Muhammad Ali, the Hulk and an aluminum dog with stretch panties – Jeff Koons talks about his exhibition at Almine Rech Gallery (Brussels)

‘The power of art lies in its connections’ 

‘My biggest influence? Picasso.’ Every inch a gentleman. Or should that be: salesman? It certainly is the correct answer for an artist showing his work at a gallery owned by Picasso’s grandson and his spouse. For the first time since 1992 Jeff Koons is presenting some of his work in Belgium (through November 17): 17 pieces, dating from 1994 to a painting the American artist finished most recently. On the day of the opening Koons offered a tour through his show, and Utopia Parkway smilingly followed him about. So, thinking of going over to this exhibition many Belgian museums or institutions will envy the Almine Rech Gallery for? Then read the holy words by the master himself. Con man or genius? Never mind. Follow that guide!

‘There’s a lot of green in this exhibition’
‘Hulks (Bell)’ (2004-2012)

‘I’ve tried to bring together different works that would constitute as beautiful an exhibition as possible. I brought together works from the Celebration series, from 1994, up to my most recent work, Antiquity (Farnese bull), which was finished just five days ago. There are different materials in this exhibition, from polyethylene, stainless steel to some bronze and aluminum pieces. I’m really thrilled to have the exhibition here, at the Almine Rech Gallery, to have the connection with the Picasso family, and with Picasso’s work.’
‘As you can see there’s a lot of green in this exhibition. You’re greeted right away [at the entrance] with the green of these Hulks, then you come down [to the big exhibition space] and you have the green Cannonballs and another green Hulk. It’s one of the things that I am really thrilled about, with this exhibition, the works and the way they are installed. Because Picasso used a lot of green. In so many paintings. He was never afraid to use green.’
‘About the nature of my work… I used ready mades a lot. I use objects and references to things that already exist. The reason for that is to communicate to people that everything is already here. It is about the removal of judgements. My experience as an artist had been that, if you are able to go inward and have self acceptance, then you are able from that point to go outward. After you’ve accepted yourself, automatically, you want to go out.’
‘Everything is kind of a metaphor for this externalization; of going outward. It’s not about accepting these objects, that are external. It’s about the acceptance of others. Everything ends up to be a metaphor for people. The highest transcendence art can take you is this acceptance of others. Total acceptance.’

‘The power of art lies in its connections’
‘Balloon Venus (Magenta)’ (2008-2012)

‘This is one of my newest sculptures. It’s making reference to the Venus of Willendorf: a 24.000 years old, paleolithic sculpture. The original Venus is very small (11 cm/4,3 inch). My Venus is made out of one balloon. The reason I work with balloons is because we’re balloon-like. We take breath, we’re kind of a symbol of optimism, we have a lot of energy, we hold our form. And when we exhale, we lose our form and we become a symbol of death. This object is permanently inflated, so it has an underlying aspect of optimism.’
‘Every chamber of the balloon is interconnected. It’s authentic: every twist is a twist that existed in the original balloon. If you walk around the piece, you have the chance to look inside the Venus and everything is revealed. There is a little aspect of violence, in a way. Nothing is held back of her inner being.’
‘For me the power of art lies in its connections. The more connections something has, the more 360° it becomes. The more it emulates true life. When I look at this sculpture, I think of Max Ernst and his painting Of this man shall know nothing. André Breton used to have it behind his desk in his office. It’s Ernst’s view of the cosmos. You have like two crescent moons, but if you look at it you realise that it’s somebody having sex. There’s kind of a masculine/feminine presence. But it’s only one person. And they’re actually having sex with themselves.’
‘The same goes for the Venus of Willendorf. If you look at it, it’s truly a symbol of fertility, because it can procreate on its own. The breasts are full and voluptuous. But if you let your mind start to go, the breasts could actually be testicles and the stomach could actually be a phallus. It’s going in on itself and procreating.’

‘Circular dots paying homage to Dali’
‘Waterfall (Pink)’ (2010-2012)

‘This painting, made of circular dots, is paying homage to Dali. He always had a lot of interest in science and mathematics. In 1958 he made a painting called The sistine Madonna. He took an image of the pope out of Paris Match magazine, he zoomed in on the ear and  painted the Madonna and child in it. It was shown in 1958 in New York and ended up having kind of an uproar. A lot of young artists were interested in it. Before that, there was no Andy Warhol silkscreen, no Roy Lichtenstein band-aid dots, no Rauschenberg printing. It had a huge impact.’
‘So yes, I like to make all these different references. This one is making reference to Lichtenstein, Polke and pointillism. All those colours are kind of hovering in space and create these holograms. If you look at this image and you get distance… The more distance you have, the more realistic it will become. And if you have an iPhone, it will give you that distance, digitally.’

‘The Hulk in a molecular-like structure’
‘Cannonballs (Hulk)’ (2006-2010)

‘I like these cannonballs in relation to the painting [Waterfall (Pink)], in that they too are broken up into these dots. This stack of cannonballs is actually The Hulk. If you would take the Hulk and break him down, in a molecular-like structure, this would be the proportions. Of his greens, his violet and his black. This piece is having a dialogue with minimalism and making reference to Sol LeWitt.’

‘Giving a sense of confidence to the viewer’
‘Dolphin Taz Trashcan’ (2007-2011)

‘This is made of aluminum. I’ve always seen the inflatables as anthropomorphic, as I mentioned with the Balloon Venus. They are like us. But there is another kind of psychological aspect that happens. If we think of ourselves as these balloons a bit… there’s a density too. When we think of our internal life; there’s blood, guts, we have ideas, thoughts. There’s an internal density, and outside it’s kind of vacuous; space. But when we look at an inflatable, all of a sudden, there’s a reversal. Their internal being becomes very vacuous, and all of a sudden we have a little more density out here.’
‘So it automatically gives a sense of confidence to the viewer, about the external world, and about the acceptance of the external world. And this acceptance is really not about objects. Where art takes you, is the acceptance of others. And that’s really what we care about. We have aesthetics and dialogues with objects, but that is not really what is important. It’s the act of removal of judgment and the acceptance of others.’
‘A work like this both has masculine and feminine attributes. At times the dolphin is a masculine object. The tail is participating in a penetration, going through this tube. But at the same time, it’s feminine, with these bladders here, like nipples, for feeding. But in the back you have this tube…You have the Tasmanian devil. So it’s like a castration. Or: Judith and Holofernes.’
‘I also enjoy on this piece the use of the trashcan as a megaphone. It’s a reference to early 20th century artworks, of people experimenting with sound. It is kind of representing a proclamation.’

‘One of the most astonishing surfaces I’ve created’
‘Metallic Venus’ (2010-2012)

‘The original source is a small Hungarian porcelain from the turn of the 19th century. I scanned it to be able to create this scale. It is in stainless steel and everything is brought to a mere finish. It is very pure steel. It is forged and has been pounded. There are no imperfections. It has this kind of amazing polished surface. It’s one of the most astonishing surfaces I’ve created. There’s a sense of wetness to this piece. A very sensual feel.’
‘This piece is making reference to Praxiteles. This ancient Greek sculptor is known for being the first to undress Aphrodite. He never made a sculpture that looks exactly like this, but he’s known for putting the head in a three-quarter position. For making the body limber, for using the architectural support of the sculpture, to put that into the narrative of the sculpture. Here the support becomes a cloth with a column and then you have a vase. This piece uses the vase for real flowers, as a symbol of hope and fertility.’
’When I’m making a work like this, there are different little imperfections that could be in the original ready-made that I will continue and leave into the piece, because, once again, it’s about this acceptance that everything is alright. There’s nothing wrong in the world. Everything is correct in the world. This again is a metaphor for people. We are alright. Everything is correct about us. We are perfect.’
‘As an artist I always think about how I can make the best work possible. What it is that I can do to prepare myself for that. And I think the only thing an artist can do is remove anxiety. And the only thing that I can imagine that would create anxiety, is judgement. If all judgement is removed, there should be no anxiety. And that should be the way to walk out of Plato’s cave and have the highest sense of transcendence.’

‘Symbol of romantic love out of stainless steel’
‘Sacred Heart (Blue/Magenta)’ (1994-2007)

‘This is from the Celebration series. It is made out of stainless steel. It’s a symbol of romantic love. It is almost like an embryo. You feel that something underneath there could be given birth to. At the same time it is a spiritual type of image. You have a symbol of both the masculine – the colour blue – and of the feminine – this kind of magenta – and together they create this trinity colour: the third colour, this violet, that is related to this kind of spiritual colour.’
‘For the whole exhibition, I tried to play with this masculine and feminine tension. A dialogue to hold these objects together. We have images that are pure high testosterone – take a look at the Hulks, for instance – and then we’ll have other images, like the Dolphin Trashcan or the Metallic Venus that have this feminine aspect. It’s nice to have an equilibrium and a balance of images.’

‘Muhammad Ali once made drawings like these for me’
‘Antiquity (Farnese Bull)’ (2010-2012)

‘I finished this painting just a couple of days ago. It’s part of the Antiquity series. What I tried to do with those paintings… Narrative is always very important in art. And the only true narrative, which is true about human history, is our biological narrative. So I wanted to make a body of work that would show how the biological narrative influences art, and that would at the same time show how the connections that artists make with each other – and any  form of connections that we make in life – parallel the DNA.’
‘In an image like this I have in the background a painting by Louis Eilshemius, an American artist, turn of the 19th century. He went to Paris and was very influenced by Courbet. So the background painting also makes a reference to Courbet’s Origin of the world. You see a waterfall there, behind the Farnese bull, which is the epitome of pagan sculpture.’
‘Having this piece here, with Almine [Rech] and Bernard [Ruiz-Picasso], and the reference to Picasso, with the bull, is just fantastic.’
‘In the painting you can see a piece from my own collection [in the right hand corner]. It is only about 12,5  by 12,5 inches. We don’t know exactly what it is. I’ve spoken with the Metropolitan Museum and the Liebieghaus. We believe that it is a pediment from a church, probably an early Christian church. From when they were still celebrating rites of spring and rites of fertility. It’s similar to the dialogue we were looking at with the Balloon Venus. If you look at the back of it, it has either two rear end cheeks or two testicles. And it’s a phallus vagina. We have a satyr, a symbol of embracing life’s energy and of moving forward, and Aphrodite.’
‘About the drawing… Many years ago, I did a project with Muhammad Ali. We had to sign this book; some 10.000 sheets of paper. And sometimes when I would open a box with  pages he had signed – which I had to sign next – I found these beautiful drawings he had made for me. The drawing I made here is reminiscent of the drawings Ali made. You have a sun, a cloud, some birds, a boat on the water. It’s a symbol of mother nature, really.’
‘You know… in the times of antiquity, some of the greatest sculptures we have are of boxers. Some of the bronzes at the national archeological museum in Athens are bronze boxers. I like the idea of mind and body together. This acceptance. One of the most important things for people to have self acceptance is to accept their own body.’

‘Comic book figure or guardian god?’
‘Hulk (Friends)’ (2004-2012)

‘With the Hulk series I wanted to make a reference to Andy Warhol’s Elvis’s: a very high testosterone image. But I wanted to make a body of work that had a dialogue between eastern and western culture. You can look at this and think of the western Hulk, the comic book figure; this Elvis. But at the same time, the Hulk is like a guardian god. If you would enter an eastern temple it would greet you. He’s a protector, but he could also bring the house down. In this piece the Hulk has friends: they are on his shoulder. Maybe they enjoy the protection? There is something in this friendship they enjoy very much and of course the Hulk is also getting something out of it, of this friendship with his little friends.’

‘Circus performer or stripper?
‘Lobster’ (2007-2012)

‘The lobster is what I call a hybrid. I’ve always enjoyed the lobster because it is masculine. It is very much like a circus performer, standing on its hands. It can do a high wire act. It can do all that. But who is really the performer? The viewer or the lobster? But the lobster is also both masculine and feminine. If you look at its arms: they are very strong, but they could be fallopian tubes, and its body could be the womb. If you look at its tail… It is almost like a stripper, with a boa, ready to do a feather dance. And the tentacles are like Dali’s moustache, or Duchamp’s LHOOQ.’

‘Marcel Duchamp with stretch panties’
‘Dogpool (Panties)’ (2003)

‘This is from the Popeye series. It is made out of aluminum. It’s a dog pool. Kind of masculine. You can see the phallic type tail on the back. But the inside of the piece is totally feminine in its being. This circular open area. And then there is this double side photograph of these stretch panties. They are like Marcel Duchamp’s Standard Stoppages. If you ever look at those boards… They are not complete rectangular boards. They have these odd little shapes to it. So instead of having the [Duchamp’s] string you have the stretch panties.’

Recorded October 6, 2012, at Almine Rech Gallery (Brussels) & transcribed by Hans-Maarten Post for Utopia Parkway.

Postscript Sept 22, 2016: Almine Rech will inaugurate second Londen space with Jeff Koons solo exhibition (Oct 4-Jan 21), comprising work from “Gazing Ball” and “Antiquity” series. Info here.


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