Holding the world record for the most expensive work achieved by a living artist at auction when Christie’s New York sold his shiny stainless steel “Rabbit” (1986) sculpture for a whopping $91.1 million in 2019, the polarizing Pennsylvania-born artist Jeff Koons continues to disrupt the staid art world. Always in search of new outlets for his creativity, his most recent venture with BMW is a 99-piece exclusive edition of the M850i xDrive Gran Coupe from the luxurious 8 Series. Priced at €350,000 plus tax, The 8 x Jeff Koons sold out three weeks after its world premiere last February. The car’s multi-layer exterior paint job requires more than 250 hours of painstaking hand-application by a team of 20 instead of the Bavarian plant’s usual automated paint lines – the most time BMW has spent on the paintwork of any automobile. The custom process is so complex that just four of these special models can be painted per week. Featuring 11 different shades ranging from blue and silver to yellow and black and vibrant red-and-blue superhero leather seats, it is at once flashy and minimal. Encapsulating the essence of power and speed yet touching upon the human element, its comic book esthetic showcases vapor thrust imagery and the word “POP!” emblazoned on both sides.
Now, just like how “Rabbit” became a cultural icon of the 21st century, Koons is once again challenging convention through the next phase of his career. One of America’s most influential contemporary artists best known for his appropriations of consumer objects that he transforms into precious sculptures, he is now transcending worldly constraints. Celebrating humanity’s aspirational accomplishments within and beyond our own planet, he will send his artworks to the moon. His first-ever NFT project, “Jeff Koons: Moon Phases”, presented by Pace Verso, will see his sculptures launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Depicting 125 unique moon phases, each associated with the name of an important historical figure, “Jeff Koons: Moon Phases” comprises three elements: miniature sculptures housed in a transparent cube to be sent to the moon, 15.5-inch-tall, mirrored stainless steel sculptures encrusted with a tiny ruby, emerald, sapphire or diamond that will remain on earth and NFT images corresponding to each sculpture on the moon and earth. Later this year, 125 sculptures, each approximately one inch in diameter, will be carried aboard Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C Lunar Lander in a fully autonomous mission, representing the first authorized artworks to be installed permanently on the moon, and marking 50 years since America’s last crewed trip there. The initial set of approximately 15 versions are selling for $2 million apiece, while later versions may be priced higher.
While making history with his immaculately rendered, eye-catching creations that some consider kitsch, whose apparent simplicity dissimulates the use of ground-breaking techniques, Koons has always considered art to be about generosity and trying to be of service to people. Art gave him a sense of identity and, as soon as he found meaning in his own life, he tried to help others find meaning and open themselves up to the world. Following his instincts, he often finds inspiration by observing everyday life. In fact, much of his work stems from the readymade, recontextualising ordinary objects around us as art, whether toys, animals, flowers or cartoon characters. I sit down with him in New York City to discuss his artistic philosophy and practice, the meaning of art and his latest projects.
Tell me about your childhood. Your father was an interior designer who displayed Old Master paintings that you had copied in the window of his furniture store?
I learnt esthetics from my dad. My dad was a perfectionist. He cared very much about his environment and really thought about his designs. I learnt a lot of my caring from my father. My mother’s side of the family were merchants. It was all about interacting with people and this political aspect of being able to do positive things within the community. The two things together are what created my view of the world, my joy of interacting with people and trying to be of service to people.
Why did you want to pay homage to Pop Art and to Roy Lichtenstein in your new car collaboration with BMW, The 8 x Jeff Koons?
Roy was a great friend. I am not just paying homage to Roy; I am paying homage to popular culture. And the source material that Roy looked at were comic books. I just put some images – a pop or an explosion – that come from comic books. I grew up in a generation absorbing not only Surrealism and Dadaism, but Pop Art, so I’m referencing, in a minimal way, popular culture, which is the idea that you can have cerebral ideas through the excitement and stimulation of the body. That’s what the car tries to touch on.
Would you say that it’s quite a masculine car?
I think that some people will say it looks a little bit like Spider-Man, but I pick up a lot of Wonder Woman and Supergirl. It’s really for everyone. A swoosh on the side and the lines going through the car are neither masculine nor feminine. If you look closely at the blue, it has a kind of purple-magenta quality to it, which I always love. Magenta is one of my favorite colors because it’s both masculine and feminine at the same time. I think the car is very democratic in all ways.
Back in 2010, you had designed the 17th BMW Art Car. What were your sources of inspiration for your first BMW car?
I looked at everything. I looked at all forms of energy, different explosions, the history of race cars, stock cars and different forms of racing. I really tried to absorb everything. I ended up using a photo of blurred Christmas tree lights as the basis. If you look really closely at the first beams of energy of light, they also relate to human energy to become light.
Are you a car collector?
Esthetically, I love cars. The first car that captivated my imagination was the 1963 Corvette, but I developed this interest in art, so whenever I had cash, I would put it into art. My kids always said I should get a sports car. They showed me Lamborghinis or Bugattis, but nothing would ever seem right. It’d be too showy and just didn’t feel like me, so I felt like I had the opportunity here working on the 8 Series car to really make the car that I could see myself driving, that has an aspect of “wow, look at that”, but at the same time, is rooted in meaning and connected to things outside of just the peacock spreading its feathers.
Describe your upcoming “Jeff Koons: Moon Phases” NFT project that will see your sculptures launched from Kennedy Space Center and permanently installed on the moon.
I wanted to create a historically meaningful NFT project rooted in humanistic and philosophical thought. Our achievements in space represent the limitless potential of humanity. Space explorations have given us a perspective of our ability to transcend worldly constraints. These ideas are central to my NFT project, which can be understood as a continuation and celebration of humanity’s aspirational accomplishments within and beyond our own planet.
Explain your concept of inside and outside, which you’ve always embraced since young.
John Dewey, an American philosopher, would always speak that what life is, if you think of a single-cell organism, is the effect that the environment has on an organism and then in return the effect that the organism has on the environment. That’s life experience. And I believe in that very much. My whole dialog is very much inside-outside, absorbing things and having the confidence to find a way to open the self up more to the external world, to not have fear and to experience more and, at the same time, to be able to define what those experiences are and how to find meaning, how to connect and formulate a history.
How do you come up with the different subject matters of your artworks?
It’s completely intuitive. Whatever I’m starting today, I’ve been thinking about at least for the last two years because generally anything that I do absorbs so much energy and ends up taking up so much time that I really have to decide where I want to put my time, and I want to decide what’s important to me. I want to make something relevant. We have a life, we have an opportunity and, at the end, we only have to be true to ourselves. I try to make things that I truly want to make, and I’m not influenced by any outside pressures. The execution process is very different from the intuitive process. I try to stay true to the original idea, and I create systems that help, but that idea doesn’t change.
Do you enjoy finding solutions to the technical challenges of your artworks?
Yes, but it’s not on purpose. I don’t strive to take the companies that I’m working with to their limit, but it’s just a natural thing to find out what that material can do, what those pigments can do, what the technology can do because it’s freedom. It’s the ability to experience something that is new, not just for newness, but if it can be of service, if you can make something more durable, more reflective, more intense in color or if you can paint something in a manner that has never been painted before or printed. I love taking something and making something that is empowered with what it can be.
Tell me about your unique approach to the readymade.
The reason I like the readymade is it’s the starting point of acceptance. It’s being able to say that I accept the world as it is, it’s perfect in its own being and everything is about this moment forward. If you accept everything, everything’s at your disposal and you can use all that energy. If you are critical, if you make judgment, you’ve disempowered yourself because now it’s not so easy to incorporate and you isolate yourself. I try to communicate to people that everything is really a metaphor for us. We have objects or tools that help us, but we really don’t care about objects. We care about ourselves and each other, so in the end, the acceptance that we’re really learning is each other.
Does your work have a transcendent component to it?
Art connected me with philosophy, sociology, psychology, all the human disciplines, and I try to share that same transcending power to everyone I know. It came from accepting myself. This inward journey, I thank the Surrealists and Dadaists for laying the platform, but once you go inward for a while and accept yourself, the last place you want to be is just there. You have the confidence to go outside and open yourself up to the world. I found life much more interesting and physically thrilling.
What is the role of the artist?
Art starts with the individual, but it doesn’t reach its peak until it’s in a community because of generosity. When you’re younger, it’s about learning how to create sensations within your own body, but then you take those sensations and communicate them to others, and you start to develop responsibility. Like a hunting-gathering society, once you learn how to take care of yourself, you assume the responsibility of taking care of others, and that’s where the joy and real contribution come.