Koons returned to his philosophy of art: “Art can be a vehicle of enlightenment, of transcendence,” Koons said. “Or it can disempower, make people feel they are not ready to participate.”
Participating emerged as the key to Koons: both participating in an ongoing artistic dialogue with other artists, notably Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, as well as participating in art.
“When I look at art, I get excited—Titian, Tintoretto, Dali,” Koons said. “I never had a choice. The success is always secondary. I’d be happy living a much simpler life as long as I could participate.”
“Warhol and Cars: American Icons” runs through Sunday, June 19. The MAM is open Wednesdays through Sundays. See www.montclairartmuseum.org or call (973) 746-5555. The museum is located at 3 South Mountain Ave., is handicapped accessible, and has adjacent parking. Nonmember admission is $12; $10 for seniors 65+ free for children under 12 and for all the first Friday of every month.