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06.05.11

Jeff Koons: One of Today's 10 Most Important Artists

Newsweek critic Blake Gopnik chooses the creators who could be the next Leonardo, Rembrandt, or Picasso—including Jeff Koons, who masterfully collapses the high and low with his balloon sculptures and works of towering marble. View photos of his work.

We’ve heard of the man who mistook his wife for a hat, who could see different objects, and even describe them, but couldn’t recognize what they were. He had a neurological condition called associative agnosia. I believe that Jeff Koons, perhaps today’s most famous artist, has an artistic condition you might call aesthetic agnosia. Koons can see the difference between classic paintings and pornographic photos—he collects the paintings and has riffed on the porn—but refuses to admit they mean different things.

That’s what makes his art some of the most important work of our era. Even after 30 years, Koons’s mash-ups of high and low—a dog knotted from balloons, then enlarged into a public monument; a life-size bust of Michael Jackson and his chimp in gold-and-white porcelain—still feel fresh and significant. Seeing through an agnosiac’s eyes is something worth doing. You could say it yields the same the enlarged vision most great art provides.

“The hierarchy of things is a kind of defense mechanism that just alienates,” says Koons. “Whatever you respond to is absolutely fine, and that experience is equivalent to whatever you like in the fine arts.” Koons, who is 56, is sitting in his gigantic, lab-clean studio in Chelsea, surrounded by hordes of hushed assistants busily crafting his works.

Koons’s pale eyes look deep into yours, without a trace of irony or guile, as he expounds on the full meaning of a new piece: a facsimile of the Venus of Willendorf, one of humanity’s first sculptures, that he’s twisted from balloons and is in the process of enlarging as a towering marble. He says he had to x-ray the knotted balloons to capture every shred of their three-dimensional detail, guaranteeing that the final carved stone would reveal Venus’s “whole kind of inner being.” For Koons, the aesthetic agnosiac, the piece isn’t a wacky sendup or a dada collision of opposites. It’s a real inquiry into the sexual content of our earliest art. It’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario—a banana split with shaved truffles on top—for someone who refuses to corral their tastes within the usual boundaries.

Gallery: Jeff Koons

Koons says he has a political agenda, of sorts, but it has nothing to do with overconsumption or the cheapening of culture or the fakery of fine art or gaming the art market or any of the other issues often cited as his. His crusading goal, he says, is to help us to “accept things for what they are, as they are.” Koons wants to get viewers to understand fully explicit images of him having sex with La Cicciolina, his porn-star ex-wife, as “dealing with the acceptance of oneself, and one’s sexuality... Everything in life is perfect, so I accept it.”

Koons isn’t the cynic his critics imagine. “I enjoy optimism,” he says. “It’s really about expansion, trying to create a vaster world, a more interesting world.” That, for sure, he’s achieved.