Interview: what do you know about art collector Jeff Koons?

Stefano Pirovano


We reached the most celebrated living artist of the world at the phone on 14th September, a week before he flew to Florence to oversee the placement of his “Pluto and Proserpina” and “Barberini Faun” at Palazzo Vecchio, in the company of artists such as Michelangelo, Donatello and Ghirlandaio. In that occasion he didn’t mention the solo exhibition he was going to open at Gagosian in New York at the beginning of November (Gazing ball paintings), even if the show had likely already existed in the artist’s mind and it would have been a smart move to pair these two related events. He didn’t, but the two episodes are in fact strictly connected, and both of them are indeed crucial not only in the artist’s career, but also in the history of the relation between contemporary art and old masters: the Florence episode is somehow reinforcing the primacy of his seminal show at Versailles in 2008, while the new series of paintings at Gagosian are proving that Gazing Balls are not a secondary work in the artist production, even if less market friendly than the inflatables. On the contrary, they should probably be regarded as the most enigmatic work he has ever made. His approach to art collecting will tell you why.


People know you as a great contemporary artist, but it is said that you are also a collector of old master paintings and sculptures. Is this true? If so, could you please describe your approach as a collector of fine arts?


The only thing that I know and enjoy the most is art. So I do collect. I have mostly paintings, and some sculptures too. It ranges from antiquity up to the present days. I love 18th and 19th century. I have some mannerist pieces, some Baroque ones, but mostly 19th century and modern art.


How would you describe your approach as a collector?


The same way I approach making artworks. I follow my intuition and things that make me feel certain interesting sensations or stimulate me intellectually. There are different artists throughout art history that automatically I’m pulled to but I am always very open to new works. You just have to open yourself up to different experiences and go along with them. It can be one of the most rewarding and life changing experiences.


If you could chose, which old master would you like to have dinner with?


Being able to show in Palazzo Vecchio and have my works in the company of Donatello and Michelangelo is incredible for me. It’s hard to ask for anything, or to desire, more than that. I love the dialogue about sculptures and paintings in Donatello, who was probably one of the first artists who really looked for a new sculpture which should be pure of polychrome. This is a fascinating discussion about painting and sculpture, and the attributes and the strengths that each of these have.


During the last years, from the Venice Biennial curated by Bice Curiger to the recent “Serial classics” exhibition at the Fondazione Prada, many art institutions have focused their attention on the dialogue between contemporary and the art from the past. Also you, for instance with the series titled Glazin’ Balls, have nourished this dialogue. Why has tradition become abruptly so important for contemporary art?


I think it comes basically from the democratization of information and how easily it circulates today. You can be at home in the evening time and visit the most amazing institutional collections in the world. And if there is any artist you are interested in, you can dive into within a short period of time and have all the information about their life, or how they look like. When we look at artworks, also from the past, we can truly experience time travel and we can get an essence of how it was like to be alive at that time, to be a human being, and still feel that sense of wonders and connection. Just like genes in the DNA are tied together, culturally we are linked in the same way. When now I look back to history it feels like a family. If I make a reference to Pussin it’s because Pussin feels like a great uncle. And being able to show with Michelangelo and Donatello will be like showing with a great-great-great cousin. It’s a wonderful sense of community and family. Information leads automatically to an appreciation for the past.


What was the most difficult thing, for an artist like you, about having a show in a city such as Florence?


I haven’t found anything difficult, other than the invitation. I guess I had to be very very patience for the invitation. And I am so fortunate and so lucky that an invitation was brought to me, and it came through the mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella. And I was so thrilled and so honoured. As an artist, you don’t even think about the possibility of such a wonderful inclusion.


Have you ever visited any museum in Florence?


Of course I’ve been to Florence in the past, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Palazzo Vecchio with my family. When I travel I like to travel with my family and I enjoy showing my children artworks. They love art, and they love the experience. One of the reasons why I started collecting was because I wanted my children to realize that art is something much greater than their mother and father: I am an artist, but also my wife is an artist. I wanted them when thinking about art to think about Donatello or Michelangelo or Velásquez and not to be thinking about mum and dad. They have to realize that the real life is something so much vaster and that they have so much opportunities in that are for themselves.


In the last months the Italian government did a lot to improve the standard of our museums. As an artist, what advice would you like to give to our Ministry of Culture?


I think in the past years Italy has been done a wonderful job in the preservation of the artworks within the different museums’ collections. I believe that there has been an effort to keep the museums open longer and later, so that the possibility of viewing works is more flexible to the life of people every day. The most important thing is the care of the objects. It’s a responsibility to be able to conserve the objects for the future generations, and I think Italy has been doing that. Art is something which happens and is experienced inside the human being. Art is not in the object, or in the sculpture, or on the surface of the painting that you may view in a gallery. These images and objects are performance transponders that can excite you and let you become aware of your own potential as a human being. And this is a fantastic vital quality. What is interesting about art is the potential that it gives you. That’s the art. But what would the object be without the viewer? It would be nothing. So the extension of the museums’ hours is the most important thing to give people the opportunity of this interaction.


What would you have done if you hadn’t been an artist?


Let me be a little bit of a dilettante and perform with ideas like sociology, philosophy, aesthetics, physic, all the human disciplines. But the discipline I do feel the closest to would be philosophy.


What makes an idea become a work of art?


It’s a very intuitive process. You have interests, you have things that capture your attention. You start to become aware of these interests and if you just follow them, and focus on them it takes you to this metaphysical place. That’s where you find art and it’s a very intuitive process. And after the work exists it’s the idea that comes into play.


How would you describe this specific moment in your career?


A highlight. It’s extraordinary to be able to have the platform to share my work with the public and to be able to really have no excuses of not being able to feel a sense that I have every opportunity to make the gestures that I would like to make through my work, in my life.


Which is the most inspiring place for you?

I would have to say my farm in Pennsylvania. It’s inspiring because that is where my family and I are located and we really just follow our interests together, we reflect on activities we would like to do, we travel the world, we have different experiences. It’s a place where we feel connected to our community, to the earth, to nature and we feel a sense of being able to reflect and follow into the process of our life.

January 27, 2016