Many art collectors and critics claim that they don’t understand Jeff Koons. However, it’s simple. Like the sad character, Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, you have to go back to his childhood to understand the man and his “art.”
He was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1955. His father, Henry, was a furniture dealer cum interior decorator and his mother was a seamstress. So far, so good.
However, at the age of nine (yes, just 9), he began door-to-door selling, which seems odd, given that both his parents were working. He would usually make $25 a day, but $50 on good ones.
What did he sell? This is relevant to what he did much later on: “candies, gift wrapping, bows and things like that. My parents would take me to nearby suburbs outside of York, Pa., where I grew up. I’d walk around with boxes of goods, knocking on doors.” Apparently, his parents would pick him up later.
I remember falling for something similar one rainy day in London when I heard a knock on the door. Standing there, soaked to the skin was a small boy of about nine or ten, with his equally soaked father. They were selling a well-known brand of pseudo-religion. I felt so sorry for the boy that I handed some money to the father and whispered to him that he was a sad bastard and that if I ever saw he dragging his child from door-to-door, I would beat the living shit out of him (the father).
I’ve no doubt that Koons did very well as a child, not because of the intrinsic worth of what he was selling, but probably because he put on those big eyes and innocent face and sincere-sounding, child-like sales patter – methods he still employs today when flogging, or justifying his multi-million dollar baubles.
“I was good at selling,” he once told an interviewer. “A lot of my work is about sales. And it was about being independent from the art market. So I didn’t have to kiss anybody’s ass. And that I could make exactly what art I wanted to make.”
There you have it, “candies, gift wrapping, bows and things like that…” Now we know why he makes what he makes.
Koons reminds me of a Magpie for two reasons. First, Magpies collect shiny objects for display in an attempt to attract a mate. Birds displaying the most objects of highest quality will get the best mates.
Secondly, it is one of the few animal species known to be able to recognize itself in a mirror. Koons certainly is knows his own reflection, and is inordinately fond of it. His image is everywhere, but he never reveals the man beneath. There’s nothing, just surface veneer.
He’s almost on a par with P.T. Barnum of circus fame, who beguiled the public with the likes of the “Feejee Mermaid” and “General Tom Thumb.” When Queen Victoria saw the general, she was uncharacteristically both, amused and saddened by him. Thereafter, Barnum’s worldwide fame was assured.
Koons’ big break came with his 1988’s career-making “Banality” series, the title of which presaged his future work.
In what I assume was an unguarded moment, he recently expressed dissatisfaction with his work; that he is trying to find his true expression. I hope he does, because, in spite of having said, “I didn’t have to kiss anybody’s ass”, that’s precisely what he’s done. I don’t mean that pejoratively, I think he’s still that boy standing on strangers’ doorways with his big smile, proffering shiny frippery and ephemera. That took guts. Maybe making a sale and making his parents happy is his “Rosebud.” It’s sad, but perhaps he’s not a “fucking genius artist, but a “fucking genius” salesman.
And unfortunately, he is sucking all the money and integrity out of art.