How Jeff Koons Keeps it Real

For a guy whose work is so fantastical—giant topiaries, stainless-steel balloon animals—the artist says he’s all about realism. Blake Gopnik on Koons as perfectionist

Matthias Willi

Jeff Koons takes knotted balloon dogs and enlarges them in stainless steel. He cross-breeds a rocking horse and rocking dinosaur, and then realizes the hybrid as a house-high topiary. He makes a cheesy plastic toy of a kitten stuck in a sock, scaled for a giant’s playroom. These fantastical objects have made him one of the world’s most important artists.

This year, he’s also one of the world’s most exhibited artists. In May, the prestigious Beyeler museum in Basel opened the first Swiss survey of his art, on Wednesday another survey launched across two venues in Frankfurt, and a huge retrospective has been announced for 2014 at the Whitney Museum in New York—a first for Koons in his own city, and the last Whitney show before the museum moves to its new downtown space.

In my latest conversation with Koons, on a bright June morning at the Beyeler, fantasy seems far from his mind as he discusses his fanciful work. He presents himself as the most dedicated of realists, a regular Andrew Wyeth in 3D. “I X-ray everything,” he explains—every balloon toy or beach float that he plans to copy—“so I get all my internal data." If he’s making a Koonsian version of a balloon-doll neolithic Venus, like the room-size one now in Frankfurt, it has to be a perfect copy of a real one at normal scale.

"I CAT scan it, so that every fold, there's nothing kind of subjective there,” he says. “Does the fold twist this way, and then go under, or does it fold that way?”—such questions no longer come up, because today’s technology lets him know his models, literally, inside-out. Digital data, he explains, has brought a new rigor and facility to Jeff Koons, LLC.

It wasn’t always thus. The 12-foot-tall swan at the Beyeler was begun in 2001, and only finished a decade later. Koons says this is partly because when he first started working on this kind of project, he had to go back to the drawing board again and again, to make sure every single detail in his enlargement was identical to the real object it was based on. "When you bend the neck of a balloon swan, you take your fingers, and you have to rub it, and you pull the top down. And so one side will be slightly assymetrical,” Koons says, explaining that before computers he had to struggle to perfect that kind of detail.

The art dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who worked with Koons in the 1990s, remembers how he was so keen to get his cat-in-a-sock piece absolutely right that he brought a woman to the studio to knit—and knit, and knit—so he could study the precise texture of a real sock’s surface, before making his giant version of it. His life-size copy of a steam locomotive has been in the works for years, at crippling cost, as he’s tried to get its details absolutely right.

“I feel a responsibility to the viewer, and I want the viewer to have this sense of trust,” Koons says. “Art is communication, it's dialogue—to have this exchange of respect for each other. And it helps me to be able to give specific information to the viewer, which hopefully helps ensure their trust. When information is nonspecific or something seems slightly skewed, then it's harder for that trust to be maintained."

Koons says he caught this perfectionist bug at the start of his life as an artist, in an art class he attended in 1964, when he was 9. "I struggled making a swan out of clay. And I worked on the neck, and I really tried to make this perfect neck come up with this S shape, and then to try to get the feathers coming back around, being equal, symmetrical.” His Beyeler swan, albeit inspired by a balloon animal, rather than flesh and feathers, is thus a kind of return to roots, and to the realism he has always pursued.

But what’s the larger aim of that perfection? It’s hard to get there by asking Koons. His answers, though sincere, often add to the questioner’s confusion: “I think the balloon dog is really a symbol like the Trojan horse—something kind of mythic, and an aspect of a history,” is one classically Koonsian nonexplanation. Or, “art is something that can either debase us and make us feel insecure and not have a foundation, or it's something that can really bring transcendence and enlightenment through letting us know that this is all about personal experience—that the things that we respond to, the objects I have here in this exhibition, they are transponders. Hopefully they help and they communicate and they stimulate, but the art is inside the viewer. It's about our own potential in life.”

Koons’s world view can seem so peculiar to him that it’s almost untranslatable, at least in words. And that, I’ve argued, is the source of his genius: his objects feel so unique and compelling because they come out of the mind of someone with a unique take on what the world and art are about. “Aesthetic agnosia” is how I’ve diagnosed it—an inability to process art and its subjects as the rest of us do.

That’s why Koons’s realism matters. There’s a sense that, to get what he is about, we need perfect access to the foreign universe of his art, just as we’d want a scientist’s image of Mars, say, to get everything right. Other examples of alternative-universe art—Dali’s melting watches, for instance—don’t really believe in the world they show, and so can afford to play around with its details. Koons can’t, because he’s a true believer in his own Earth II.