Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of Louis Vuitton
Jeff Koons is one of the greatest living artists of our time
Jeff Koons posing with one of his Louis Vuitton collabs
Louis Vuitton's Masters II collection

Is Jeff Koons considered one of the greatest artists of all time? That bracket seems fitting for the 63-year-old American whose multi-million-dollar art provokes like great art should, and incites serious debate about his true intentions. His return to the spotlight via a second capsule collection with Louis Vuitton won’t have you sitting on the fence, for sure.

Somehow we get this feeling that Jeff Koons has been prepping for this moment since he was eight. Little did we know that at a young age where others would be busy with playgrounds and toys, he was already painting copies of work by the Old Masters, signing over them with his name Jeffrey Koons, and hustling them at his father’s furniture shop to make decent pocket change that were still nothing close to the prices he commands now. Today, your inner thoughts probably nickname him as Jeff-mothereffin’-Koons, a living and breathing OG of modern art, a darling of the auction money sport where his sculptures are traded for brain-bursting millions, and the original art provocateur who continues to prove that human beings still have a soft spot for reflective inanimate objects in extra-large proportions. Even those who don’t consider themselves remotely close to being an art enthusiast would have remembered coming across one of his striking mirror-finished stainless steel sculptures – whether they’re stalks of tulips, a balloon dog, a rabbit, or an hatched egg – which are the work in his extensive portfolio that garners the most attention by the general public, critics, and collectors. As much as fine art is generally perceived to stoke a deeper level of discourse and delve into the multiple creative vortexes of the artist in order to appreciate its many nuances, the 63-year-old American has never sought to attach profound reasons as to why a Balloon Dog exists so as to justify the millions that one would fork out for a nostalgic element of fun and celebration. Instead, he would likely delve into his use of reflective material that holds the key to unlock the creative code – a concept based on reflection in order to pursue self-reflection. Mind blown with a side of a Keanu Reeves’ “Woah!” Last April, Koons might have experienced a full-circle moment when he collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a 51-piece accessories, small leather goods and handbag capsule collection, a giant swerve of an idea that both the fashion and art worlds probably needed a minute or five to process. Two highly recognisable names in their respective fields joining hands on a fashion project, dubbed Masters, is a headline that writes itself, with the creative spearheaded by Koons and the manufacturing expertise by Louis Vuitton. For this, Koons referenced the Old Masters, again, inspired by his Gazing Ball art series from 2015 that was in turn inspired by classic works of art – yes, it is as Inception-like of an idea as it sounds. The idea of the art work was a reflective ball – his signature – placed infront of reproductions of masterpieces from the greats such as da Vinci, van Gogh, and Rubens. While that might already sound like a blasphemous idea from the get-go, Koons’ concept is to rep “the vastness of the universe and at the same time the intimacy of right here, right now.” Again, this mirror-esque reflection plays a role in bringing one to a heightened state of self-awareness. Koons translated this Gazing Ball idea for the Louis Vuitton handbags, reproducing the masterpieces by da Vinci, Titian, Rubens, Fragonard and van Gogh on leather canvas of the Speedy, Keepall, and Neverfull bags. As for the reflective ball, his take was bold metallic letterings spelling out the names for each of the Old Masters in respect to their art on the leather canvas – a similar idea to what you might see on the back of a sports jersey – along with gold versions of the Louis Vuitton monograms. Koons’ signature appears at the base of the bags as well as his iconic Rabbit in the form of a bag charm. Six months after the April release, Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons were set for a second wave of their collaboration – an extension of the Masters with new references to another set of artists with the famous last names (Monet, Manet, Turner, Boucher, and Gauguin). Whether this collaboration goes down in the Louis Vuitton history books as a masterstroke remains to be seen. But for Koons, there was one thing we do know: that the eight-year-old him might have known that this moment was going to happen.

MANIFESTO: There is probably no better way to start this interview than to ask how it feels to be called one of the most influential artists of all time?  

JEFF KOONS: I don’t think about titles and I actually don’t think of myself that way. I know that from the time I was 17 and I started to get into the essence of what art could be, I always wanted to be part of the avant-garde and just be part of the dialogue with the likes of Dalí, Warhol, Picasso, Manet. I wanted the sensations.

M: How did this relationship with Louis Vuitton begin?

JK: The Arnault family has been involved with my art work for the last several decades. I was asked by LVMH to work on a special edition of the Dom Pérignon (in 2013) and it was a wonderful collaboration and I was impressed by the resources of the company. It was wonderful to work with people who can follow the artist’s vision, it really made the work effortless. That was an experience. Then, I received a call from Delphine Arnault (Louis Vuitton’s executive vice president) about two and a half years ago and she asked me if I would be interested in creating special edition of bags for Louis Vuitton. I was thrilled as I knew they understood materials and how to get the most you can out of them, from the range of colours to the most durable coatings. We both use materials to communicate, and for me, art is to communicate to people the essence of their own potential. That’s art. Material is a great vehicle to do so.

M: What was the initial brief for Masters?

JK: I actually work with very few companies on collaborations. The ones that I have done – I like to choose the companies as well – are the ones I have complete freedom. Louis Vuitton have given me that or else it would be very hard to work with them. When Delphine first spoke to me, I opened up to all possibilities. The company started showing me some of the things that they can do and I started to speak to them about the different parts of it like “Can we have the gold in a deeper colour?” While we were talking about the materials, we were also talking about how we can develop the concept of humanism: Bags are a primitive object and you can imagine how people started carrying possessions around for the first time. Even today, people are carrying intimate objects in the bag and they are items for survival. This collection communicates to people what it means to be human and what is important to us; how we can be generous to ourselves and be generous to other people.

M: What did fashion mean to you before this project and has your idea of it evolved?

JK: It represents a celebration of aesthetics. It is about communicating adaptability. Fashion changes very quickly each season but our bodies are always adapting to the environment. I think fashion helps us stay in contact with our biology. It is a way of celebrating ourselves and the way we feel good about the presentation of ourselves; and in turn it allows us to participate socially.

M: Has being involved in fashion helped you look at art in a different light and how you approach it?

JK: I got involved in art as a child, I used it as a vehicle to get a sense of myself. I remember my parents telling me that it was an activity that I did very well. I never knew the power of art until I got to college and how it connected me to the other disciplines like philosophy, sociology, physics, and others. I love the celebration of all the senses, the heightened sensation that you are able to get when you do art. So, those sensations developed into ideas. I love the intensity of that and I want to share it with others. The mediums of painting and sculpture allow me to have a dialogue about transcendence.

M: You said that art helped you become a better person. Was there a particular moment that made you feel this way?

JK: It was over a period of time [that this feeling developed]. When you were younger, you don’t even have an audience for your art and you feel the entire creative process of it because you’re the only one who can reflect on it. Later, an underground group of people emerge and you start to get a different reading of your work – a sense of responsibility to others in the community and not just yourself. You develop a sense of obligation within this dialogue of information. You learn that the viewer will end up finishing the meaning of that work for you. They can also participate in the transcendence and you’re participating in the realisation of their potential.

M: Do you read what critics say about your work?

JK: I don’t want to be naïve and not know what the world thinks [about my work]. I would be aware of some responses but I realise early on that the only thing you can do is to try and do your work and have a moral obligation towards the gestures you make in reference to your community. Follow your intentions, and if they are positive intentions then it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it is necessary to understand that people don’t open up. Art reveals when some people don’t open themselves to many different experiences they have in mind.

M: You have a Zen-like aura. Have you always been this positive, especially about humanity?

JK: When I was young, art made me anxious. It was about following rules and it was about hierarchy – of people who could make art and people who were struggling. When I first had my art history lesson, I learnt about disconnection of the human disciplines and art opened up for me and it removed anxiety. I realised that I could be involved in all these areas and over a period of time, I realised that the only thing in life we can do is to trust in ourselves. We can only follow our interest; judgment creates anxiety. If we accept everything as its own being, all discrimination is removed. Art has given me this understanding and that is the reason why I work with the images I work with and the message behind my work is that there is no place for judgements. We as individuals are perfect in our own being and as soon as we learn to accept ourselves then we can go out and we’re able to accept other people too.

M: Are people overthinking your art?

JK: I think if communication is direct and pure it is great. Once you are involved and you start to peel back the layers of the onion, there are many levels of thought in anything. You can look at biology from a macro level or a micro level; the whole universe is that way.

M: With someone of your stature, do you ever get star struck?

JK: I’m moved by people who can communicate. I respond the most to testimony, whether it is a poem or a song or a gesture. If it is a testimony from someone I find it to be extremely powerful.

M: What makes you happy these days?

JK: My family and my art.

M: Do you see yourself stopping anytime soon?

JK: Right now, I’m having a great time. The work I was doing today had led me to this point. I am creating what I want to create, things that I find joy in and think about. And through this activity it lets me make a metaphysical connection to the world.

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