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On the occasion of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, curator Scott Rothkopf talks about the making of the artist’s first comprehensive survey with writer and catalogue contributor Rachel Kushner. Their conversation considers Koons’s complex relationship with art history and contemporary art and his current cultural relevance. If Jeff Koons is one of the most influential, popular, and controversial artists living today, how does this exhibition measure his impact?
A contributor to the exhibition’s catalogue, Rachel Kushner is the author of two novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, both Finalists for the National Book Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Believer, Artforum, Bookforum, Fence, Bomb, and Grand Street. Scott Rothkopf is Nancy and Steve Crown Family Curator and Associate Director of Programs at the Whitney.
Megan Heuer: Hi, good evening, welcome. My name is Megan Heuer and I am the Director of Public Programs and Public Engagement here at the Whitney, and I’m really thrilled to introduce tonight’s program organized on the occasion of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective. The program is a conversation with Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the exhibition, and the author Rachel Kushner. This exhibition as many of you may know is the first solo museum exhibition for Jeff Koons in New York. It’s the first time the Whitney has dedicated almost the entirety of the Breuer building to the work of single living artist. And finally it is also the last exhibition for the Whitney in this remarkable building. What you may not know is that Scott has not only spent the last four years working with Jeff Koons on this exhibition but he has been engrossed in research and writing on the artist for over a decade. Tonight’s conversation is a chance to hear from Scott about his interest in Jeff Koons’s art, his motivations for making this show, the challenges and surprises of realizing it, realizing it now at a moment that is particularly charged for both Koons and the Whitney. In addition to the extraordinary installation of Koons’s work in the galleries, Scott has produced an impressive catalogue for the show, a book that is both beautiful and really rich with detail and insight. In her contribution to this book, entitled “Happy Hour, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Message,” Rachel Kushner takes on Luxury and Degradation which has been one of the revelations of this show for me. Her essay blends the sociology and psychology of advertising with a nuanced reading of Koons’s formal strategies, and in the process makes a compelling case for the peculiar literary power of works like I Could Go For Something Gordon’s. I am so grateful to Rachel for being here tonight to talk with Scott about the show and about Koons’s work. So hopefully some of you have had a chance to see the exhibition already and will be inspired to come back and see it again. For those of who haven’t had a chance to see it, tonight will be a tease.
I also want to mention that Jeff Koons will be giving the 10th Annual Annenberg Lecture here at the Whitney on September 30th, and more information and tickets will be available on whitney.org in the coming weeks so please look out for that. Come back. So I’ll just give the briefest of sort of bio intros for our two speakers and then turn it over to them. Rachel Kushner is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She has written two novels Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, both national book award finalists. Her fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Believer, Artforum, Bookforum, Fence, Bomb, and Grand Street, and she was a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow. Scott Rothkopf is the Nancy and Steve Crown Family Curator and Associate Director of Programs at the Whitney. Since he arrived at the Whitney in December of 2009, Scott has organized several critically acclaimed exhibitions, including Wade Guyton OS and Glenn Ligon: America. And prior to the Whitney, Scott was the senior editor of Artforum, so you can also guess how Rachel and Scott might know each other. So without further ado, I’ll turn it over to them. Thanks so much for coming (applause).
Scott Rothkopf: Everyone, thanks for coming on such a beautiful Sunday night, and thanks Megan, for that great introduction. We’re just going to have some images rotating above to give you a kind of taste of the show but we’re not going to be talking about them specifically per se.
Rachel Kushner: I like how Scott got up here and commandeered the evening even though I’m the interviewer. It speaks volumes of our different personalities perhaps, and I think you do have to have a certain strength and fortitude of social character and public persona to curate a show like this and I would imagine handle someone like Jeff Koons. I was going to start at the very beginning but maybe I’ll just start with that. I’m assuming you knew him in some manner before the long process of putting this show together began. Personally?
Scott Rothkopf: Yes I did know him per se. I’ve known Jeff, probably, I met him in 2001 when I was a grad student and I’ve worked with him on various essays I’ve written about him but never in a curatorial capacity. And I could see that I imagined what it would be like to work with him as a curator based on my experience as a writer and I was completely wrong in that. I think that’s partly because he doesn’t care so much about what’s written about him. Maybe because he doesn’t think people read or maybe because he doesn’t read that much, whereas when it comes to putting his work in a room, he cares very much about it. Because then you’re actually dealing with his objects, so it wasn’t the kind of freedom that he had always given me as a writer. It’s not that that didn’t happen here, but it was a sort of more protracted negotiation, and it did require whatever adjectives you described and others to see it through.
Rachel Kushner: So as the curator, you really are in a sense his organizer. it’s up to you to periodize and to determine what’s going to be included from phase to phase in the artworks. No? Or you are in conversation with him and you come to a compromise?
Scott Rothkopf: Well, or an agreement, umm, yes.
RK: I mean, was that a big part of—-
SR: Yeah, a huge part of doing this show was that. I mean the structure, for those of you who have seen it you would know, it hues very closely to Jeff’s career. There are 14 series, he gives those series names, I followed the names of those series and didn’t do anything radically crazy in mixing things together, and it proceeds chronologically. In that sense, as a curator, you kind of — once we decided to make the show that way, which I always knew I wanted it to be, you have a kind of outline. But uh, then within those bodies of work, of course, there are many choices to make because we’re showing fewer than 50% of the objects he’s made in his lifetime — I would imagine, I haven’t done the math — it becomes a very complicated thing to figure out, which series get more or less space, which work represents each series, and also how they are arranged in space…which Jeff and I didn’t always agree on from the beginning. And then there were moments that yeah, we compromised let’s say.
RK: Did he want more work in the show than you ended up including?
SR: I would say so.
RK: It’s a very elegantly installed show, I should have started out by congratulating Scott on the show.
SR: You know it’s hard, and Jeff’s waited his whole life for a show like this. He’s never had a survey in New York, which is where he has lived for the past 35 years. And there are artists who are his peers who have had two such shows, like Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, and so when he sees he’s going to have this exhibition and he doesn’t know if he’ll have another show like this in his life perhaps. There’s always that thought like I’d better get this in and that in and that in and it’s interesting: he thinks about objects very clearly, the way he makes them. The way objects relate to one another as part of a story, there’s kind of allegorical connection between the works in a given series. He thinks a little less, I would say when he creates an exhibition, about how objects live in space. With each other, on a pedestal, with a ceiling that’s X whatever height. That’s very different from my last subject, Wade Guyton, who really thinks so much about an object in relationship to a room and the things that are around it. And so that was a great opportunity for me, in working with Jeff, to kind of bring my own vision to how things should be put together. But sometimes it would be a challenge because basic feelings that we had didn’t always line up about what things were doing in space.
RK: Yeah. Did you ever feel like you were being seduced by him or he was attempting to persuade you? I mean, maybe that is part of a caricature of Jeff Koons but he has this, there’s a persona of him being very convincing. Like apparently, he sold memberships at MoMA, like when he had just moved to New York and apparently he was quite good at it. Someone told me the other day that Robert Ryman also sold memberships at MoMA…I doubt that he had the same effect.
(Audience member comments and corrects Kushner on Ryman’s role at MoMA. According to audience member, Ryman was a guard at the museum.)
RK: Oh he was, okay. It was Hal Foster who told me he sold memberships. Busting Hal.
SR: Yeah, Jeff is very seductive and he’s a great salesman and people have talked about that as part of his work and his persona. I didn’t feel like he was trying to sell me on things. It would be more like, it was such a long process for things, we had been working on the show for really 4 years now, there would be an idea and then it would take about 6 months for it to kind of germinate. To agree with the other. It was not a contentious process at all, we had a great time working together, but I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility. I mean, this was this person, it’s his life’s work, today he is 59 years old. [10:21] It’s a big platform and you have to sort of be ready to be curated in a way, let someone else bring their eye or their mind to kind of prevail on what you’ve done. And I had to keep reminding myself that sometimes when we didn’t agree or I had an idea I thought we should be pursuing, if he didn’t like that it wasn’t just because he was being difficult, it was because he really couldn’t sometimes see what I was seeing, because he’s used to seeing something else in his work. And I mean that not as a failing on his part but as a kind of indication of his commitment to his way of doing things and then I had to learn from that a lot.
RK: Does he say your name a lot when he’s arguing for his reasoning on what should be included?
SR: I can do a really good impersonation, but usually I need a drink first. And I don’t know that Fiji water will get me there. But maybe by the end I’ll try. There’s a lot of “Scott comma,” a lot of what he’s feeling, a lot of what I’m feeling, a lot of hand motions, smiling.
RK: But in a way there must be some kind of fundamental trust there, on his part, because you have such a long investment in his work. Scott was just telling me when I got here tonight that you first encountered his work when you were 15 years old.
SR: Ummm..maybe 18.
RK whispers: he said 15.
SR: Well I was a senior in high school, I know that, so 17 or 18.
RK: So what happened, you opened the catalogue of his SFMoMA show?
SR: Well I was telling Rachel, I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and there’s a great museum there but it didn’t have a lot to do with contemporary art then as it does now and in the 90s. I would come to New York and see shows but I didn’t really know contemporary art. And there was a Border’s bookstore that opened near my house and of course everyone thought of Border’s bookstores as being the thing that put all of the Mom and Pop bookshops out of business but actually it had kind of a really good art book section for Dallas, TX. They would get catalogues from places all around the country. And there was the catalogue of Jeff Koons’ SFMOMA show which at that point was maybe 3 years old, it was like ‘95 let’s say, and I had never seen a Jeff Koons in my life. Finding this book was just a kind of mind blowing experience. And I still have the book and it’s kind of lived with me in every place I’ve ever lived. I bought three books that day all with artists from that generation but this is the thing that really stayed with me so uh yeah. There’s been a long interest and infatuation, maybe fascination is better, and when Jeff got to know me, he came around the other way I guess.
RK: It was some kind of formal power in the sculptures that you could see in reproduction that interests you or pop quality?
SR: It sort of sounds weird to start analyzing your adolescent mind from 20 years later but there was something probably I didn’t know that that’s what art could be. There was something so pure about the images and the way there were photographed and they were strong graphically. There was sex in the Cicciolina pictures, I’m sure that was fascinating. There was something very powerful about the clarity of the vision of his work — that seemed kind of like it threw me for a loop.
RK: You wanted to write a dissertation on Jeff Koons…uhh..but didn’t get that much…
RK: Traction? Or support. And then ended up doing this behemoth retrospective of his entire career at the Whitney Museum as their final show in the Marcel Breuer building instead…did you get…was the support from the Whitney there from the beginning when you came on board as a curator?
SR: When I came here, I knew it was something I really wanted to do. We at the Whitney didn’t know that Jeff would want to do it at this time. So that was a bit of a question. But it was sort of growing out this writing I had been doing. As you mentioned I had been wanting to write my dissertation on Jeff’s work, and eventually did get a green light to do it, but by that time I was already on my way to Artforum. It was interesting to me at that time to see the extent to which his work was still very threatening to people in the academic community — this was not that long ago, 10, 20 years ago — and it still is to some of them. To the professors associated with let’s say October magazine. There’s a lot of people who still find this art to be so problematic, and really bad in a way to them. They didn’t deem him an appropriate subject for a dissertation. I mean I have ideas why but I don’t think it was because of how contemporary he was, let’s say.
RK: Maybe that leads right into the meat of some of… The elephant in the room with Jeff Koons is always about the marketplace. Right? And these questions of taste. I have a question about that but I wrote it so I’m just going to read it. It’s such a big issue that we would waste too much time — we couldn’t cover it in one hour. “We all know about the rage, outrage, envy, and piety that Koons and his artwork inspire…” umm. Well maybe I won’t read the whole question.
SR: It sounds good!
RK: The thing is that the economy has just changed radically since the 19th century and I was thinking about this since I saw the show on Friday, we no longer have a bourgeoisie. Captains are no longer captains of industry. There’s no railroad to invest in. They put their money in these bubbles like art and real estate. There’s no culture of a common good, collectors do not buy art to be Frick and educate the masses. They do it for cash support, they know it is a strong investment, none of that money they make on its profit goes back into anything concrete. So in terms of the whole money controversy, I personally think larger questions should start being asked and maybe even bracketing the artist’s culpability and thinking about the work as having a viability simply because it’s a fact that so much money is being pumped into the art world. So I wonder in a way why academics wouldn’t ask that question, why? Why is there so much money going in? Rather than looking at the person, the artist, to embody the gleam of this so-called neo-Gilded age? And Scott makes a very interesting argument in his essay about, or he brings up facts I didn’t know, about the ways Koons’s works are produced, correct me if I’m wrong — he pays very close attention to auction prices because he can use that level of worth as an index when it comes to approaching collectors to sponsor and support future works of art that have very high production costs.
SR: Yeah, I think that’s true sort of. I don’t think he boasts around “this is what my auction price was so now you’re likely to appreciate.”
RK: I didn’t mean that.
SR: But I think that what I was talking about there in the catalogue really has to do with the idea that the way his work has developed, he needs to gather or marshal the resources from all of these people to make the work. So the prices have to be high. They don’t have to be as high as they are at auction but there’s a lot of stories in Jeff’s career, going back to the early 80s, being unable to sell works for the price it cost to produce them, the bronze casts would be an example of that from the 80s — the Balloon Dog or something. The big numbers you see at auction. The plexiglass casings around the vacuum cleaners — people always say, well, he was a stockbroker, and that somehow proves that he was trying to hoodwink people and that he was obsessed with the market. He went into trading in order to again raise the funds to make the work. He always wanted to be an artist. He went to art school. He wanted to be an artist since he was a little boy. He wasn’t a businessman who turned into an artist. He actually failed at selling those vacuum cleaner pieces at a viable price point and went home and lived with his parents for a while, for 6 months, in the 80s. And then again, if you look at the Balloon Dog and the stories around the protracted gestation of the Celebration series, in order to make that work, they had to get the price of the Balloon Dog up to the point in an edition of 5 (they’re each unique by color) that could pay for that thing to be produced to his standards. I’m not making a moral judgment and saying that lets him off the hook or doesn’t, I’m just pointing to — it’s very different than saying a Jasper Johns painting or Brice Marden painting costs 10 million dollars, those artists don’t need their market to be that in order to create those paintings.
RK: They can also sort of pretend that they don’t have anything to do with the value of their work in the marketplace. Claim a sort of innocence in relation to what happens at the auction houses. A work doesn’t bear any mark of that. Following along this idea that Koons is threatening to people in the academy…
SR: Yes, um, I think that that’s true. Let’s say a Jasper Johns painting, an example of a work of art hanging in this museum that’s more valuable than any Jeff Koons hanging in this museum, Three Flags, it doesn’t look expensive in the same way. It doesn’t make, it doesn’t seem as self-conscious, it doesn’t look blingy the way Jeff Koons is.
RK: I was thinking of Christopher Wool as the sort of antithesis on some level. They both go for very high amounts of money but Wool looks tasteful, doesn’t require any money to make, he’s not implicated somehow.
SR: We’re all implicated in this system.
RK: I’m speaking in sort of quotes.
SR: I think that part of what is interesting about Jeff’s relationship to the market, and his works, the objects seem to radiate a kind of self-consciousness, of their value, their place in such a system that he’s taken commercial strategies of display, lighting an object the way you would at a store becomes part of a sculpture that’s like providing it’s own illumination. It’s own plexiglass vitrine, that you have advertising in so many of his body of work. Self consciously talking about the way things are sold, that’s what advertising does, and that’s what his paintings do. So, I think that the more interesting ways to think about that question of value and money around Jeff’s work have to do with looking at how the work itself provides a weird reverb to the situation around it. Talk about the way the Balloon Dog always felt to me like you could almost — if you see it at Christie’s or something — condensing the flows of capital around it, like sweat on a tumbler or something that you’d be drinking from, the ice cubes — there’s a way that it seems like it knows about the desire of all kinds – whether it’s monetary or sexual or whatever it elicits from people.
RK: It also seems to kind of bring up an issue of snobbery. I guess that’s why I sort of think of the Wool which has nothing to do with Christopher Wool as an artist but work like that, people walk into a room and they know even if they don’t know anything about art, that that’s art. And that they don’t really understand it, but it’s not bothering them visually. It’s just there. But with the Koons, there’s this idea that it looks like kitsch, it looks slightly crass, and so it raises the level or issue of embarrassment in the nouveau riche. It makes luxury visible. I mean this is something I’ve thought about today, it’s just interesting to me, I was talking to a friend about the Piketty book and he talks a lot about how wealth has become completely invisible to most of society. Like when you get on an airplane, you fly First Class, you get on through a different jetway than the people who fly economy and so most people, the idea is that they have no idea that these levels of luxury exist for some people. But the Koons, in a way, makes all of that — it doesn’t make it blatant but it looks luxurious and it’s very expensively produced and it brings this idea of that sort of luxury into the popular imaginary so I think it’s sort of unchartered territory. People haven’t allowed for it because there’s a climate of piety still about art, even as there’s so much money flowing into the art world.
SR: MMhmm. You said three different things in that.
RK: I’m sorry, you’re not supposed to do that when you’re the interviewer.
SR: One was about this idea of taste, and another thing I talk about in the catalogue that’s interesting to me still is, of course, Jeff’s work is so much self-consciously about ideas of taste, what’s art and what’s not, what’s kitsch and what’s not, but that a lot of modern art when it’s made looks really aggressive and oh wow that can’t be art. A Donald Judd box wouldn’t have looked good in the home of a Park Avenue collector in 1966 unless they were really — sort of out of context for this setting for an art collector might have had. But then taste catches up. Now if you had Annabelle Selldorf design your gallery or home, wow, Judds look perfect there.
RK: The Carl Andre show at DIA Beacon…
SR: Yeah and so does a Brice Marden and so does, frankly, a Wade Guyton and a Glenn Ligon, I’ll take my own subjects, so it seems not like I’m making this as a criticism. Most of it isn’t really chic and it actually…if you see one of those ceramic sculptures in a home, they look kind of crazy. There’s something very, not toxic but they don’t settle down. Even though they are a lot of decor they don’t blend into the decor, the way a lot of art does…
RK: We just saw the Gorilla which is the ugliest sculpture in the entire show, but now my favorite.
SR: So that was just one thing that what you said prompted. Another thing, what you mentioned about Piketty and what is seen or known about markets or about wealth is interesting to me. There was an article in Forbes about the show that basically said how unfortunate that the Whitney has made such a big point of how expensive the works are — that that really drowns out the chance to see them. And I thought well no one here makes that point in any of our wall text, not in our press release, but every article cites the 58 million dollar auction record of the Balloon Dog and I think the reason for that is in this country at least, the way that you talk about contemporary art in the mainstream press or anything that people maybe don’t understand, you attach a price. It costs a lot of money, wow, then it must be important. Or something, if it’s that expensive. And that conversation about contemporary art really emerged in this country in the 80s. The thing that drove artists into the mainstream press, if you look at like Page Six in the 80s, in the mid 80s there were no artists in Page Six, maybe Warhol and that was kind of it. And by the end of it, there was Schnabel and Salle and these people had kind of captured the public imagination and one of the reasons for that was their prices — this was this kind of currency and Andrew Wyeth talked about that in an interview where he said “well, look, that’s one of the reasons people relate to my work, they know it’s expensive and that’s what matters in this country.” So it’s kind of — I don’t want to say that’s not Jeff’s fault — the conversation keeps getting framed that way and I understand why but it’s not something Jeff is necessarily trying to do in all cases.
RK: Yeah. yeah. When I was reading your essay about the show, I had known a little bit — his father had a decorating company yeah? Henry J. Koons Decorators. And there’s an image illustrating Scott’s catalogue essay of his showroom. So did you learn much — research this past and his father’s business?
SR: No, I didn’t research it with a lot of great depth. I sort of knew that we had a contribution from Jeffrey Deitch that was really focused on Jeff’s childhood and Jeffrey went to York, Pennsylvania where Jeff grew up and visited some of the sites that were important to Jeff’s childhood and I knew he was going to be doing that kind of research. That level of biographical criticism about an artist, early life, is not something I’m always so interested in doing, but I do think that as Jeff has said so many times before that it was a super important part of his life and he talks about the kinds of things his father sold, the idea that these objects could be seductive but also supportive to people, that they found some meaning to the things that they bought in their store. And they used them to emphasize their lives let’s say, and put them on display. And also on taste being sort of malleable: his father would have a room one day that looked like Provence and then the next day it would be something kind of like American Colonial. And that you could just try on these different styles and the way style spoke to people, it anticipated different viewers…there’s a kind of supple relationship he has to those kind of questions that maybe was related to his dad.
RK: It’s clearly in the work but when I hear you cite his arguments about these things, I begin to wonder…unplanned question….if you can always believe his sort of line on his own past and childhood, it reminded me there’s another detail in Scott’s essay about how Jeff Koons, 1997, heard a Patti Smith song on the radio and the next day, he hitchhiked to New York City. It sounds good, but do you think he’s come to rely on certain set piece mythologies and did you feel compelled to try to break them open a little bit or are they really…he’s sincere and reconstructing each time he talks about his past? Not that one is required to be, I’m just curious.
SR: I do, quote, to borrow your word, “believe” most of the things Jeff says about his life, and about what he thinks he’s doing in his work or why he tried to do it. That doesn’t mean that I think the things that he says about his work are the reasons I find his work interesting…or that they’re even true, that the work has that function. And that’s a super fascinating thing that people are always asking me about this artist, and more than any other artist “is he sincere…could he possibly believe all the things that he says?” I think Roberta Smith referred to him as something and invented this cult of which he is the truest believer. I don’t want to say I don’t care exactly, but I don’t have to believe what he says in order to … I don’t have to agree that he thinks his work is doing is what I think his work is doing.
RK: Sure, you don’t have to give credence to his own argument.
SR: A good example of that is that he would say, about Made in Heaven, you know the body of work where he appears naked with Cicciolina, that he wanted to do this to become more famous (which I believe absolutely) and that he thought that the way to do that in this society because art had limited power but a movie star had a much greater cultural purview so great, go become a moviestar. But then as the thing develops, this idea that he was going to free his viewers from the shame of their sexuality or their nakedness and he had to do that by burying himself in this extreme form of self-portraiture. When I’m standing in that room with people and I’m trying to talk about the work, no one seems emancipated to – if that worked, we’d all be naked right now, we’d all be back in Eden. So in a way he failed for us, as viewers, to make us accept our bodies in the way that he might say. I don’t think that means he was lying, that he didn’t do it for that reason, or that his work is a failure. That work is some of the most interesting work he’s made…that’s one example and there’s so many.
RK: I think his argument about work fits perfectly with the saccharine patina of the sets themselves and that pink color of everything…I’m almost thinking about when I was in the room, I don’t know if everybody heard this rumor, there was a rumor that for a while that the erect penis in the most graphic images from that Made in Heaven series was Photoshopped in, or that it wasn’t his…and I think that’s an interesting symptom of something: they are pornographic pictorials that were Cicciolina’s sets, this was her business, and Jeff Koons used her photographer. So he just stepped right into this readymade basically. Normally in pornography, the male in the picture is there for a straight male to project himself into and so he is engaging in an activity that a man can then imagine himself engaging in – but Jeff Koons, in the picture, is looking right at the viewer of the image. And he’s gazing with this stupefied beatitude and he’s wearing like max factor – a lot of makeup, and so it makes perfect sense that a man would look at that image and think that the cock also is an impostor, you know, that’s not something I can imagine myself – the whole thing must be faked. About those images…sorry that wasn’t really a question.
Rothkopf: No, but a good comment.
RK: So that part of the show has a warning label on the outside of it and I was wondering if he had wanted to downplay that passage in his career.
SR: You know, it’s really complicated terrain for him. He didn’t want to downplay it, we always knew that work was going to be in the show, and for me that’s one of the strongest and most important bodies of work that he’s made. Kind of like what I said about his objects not settling down in a rich person’s home, those paintings still creep people out and they have some kind of a charge about them – they’ve retained this sort of toxicity in people’s minds that it’s hard to make contemporary art that does that still 20 years later. So we knew it would be there, but it was also involved in a very painful, personal part of his life because he had a child with this woman Cicciolina who took their son Ludwig to Italy and then he really didn’t get to see his son and didn’t have custody of the child growing up. There were a lot of claims back and forth with each other to do with this major international custody suit and she would say things like, “you only made this work to profit off of me,” and then he would destroy the work to prove he wasn’t trying to profit so it’s all tied up on that. It’s funny though when we were making the catalogue, he didn’t want the pictures of the most explicit pictures to be in the book – or he did. He wanted them cropped. Which is how he’s presented them in his publications for maybe the last I don’t know how many years.
RK: Cropped in what way?
SR: So that you didn’t see the hardcore bits that you were talking about. But if you took an image and in the title of the work is “Ilona’s Asshole,” and you just see her back above, it sounds kind of crazy. Oh, detail, in parentheses. I said to Jeff, you know, we’re not doing that, this is a scholarly catalogue, it’s being published with Yale University Press, this is a book of record, either these pictures are in or they’re out. And they’re not in as details, there are no other details in the plates section of the book. And so he was like “well, but what if, you know, children want to have this book for Christmas?!” I was thinking, this isn’t a book that we’re making for children for Christmas.
RK: Didn’t he say, “what if Sasha and Malia want this book for Christmas?”
Rothkopf: No, not Sasha and Malia, what if I wanted to give it to the President? These two images would prevent the book from reaching as broad an audience as he really believes in. I don’t question that. So I was kind of willing to say, Ok, we’re taking them out but we’re not going to have them in the way he wanted. When he saw the final gallies of the book and the pictures weren’t there, he became very concerned…well where are these works that he thinks are really important to him, and that he understands are interesting to me? And he said, you know, I’m going to come around to this point of acceptance again for myself and we put them back in the book. So they’re in there. When you work with an artist on a retrospective (this is kind of a tangent) of this kind, and I’ve only done this once before with Glenn Ligon but he was 10 years younger at the point in the process when we did it. Say he was looking at 25 years of work instead of 35. The kind of sensitivities in the process are never where you think they’ll be. And artists looking back at a moment in his life, literally in his life in this case and having to re-experience something that was also painful because basically he got kicked out of the art world, he was savaged for that show, and trying to own his feeling in relation to that and see how that would be framed another 20 years on, it was really interesting. Not like I was his shrink or something but you become aware of your own responsibility as a curator not just to the audience and the work but to this person who is sitting in the room with you.
RK: And the narrative. Like he wasn’t willing to foreclose that period.
SR: No, but he had to kind of work through it. I was very sensitive to that, you could never be cavalier with someone’s life’s work or their feelings about – I think my role in any show I do with an artist is to make the best case I can for why I think they are a great artist and sometimes that case may be different from the way the artist thinks their own case would be for why they’re a great artist. Like I was saying about how Jeff thought about his work. Watching him work through and reflect back on some of these moments was moving at times, if that sounds corny…
RK: What was the biggest surprise in terms of dealing, working with him?
SR: Hmm. (pause) Biggest surprise…
RK: Megan mentioned surprises in her introduction…I don’t mean to put you on the spot.
SR: No, I mean there were so many. And I’m trying to think of what the biggest one was. And also you said…there were a lot of surprises in making the exhibitions that didn’t have anything to do with him. Just what it takes to make a show like this…I think that no one at the museum had any idea how difficult it would be – we thought that it would be challenging, it had never happened before, and people say I can’t believe it’s never happened before, how could that possibly be? And once you’ve done it, you know absolutely why it’s never happened before…there’s a really good reason. So we were constantly confronted with surprises in that way, but I was trying to think of a surprise about Jeff…I think he was more able to compromise or to find a mutual place of agreement than people would have expected about him, based on his reputation of being the most controlling artist you know that there is about the detail. There’s so many things in this exhibition that really reflect my take on Jeff…he would never have presented his work or edited it in the ways that are happening upstairs, I could give you examples. That he let me do that, and that that happened, and not in a kind of way where he had to concede something but he became interested in that idea – that was a surprise actually.
RK: There’s much to be gained by being art historicized by a brilliant young curator like Scott Rothkopf. There are those pieces in the show, I don’t know what they’re called, but the little inflatables that sit on the floor on mirrors, with mirrors, angled against the wall..? They had such a Smithson influence, I was very surprised by their non-siteness. I was wondering if he cites Smithson as an influence.
SR: Absolutely he does. Those works are a surprise to me, as we talk about surprise in the exhibition. I’ve never been so surprised by—- I mean Play-Doh I guess too, there were a number of pieces that were finished just before the show opened so we were installing.
RK: Play-Doh was a week before the show opened right?
SR: Technically, yeah. We hope it’s dry. Those early pieces exist in photographic documentation from the 70s and I think three of them are loaned from private collectors but many of them are no longer extant, or weren’t prior to the show, which is why when you look at the date it says “partially refabricated” in places. And that’s because Jeff actually worked with a kind of custom vinyl toy fabricator in Los Angeles to remake some of those inflatables that had become brittle and would no longer hold air or had lost their color which is just part of the inherent vice of the material. Kind of plastic, they’re not meant to last. And so he reconstructed some of those works based on the photographs I had seen and the feeling of them has been a real surprise to people. And this aspect of Smithson, of his engagement in the moment again, it’s the late 70s, he’s just come to New York, people are really talking about conceptual art, they’re talking about Minimalism, and I wouldn’t say that what he is doing is sui generis, other artists of that time like Steinbeck were working with readymade objects too, in a way different than he came to be known for, but those works kind of come out of a vault and they don’t fit into most of people’s understandings of how you talk about the art of the late 70s. And they fit really easily into how you talk about the East Village scene, but that would have been later company. So you see him looking at all of these different things – and you know he talks about this in relation to the history of abstract painting of Stella or Ron Gorchav, the stripes, this kind of interest in abstraction at the time, so I do think that that room is a surprise.
RK: It’s interesting that he cites Smithson but they had to be remade to look brand new … it’s like the anti-anti-entropy artist and the entropy artist coming together and joined by something…there are other artists I thought of that hadn’t really occurred to me before, for instance to connect Mike Kelley to Jeff Koons, but that connection seems very strong in the show and so does one with Paul McCarthy and really with Charlie Ray, and you don’t really hear those artists talked about all in one fell swoop. But with the Mike Kelley, is that something that you thought about? Well, while you were putting the show together, Mike Kelley died…obviously there was the retrospective at PS1 and I see them as sharing quite a lot and being curiously mirror images of one another. Mike died under particular circumstances, he was depressed about the art world and about his success, Jeff is like the opposite from what one can tell. He’s on top of the world, he loves his success, he owns it…do you think much about their relation?
SR: I’ve thought about it a lot…especially having Mike’s show at PS1 just leading up to this, there was inevitable conversational comparison…I’m not even thinking about…the life aspect is another topic…and this actually goes back to even your question about why is Jeff not accepted by certain academic communities and Mike Kelley absolutely is. That’s fascinating too, because they tackle a lot of related subjects, both of them made art that had to do with stuffed animals within a year of each other. If you look at the sculptures in Banality and you know, Mike’s great work from the late 80s, like the piece in the Whitney’s collection. They did it really differently, but still there’s like stuffed animals in the same year practically…so all of their interests in childhood, in sexuality, in American consumerism, middle class taste and values, you could make endless points of comparison and somehow Mike’s work has always been able to be seen from a critical side as being more critical of these values that Jeff maybe is seen to celebrate in some ways. That is one of the reasons that his work has been maybe more accepted there from an academic perspective. But I think he’s a great artist and was glad that those shows were happening and I’m really glad that the Bob Gober show is going to happen at MoMA coming up, and I think will overlap with Jeff’s show for like a week.
RK: Another artist…
SR: again, who maybe is more accepted among academics, more like Mike, but they have so many shared themes and very particular ideas of making, of readymade objects that are remade as sculptures to look like the found object, and you know they were in shows together for all three of those artists in the 80s, so it’s not a context that hadn’t been thought about but it’s nice to feel that all kind of playing out at this moment and allowing for those points of conversation.
RK: Do you think there’s a quotient of darkness in Jeff Koons’s work? That doesn’t get talked about much?
SR: Oh totally. Now whether Jeff would say that or not is another thing, but I don’t think you can stand in front of that cat on a clothesline upstairs and look at this maniacal, grinning, ten foot fall plastic kitten that sort of feels like —
RK: It’s a Christ.
SR: It’s a Christ, and think that there isn’t something a little dark about that or what does it mean to make a teddy bear into something hard and unforgiving, shiny porcelain? What happens when you turn the volume on cute so loud that it starts to get kind of scary? Again, I don’t believe that Jeff would talk about his work in any of those ways…but there’s absolutely a darkness to the Equilibrium tanks and that whole series about you know these Nike players and the kind of myths of attainment that are sold to kids whether they are white ones in the suburbs or black ones trying to get out of the Bronx. There’s a sense of failure that’s possible in those Equilibrium tanks when the ball starts to fall, a darkness about Luxury and Degradation that I think you find in your essay.
RK: There’s a quote in the catalogue that led me to want to ask you this question about the iconic Michael and Bubbles piece, which is I think on the banner outside, right? Scott says, “Koons even praised Michael Jackson’s willingness to remake himself surgically to become more palatable to a white, middle class audience. ‘That’s radicality. That’s abstraction.’ Koons declared.” That’s just incredibly perverse. That sculpture is an amazing piece, I grew up looking at it because San Francisco MoMA I think has one in their permanent collection, so it was always there, almost always on display when I walked in as a kid. The Michael Jackson that Koons made is white before Michael became that white. And there are possibly toxic issues of race and fame that are wrapped up in that piece, and then if you look at his quote about the radicality and abstraction, you could even imagine him celebrating the way that Michael morphed his own face out of this dysmorphia but ultimately by a misplaced desire to please his fans. And then he died by taking this sleep simulator. It’s very Koons-like in a way. For me, it brings out these darker notes in his work. I just can’t believe he’s serious when he celebrates the radicality of Michael Jackson’s commitment to fame.
SR: Yeah, at that moment when he made that quote in the late 80s and early 90s when the Cicciolina thing started around Banality, he said a lot of things that are almost unbelievable. And he said things that he wouldn’t say today. He would say things about wanting to become a bigger star, a movie star, you know, “who really knows Jasper Johns anyway? He’s shit compared to Elvis.” Something like that. Jeff wouldn’t talk that way today, I don’t think, about Johns. It’s funny, that quote that you read was quoted in one of the reviews in the piece and it said “how could the Whitney celebrate the kind of racism?” or something in its wall label. It’s funny, we weren’t trying to, in any way – I think it’s an incredible sculpture.
RK: It is an incredible sculpture.
SR: It’s incredible that Jeff said that. I don’t agree with his point of view, but he did really look up to Michael Jackson.
RK: He said he wanted to be Michael Jackson if he could be any other living person.
SR: Exactly, he wanted to be Michael Jackson if he could be any other living person. I think it’s partly to do with how famous Michael Jackson is, but also if you say that in 1988, Michael Jackson could be the most famous person alive, I don’t know how you measure such things, but certainly the most famous pop star. For Jeff, he would always talk about his ability to communicate so broadly, that Michael had his fans, that fame is not something just for its own sake. It’s not just a vehicle to have money or renown, it’s this idea of reaching people and kind of an evangelist or someone’s propheticizing, there’s a generous flip side to fame that I think Jeff believes in, that Michael could communicate like that interested him. He would say that he was the great communicator of our age. The idea that Michael Jackson could be popular and also find some kind of aesthetic innovation within a pop genre…so no one’s going to say he’s in the tradition of John Cage and the kind of music you would speak of in a music history seminar. But people would say “well, Michael Jackson, among pop stars…there was an innovation in what he and Quincy Jones achieved in the production of Off the Wall or something. That kind of ability to be inventive and to reach people and to even have critical acclaim while also broad acclaim would have appealed to Jeff.
RK: So does he work on making art all the time? Is he one of those artists who is just—-
SR: All the time. Adam Weinberg, who is our director, made a speech the other day and quoted Jeff saying that he thinks about his work every minute of the day. And that Adam didn’t believe that was possible, but having worked on this show now he thinks it’s absolutely true. And I do too, I’ve never known an artist who was as single-minded in their dedication, thought, commitment to their work 24/7 weirdly.
RK: People say that Kippenberger was like that, and that he put all of his money back into the work, and was constantly in debt because the profits that he made from his art were just to make more art and do more projects…
SR: Well and Jeff in a way, that’s part of his example too. There’s so many times when you think “gosh, he was willing to bankrupt himself to make some object and practically did,” and you know that he could have let it out of the studio when it was 98% as good because in fact, only he can see the final 5%. There are value judgments being made that are extremely hard to see. Some of them can be verified by science: Michelle Guo in her essay in the catalogue talks about the tolerances in Jeff’s production values and how they exceed even sometimes what the aerospace industry is doing and—
RK: Really? Wow.
SR: Yes. She claims. And this is something that is supported by this guy Neil Gerschenfeld who is at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT that Jeff has collaborated with, but you think like OK, at a certain point, something could be good enough. There is no “good enough” for Jeff. And that he could sell it at a much higher profit margin and he’d have more time on the weekend to spend with his kids, and he doesn’t want to ever make that decision. And I don’t mean that that means he’s the best artist or the most perfect artist, all I’m saying is that I can’t question his relationship to his work in that way.
RK: He has a relationship to perfection, I think, right.
SR: Yes, a perfection that only he sometimes can see, you know.
RK: But it seems, just thinking about the show, reading you on the show, I started thinking about his turns and limits. Every artist, every writer, needs to have a structure by which they proceed and it seems that for him, the structure is this sort of perfection, but he doesn’t achieve it, the pieces sort of lose their logic. Like the Gorilla became very interesting to me, I had never seen that piece before and I saw this show on Friday and I just thought “that Gorilla is so ugly.” I think Jerry Saltz in his review referred to it as life-size, which I thought was hilarious.
SR: Ha, I noticed that.
RK: Because then one asks, what is life-size? The Gorilla is a replica of the kind of thing you get out of a dime machine, or those quarter – it’s a toy for a child, and it still has the seams where it was fused together. And then it’s absurdly wide and it’s made out of granite and it has nothing to do with life, really, except that it’s this perfect and exact replica whose scaled has been completely distorted. But the fact that it could be called life-size brought up all of these issues that then I decided it was a really interesting sculpture, even or because of its incredible – it’s a really ugly piece.
SR: Well I maybe like that piece a little better than you do, but this question of life-size I think is really interesting – Jeff’s relationship to scale in general…
RK: Maybe Jerry knows more gorillas than we do…
SR: Seems a little big, but I don’t know, I’ve never met a gorilla that close up. His sense of things – you know the readymade obviously provides a scale, and things in his career are mostly actual sized in the first floor of the show, the second floor. Then there are places where things enlarge, and his sense of how something is too big or not too big. The scale of these objects is based on a completely aesthetic design. The Gorilla could be any size, so could that Pop-Eye. It’s bigger than a person, it’s bigger than the object it’s based on, but this question about perfection and giving a structure to the work, I really like that idea. Jeff has a really structured existence: he goes to the studio every single day at 8:30 in the morning, he loves being in the studio, he loves working, making his work, this work ethic – but also, if you set out to copy something…there’s the old question about “how does an artist know when their sculpture or their painting is finished?” Well, if you have a model that you set, like a mound of Play-Doh twenty years ago that your son made and said Voila!, even if that mound of Play-Doh is so arbitrary in all of its design decisions (if you could call them that or whatever a child is doing when they are making a mound of Play-Doh…. Once that exists, if you decide to replicate it perfectly and match all of those colors and every last crack in its surface, that’s when you know it’s done. In a way, you don’t have to make a lot of other choices along the way as an artist. Or all the choices you make are in service of that initial concept that must be then pursued with this dogged insanity almost. And that’s something I’ve noticed in his work that actually I associate with other kinds of artists that would fall more under the line of a non-compositional artist, an artist who doesn’t want to make a lot of decisions. Jeff is making decisions but they are in service of a very clear end that can be almost measured. It’s not about being de Kooning and changing your mind about where the line goes in front of the painting or Matisse. Once the scheme/theme is set there are no more decisions, except how to match and realize that thing. Megan’s standing, does that mean we’re supposed to stop? Ok, so we should stop.
RK: Yeah it’s fine.
MH: I mean we’re never going to reach the perfect talk.
[Question and answer session begins] 0:57:21.7
Question #1: Scott, congratulations, it was phenomenal. My question, again to go back to the fame question with Jeff. People in this room, we all know obviously who he is in the art world. We can’t think of a better-known artist. I was watching the TODAY Show and you know the split rocking horse head is in front of the Rockefeller Center. On the local news, they don’t even mention his name. You know, like they just say there’s this big topiary that’s really cool. And I also like, two years ago three years ago, Lady Gaga had the gazing ball on her album cover…I think Lady Gaga got a lot of attention but I don’t think anywhere—no one mentions “oh, that was Jeff Koons’s gazing ball,” like we would know. I guess my point is, while he is famous in the art world, in terms of sort of middle America, average person standing in front of the TODAY Show, they probably are just taking pictures of the topiary not knowing who he is. Or maybe he’s getting there… does he care? Does he want to be like, anybody, if you go to Wichita or wherever and people will recognize his name… does he want to be like that? Or does he not really care about that?
SR: I think it goes back to that thing I was saying about wanting to communicate to a broad number of people…I don’t think that he’s so vain and wants everybody to know who his name is. He wants to feel that he’s reaching an audience. And there’s a peril in that as a contemporary artist who also wants to be having shows at the Whitney or written about…by…in Artforum. How can you hold that line of this broader, beyond the art world fame and the kind of critical respectability? And that itself is its own kind of experiment, the wager in Jeff’s work. There are very few artists who have done it – Warhol at certain points in his career surely, people like Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell probably fell more to the popular side than the, you know, art critical establishment side. There are examples: Dali, well, taken seriously by museums but then he had all these periods when he was thought to be a sell-out and kind of a sham. And part of Jeff’s work is a kind of experiment in fame in that way – can you create something that is – I mean, look, probably more people like Thomas Kinkade than Jeff Koons, I don’t know how we would measure that exactly. So he doesn’t want to be that either. I think he’s interested in, yeah, expanding the audience in his work – I think that’s why he would do a Lady Gaga album cover. I don’t think it’s, he says he likes her work and that’s fine, but he’s not someone whose super invested in music, I mean he loves Led Zeppelin. Not like Mike Kelley, who had an interest in counter-culture, things that were cool, let’s say even. You know, however you would define that. He’s at one with the mainstream.
RK: There’s that great detail in your essay about, after he did the Cicciolina series there was an article in The Fresno Bee that this porn star had done this series with “Jess Koon.”
SR: Oh, ya. I did a lot of research a long time ago that had to do with his fame and this whole question of how artists become famous. And when I mentioned that thing about Page Six, it was actually based on a kind of study I did where I went through Page Six every day in the 1980s and any time an artist was mentioned, I printed it out. The reason I chose Page Six as the kind of, sort of “case study” was because any kind of person could be famous on Page Six. You could be a businessman, you could be an athlete, you could be a movie star, you could be a socialite, you could be a writer…it was this sort of democratic idea of who might be possible to be a subject as a bold-faced name. And it was really curious to me to see that Jeff—and really no artist as I said was treated like that except maybe Warhol on Page Six because he went to like, a movie with Elizabeth Taylor—
RK: He spent the whole 70s doing that.
SR: Yeah, exactly. So he would get written about in terms of his personal life. But no one even wrote about Warhol’s personal life really, they wrote about him going to a movie but he didn’t write about who he was having sex with if he was, and in a mainstream way, and when Jeff did this thing, part of his fame of being with Cicciolina who was so famous herself, much more famous than he was, was that he was kind of hitching his star to hers, apart from whether he was getting naked with her or not – that helped too. By the time their wedding was announced, the AP and the UPI, let’s say, ran items. I went through press clippings and for example, found that news of his engagement appeared in the Sedalia, Missouri in their local newspaper. I looked at the census at that time and there were 19,000 people in Sedalia, Missouri in 1991, and that the marriage of this unknown artist to them would be considered newsworthy was itself really fascinating, and I couldn’t imagine another artist having achieved that level of fame for their personal life in that way. That’s now a digression but all part of the work for me.
Question #2: Scott, congratulations, you’re amazing. We spent a lot of time talking about Jeff’s fame influence in his work, his seeking fame, a little bit of Made in Heaven: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what, in some of his other theories, series, non-fame things that were influencing him – what was he thinking about in those series that don’t relate to fame?
SR: Oh, yeah, sorry, I didn’t mean to make that the subject, that’s just where our conversation maybe went – there’s so many other things that influence him. I don’t know if influence is even the right word – in which he’s interested. You know, like the questions of taste that Rachel was saying, you know his—I like to think of it when I talk about it in my essay, the kind of boundaries he’s pushed in a way. So maybe one is about the perfect copy, about mimesis and the replica, and you see that in the fourth floor in that room with the lobster, and these inflatables. He’s really interested in that as a problem, that’s a really old art historical problem that he’s kind of added some weird new juice to, or maybe he’s interested in this kind of boundary between art and not art that everyone thought that Pop artists really figured that out. It’s surprising to me that as sophisticated and jaded as all of us are at the point or as they were in 1988, that that Banality show could get people that freaked out – was this really art? That Lichtenstein painted comic books and Warhol has used newspaper clippings. By that time, it was like OK, what’s so scary about a pink panther? It’s fascinating, I could talk about it for a long time about what I think it was or what he was trying to do…he goes for all of these places in our culture that are still really alive and raw, and they sometimes – you would think before you got to Jeff that they were settled as a problem for art and then he reopens the problem or pushes it further…just many topics like that, fame would be one of them or the market would be one.
RK: And formal concerns too, he’s a sculptor. And I think there are a lot of issues you could raise – we could have just talked about phenomenology all evening but it could have been less appealing to the audience.
SR: Ha, ha, ha – come back tomorrow evening for our talk on phenomenology in the work of Jeff Koons.
Question #3: Scott, congratulations also, I actually have a question for Rachel given where the conversation began…because I think that in raising the issue…going back to the academic and the way that Koons is sort of a taboo subject within academia, I’m wondering whether, I think one of the things Scott contributed and the dialogue he set up in this show and the display, had to do with finding some way of addressing what an artist is taking on that has to do with criticality but not positions that we already recognize in terms of critique of the culture. And I’m wondering…I was hoping that the conversation – the conversation was amazing, all kinds of things came up—I ‘m wondering whether you feel in mentioning say, Kelley, McCarthy, the artists that you did, that there is a criteria of criticality that you’re not finding in Koons that you think is necessary to value. Bring it to you, rather than academia or academics.
RK: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t give any of my own opinions away in any shape or form—
SR: Yeah, well you thought the Gorilla was ugly.
RK: That’s sort of a joke because I also think it’s very interesting. It’s not meant to be anything but. So, you know, I wasn’t saying that I don’t think that there is this quotient of criticality in Koons’s work or that he should remain outside of academic theorizing of art history and not at all, I was just asking Scott about his experience because I know, because we’re friends, that he had had that experience of not being totally encouraged and supported to write a dissertation on Koons and we all know that there’s this environment especially in New York City, if you’re like on social media at all, people pounce on Koons. A lot of those people are artists and there’s this sense of anger about his work. I don’t speak from that perspective at all. I am outside of that conversation totally myself. But since you asked specifically a question that draws comparisons to Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, I would say…each one is its own case but for instance, like with Paul McCarthy, I think what is interesting about the work is its intrinsic power and its strangeness and its effect are not about any critical intentions on the part of the artist. There’s something else going on. I mean, Paul, I’m not really qualified to speak about his intentions in his work but as I understand them and it, he’s motored in strange ways. It’s very direct, his relationship to his work. It’s not very theoretical. He is obsessed with Walt Disney. He has these certain tropes, things that he’s interested in, and he wants to pull apart and do something that is more raw and have a psychoanalytic charge to it but I don’t think he’s really like driving the theoretical bus of that charge and saying well I’m bringing this into the culture because people are not talking about x, y, and z. He’s just doing it and it’s his work, and he’s been making work for a long, long time and he never stops and he just keeps going, actually that’s something that I think he and Jeff Koons actually share and they also obviously share a kind of one-up-manship in terms of what they’ve done with the arena of public sculpture: making huge pieces, getting lots of money marshaled behind those pieces, and there’s maybe a perversity there that somebody could argue with both of them. There’s a lot of money now flowing through the world obviously and it’s going into these bubbles. One of them is art and perhaps it’s slightly interesting that it’s going into art in a way that has no real use value…you can’t make a drone or a California Department of Corrections or a privatized education industry out of the money that’s going into art, you can’t do anything with it. So there’s a uselessness with both that’s interesting but in terms of criticality, I mean it’s true that there are artists who bring that into their work and maybe it makes it safer in a way to a certain set. Like there’s Claire Fontaine, who takes ideas about subjectivization and global capital and put it in their way but that work gets bought and sold just like every other artist’s work at auctionhouses so I don’t know.
SR: You’re looking at me for another comment. I think you did it, there’s someone here who would like to ask a question so let them have a turn.
Question #4: I just wanted to bring up his auction market because the 10 or 12 big collectors in the world who are moving his work around on a merry-go-round in the auction are his biggest supporters and have been supporting his work throughout his career, so there is a balance there in terms of the 50 millions dollar that went for one heart, of some of that money actually going into the production of new work, so I think to make a disconnect between his prices at auction and his production values and the cost of his productions should not be neglected. I think that the collectors who are doing the flipping are also his biggest supporters and the money is going to future work…
SR: I agree with that to a certain extent, yes.
RK: Yes, we talked about that earlier, Scott makes that point in his essay.
SR: I agree.
Question #5: It’s very interesting to think about Kelley and McCarthy in relationship to Koons, and one difference I would propose is that both Mike and Paul are very well-known teachers, and their public presentation is necessarily different in one way…but my question actually comes from a word that both of you each used in a different context and that was “toxicity”…Scott, you said it in relationship to work that is almost too toxic in a collector’s home and Rachel, you mentioned it in relationship to race. And I wonder if there’s a way to think about toxicity in relationship to something like inoculation or something where there’s a certain threshold at which – It seems like you’re both talking about Koons in relationship to limits…is there a threshold effect where toxicity crosses over to where it’s truly toxic or something that is perhaps related to Linda’s question about criticality?
RK: We’re there, Simon, some of us are just waiting for it. [pause] There’s something abstract to me, my own limits intellectually, in thinking about your question because I think that we are inoculated to some degree as you say…but maybe there was something interesting in Koons’s work about that for me. When I heard you ask your question, I was thinking about that rocking horse in Rockefeller Center…it’s Rocking Horse, right?
SR: Yes, Split Rocker is what it’s called.
RK: In Rockefeller Center, you can actually see that from the Simon & Schuster office of my editor. We were looking out the window and I realized, it’s a split head. It’s two different horses. Then I was thinking about when Charlie Sheen said he was bi-winning, when everyone accused him of being bipolar, and it is a very weird sculpture. It’s not simply like a soft terrier blown up hundreds of sizes covered with flowers flocked with petals. It’s something a lot weirder. And I don’t know if the people milling around underneath it and taking pictures standing against it, notice how perverse it is. I’m not sure if that’s an answer to the question or not. I don’t know, I mean there’s a lot of elements of our society that I don’t pay any attention to and so I think I would be the wrong person to answer the question. I don’t even really know who Lady Gaga is, to be quite honest, I’ve never heard her music, I wouldn’t be able to recognize her on the street, I don’t even understand that whole phenomenon of the – I know that she represents to some people the attempt to be extreme, but it’s so un-interesting to me that I’ve never pursued figuring out who she is. No, but, Scott – you’re not going to answer that question?!
SR: No, I think this guy wants to ask a question so I’ll answer the next one.
Question #5: Yeah, maybe this will help close things up but I’m just curious about the relationship between Koons and now, the fact that he’s been outside the discourse at least critically, you know like journals like October, and now with a solo show at the Whitney. I’m just curious if you have an opinion about how now we can finally appraise this 80s, 90s culture that at the time was so jarring – like a Donald Judd would be so jarring to see in a collector’s room in 1962 but now to see Jeff Koons in the Whitney…you know, as crazy as it would be in my living room, to see it in the Whitney sort of makes sense. So I’m curious about the nowness of it, of how now we can see him critically? If at all, perhaps not.
SR: Right, I mean I can’t offer a critical appraisal of my show but what I can say is something about what I tried to do. I wanted a sense of presentness in every room and I don’t mean that like Michael Fried or some kind of a modernist thing, but that you would walk into those galleries and it has its own kind of logic of display and its own temperature emotionally, or in the way the objects were presented whether in Banality they were all in this line which was meant to emphasize their iconicness in your mind as a thing you already know, as well as their frontality. Whether in another room, I would draw out some other feeling about the work and that each body of work in becoming re-contextualized among their siblings, let’s say, was very important to me. That the Rabbit is at the center of the room, yeah okay there’s the icon, but that all around it there are other sculptures that no one talks about in relationship to it. The little mermaid troll and Doctor’s Delight, Capodimonte porcelain and – these were all part of Jeff’s thinking when he made these works, the basketball in a tank was intrinsically involved with the raft in bronze and the Nike posters. And so, what I guess I hope the show will offer people to do in the critical discourse and in their own minds or wherever they want to, is to kind of re-engage with some of those ideas in a way that, on the one hand is very truthful to the series as Jeff conceived them and on the other hand, has a kind of courage or presentness in this moment and what this moment means also this building. It means 2014, it means the last show of the Whitney, it means how tall are our ceilings and the fact that there’s a concrete grid, and that all of those things are things I thought about when I selected the works and how to put them together and that you would come through and find something very powerful. It wouldn’t be like “oh I’ve saw those again,” and I wasn’t trying to recreate the way anything looked in ’88 or ’84. Many of those works were never shown together in quite that way, so that’s kind of long winded and slightly skirting the question but I hope it gets at what you’re asking.
Megan: Thank you, thank you so much.