Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
My sister, Karen, is three years older than I am and could always do everything better. She could jump higher, count higher, and run faster. I remember sitting at a desk at home when I was about four years old and making a drawing that my parents thought was fantastic. I finally felt as if I had a sense of place in the family—something to help give me confidence.
My parents were very encouraging, and when I turned seven, they signed me up for private art lessons. My father, an interior decorator, had a furniture store in our hometown of York, Pennsylvania. He would frame my paintings, hang them in the window, and sell them.
I was brought up to always be self-reliant. I took guitar lessons after school, and the studio I went to held a fund-raising campaign with the students selling mints door-to-door. I really enjoyed the process and was quite good at it. When the campaign was over, I decided to continue on my own. I would buy various goods—candies, gift-wrapping paper, bows, ribbons, and cards—from the back of magazines and then sell them in my neighborhood. I was extremely committed and would go out for an hour and a half every night. When I got older, I started vending soft drinks on a local golf course. I would fill up a big jug of soda and carry nice cups and towels. Sometimes I had to wait a very long time for people to come by. Selling is kind of like fishing: To be successful, you have to be persistent and patient. It felt great to do well and being a good salesman is definitely a useful skill, but what I enjoyed most was communicating and interacting with people.
Throughout high school, I never really understood how most of the subjects I studied could benefit me. As a result, I tried to just get by and pass. But I did love art class. Every study period or bit of free time I had would be spent in the art room. When it came time to graduate, I had no desire to study liberal arts in college. The only thing I was prepared for was art school, so I enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore.
In my first art history class, the teacher showed us pictures of Manet’s Olympia. He pointed out that different images were actually symbols and explained how they connected to sociology, psychology, philosophy, and all these other areas. That’s when I began to understand art’s vast potential—until then, I thought it was just a way of creating a two- or three-dimensional image. I realized art could provide a way for me to expand my parameters and be involved, a little bit, in many disciplines. I had a great desire to participate in that kind of dialogue.
During my junior year at MICA, my girlfriend of just a few months became pregnant. I offered to marry her but she felt we were too young, so our daughter, Shannon, was put up for adoption. It was a terrible experience. I always wanted Shannon to be able to find me if she wanted to when she came of age, and I felt that my having greater visibility would make it easier for her. That kind of inspired me to become famous.
Remaining in Maryland proved to be very painful after Shannon’s adoption. I felt that changing environments might help. I had become interested in the work of two Chicago-based artists, Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke, so I decided to take advantage of MICA’s student mobility program and enroll in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for my last year.
On my first night in Chicago, I went to a bar and in walked this tall man. I thought, That has to be Ed Paschke. It was. Ed and I became close friends, and I began to work as his studio assistant, stretching canvases and doing other things. I loved spending time with him and learned a tremendous amount. Ed was very ambitious and taught me about the politics of art. He continually positioned himself to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. For example, he surrounded himself with people who shared an interest in his type of art and attended parties and events in the hopes of making connections that could be of assistance to his career. Ed also taught me about readymades (where ordinary, already made objects are displayed as art), particularly Duchamp’s work. Ed got his own source material from the real world and explained, “Everything is all here. You just have to look for it.” That had a huge impact on me.
After graduation, I got a job as a preparator (someone who installs artworks for exhibitions) at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Chicago was nice but a little isolating. After about a year, I decided to move to New York. I hitchhiked there with the intention of getting a preparator job at the Museum of Modern Art, but there were no positions available. I started calling every day, inquiring if anything had opened up. Finally, seeing how determined I was, they offered me a job selling tickets at the ticket booth. I took it. Selling tickets became kind of a performance for me. I would dress up a little bit every morning, wearing things such as polka-dot shirts, reflective cuff links, and double ties (a regular tie with a bow tie cut out of a sponge or something underneath). I enjoyed interacting with people and definitely got noticed.
I loved being around the museum’s collection all day long and got to know it very well. Eventually, during my breaks from the ticket booth, they would let me stand behind the information desk and answer people’s questions—where a certain painting was located, what time a certain movie was showing, that kind of thing. The membership desk happened to be located in the same area and I observed that the museum was doing very little to increase enrollment. People would come up to the desk, say they wanted to renew, and were handed a form. That’s it. I thought the museum could be a little more aggressive in trying to get their members to upgrade. For instance, the membership desk could ask, “What kind of a membership do you have? Have you ever thought about increasing to the next level?” So I ended up switching to that desk and significantly increased the museum’s membership. One day a man I had just upgraded said, “Jeff, you were able to make me a patron of the Museum of Modern Art. Why don’t you come to work for me as a stockbroker?”
I took him up on his offer and began by going door-to-door selling mutual funds. Eventually, I switched to trading stocks and commodities. I was always an artist and really only wanted to be a member of the art world, but this job allowed me to be independent and produce the artwork I wanted (expensive, large-scale pieces) without being reliant on the mercy of art dealers. Sometimes I even created pieces that cost more than they sold for.
Following Ed Paschke’s example, I began to immerse myself in a community of people—friends, artists, critics, gallery owners—who shared my artistic interests and I tried to say yes to every invitation that might give me an opportunity to network. I would show my work to anyone who would look and never refused an opportunity to be in a group show or to have my work exposed in any manner.
I wanted to work with readymades and produce a body of work so powerful that people would almost have a physical or chemical reaction to it. I created a series called The New where I encased vacuum cleaners inside clear fluorescent-lit Plexiglas—the association with the Hoover salesman going door-to-door resonated with me. The New Museum of Contemporary Art was very interested in what the possibilities of contemporary painting and sculpture could be and in 1980 they offered to display my pieces in their window on Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue. I consider that my first solo show, and the first piece of artwork I sold after art school was one of those vacuum cleaners. It was purchased by Patrick Lannan, a patron of the arts and a former Hoover salesman. The show helped me gain recognition and I moved forward creating other series of work. By about 1985, I reached the point where I could give up having a second job and do nothing but focus on my art.
My father was a perfectionist. When he designed interiors, he would plan out every detail before executing a thing. I picked up that quality from him. I have a vision of what I want my art to be and contemplate every detail long before I start working on it. Once I commit to making something, I am determined to produce my mental image to the best of my ability. I am as precise as possible and enjoy pushing myself to my limit. When I was younger, I would stay up for a couple of months straight working on exhibitions, frequently losing my voice. I find a kind of ease in having a plan and sticking to it, even when I follow something as simple as a diet.
I now work out of a studio where I employ about 130 people. I have people managing the front office, people who help me work on computers, people who do painting, and people who do sculpture. My assistants make the actual works—but it’s not as if I tell them to go off and make something and then sign it. I have developed a meticulous color-coded system that a team of assistants can use to execute a piece as if it’s been done by a single hand—mine. I manage and control every gesture they make and there is no room for interpretation. Every distinct shade of paint is mapped out and given a number. No paint even leaves the coloring table before being approved. The way the paint is applied is controlled too. When I use this method, each painting takes between a year and a half to two years to complete. If I did it all myself, it would probably take me four years to make one painting. My method allows me to work on several projects at once.
I draw on my own life experiences to create my work—sometimes even painful ones. In 1991 I married Ilona Staller, a Hungarian-born Italian porn star and politician. We had a son named Ludwig. Our union didn’t last and in 1994, when Ludwig was eighteen months old, his mother abducted him from the United States and took him to Italy. A bitter custody battle ensued. For years I fought in the court system to get Ludwig back, but I was never able to. I was also prevented from interacting with him. It was one of the toughest times in my life. My world was turned upside down. My legal bills were exorbitant, and I lost everything in an effort to pay them. Everything. I even had to sell a lot of the art I had collected. I began to lose my faith in humanity and almost hit rock bottom, but at some point I realized that I had to hold on and rebuild my life. I wanted to be together for my son if things changed in the future.
Throughout this period, I constantly fantasized about a time when I would be on the other side of my ordeal and could celebrate. Consequently, I wanted to create art that would make life as positive and enjoyable as possible. I also wanted to create work that my son could understand. It was sort of my way of communicating with him from a distance. The result was Celebration, a series of large-scale sculptures and paintings of balloon dogs, Play-Doh, valentine hearts, and Easter eggs, among other things. Making these pieces really helped me through my trying time.
Something else that really helped me was being able to finally reconnect with Shannon in 1995. She had been adopted through Catholic Charities and they gave her information on her biological mother when she turned eighteen. Her biological mother then informed her that I was her father and that I had always wanted to raise her. Shannon made contact with me and came to New York with her adoptive mother to meet me. She then ended up going to Villanova University. Upon graduation, she moved in with me and stayed for several years. Eventually, she got married and created a wonderful family. We have remained very close.
Surviving such a tough time ultimately enabled me to become a stronger, better person. I became very involved with the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and created the Koons Family Institute on International Law and Policy, a think tank focused on the protection of children around the world. When you go through dark moments in life, it is important to remain optimistic. There is usually a way to make something positive out of a negative experience.
Gaining recognition in the art world requires patience and a thick skin. Everybody encounters disappointments along the way. If even one person says, “I don’t get it,” about your work, it’s easy to feel a real sense of failure. My work has been harshly criticized at times. When that occurs, I remember that not everything can appeal to everyone, and I brush it off and move on. It’s essential to remember what your motives are and pull yourself together so you can be as fresh when you present your work to the next person as you were before the criticism. Nothing happens overnight, so to persevere you must enjoy the process and the journey.
It’s a good idea for artists to inform the public of the intent of their artwork. I’ve never wanted to sit back and have a critic who doesn’t even know me be the authority on what my work means and tell people from what perspective they should begin to look at it. Unfortunately, that ends up happening whether an artist likes it or not.
When I was a child, my parents got me a coffee-table book of Salvador Dali’s work and I developed a real interest in him. He was very innovative and made a big impact on the art world. When I was in art school, I heard that he lived at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. I called him up, told him I was an art student who loved his work, and asked if we could meet. He said, “Sure.” So I took the train in from Baltimore and we met in the lobby of his hotel. He was elaborately dressed in a fur coat, a silk tie with diamond pins, and a silver cane, and his moustache was twisted up at the ends. He invited me to see an exhibition he was having at a local gallery. We talked about his work, and he let me take some photos with him in front of one of his paintings. His generosity meant so much to me. Our encounter gave me the sense that if I wanted to do something I could. It’s important for more established artists to be generous to younger ones. Whenever I am asked to visit a university or a school, I try my very best to make it happen.