Massimiliano Gioni talking to a group of visitors in a gallery, standing in front of Jeff Koons' painting Triple Popeye All stories

Jeff Koons: Art, Audience and Controversy

8 February 2022

Interview with Massimiliano Gioni

Massimiliano Gioni, curator of Jeff Koons: Lost in America, has an insider’s perspective on the exceptional career of one of the world’s best-known contemporary artists. He recently answered our questions about Koons’ influences and impact, as well as the exhibition’s resonance for an international audience.

Q. The exhibition is organized around the concept of American visual culture. How does it translate for the audience in Doha?

Massimiliano Gioni: American culture has had a tremendous impact – both beautiful and hugely problematic – on global culture. It is incredibly pervasive and happens almost imperceptibly. America is almost part of the air we breathe: it’s everywhere and nowhere. It’s in the movies and TV we watch, in the food we eat, in the clothes we wear. Even when consciously deciding to refuse such an influence, one is still admitting to know and recognize what defines American visual culture.

The magnetism of American visual culture is part of Koons’ work – it is both reflected and distorted in his sculptures. And it is an aspect of his work which we thought would be interesting to explore in this exhibition. Throughout the show you can see the artist finding his own voice, his own space and take on American culture: it’s a story of both assimilation of and independence from the visual culture in which Koons was born and raised.

Who owns and shapes taste? Who defines what is acceptable and aesthetically or even ethically appropriate?

Massimiliano Gioni

A stainless steel sculpture of a rabbit in the style of a balloon figure, placed atop a white pedestal in a gallery

Jeff Koons (American, b. 1955). Rabbit, 1986. Stainless steel; 104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Qatar Museums © 2022

A large, multicoloured stainless steel sculpture of a party hat sitting on its side in a gallery

Jeff Koons (American, b. 1955). Party Hat (Pink), 1994–2019. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating; 251.8 x 339.4 x 296.2 cm. Private Collection, courtesy of Pace Gallery. Photo: Courtesy of Qatar Museums © 2022

Q. Scale is such an important aspect of Koons’ work. As a curator, how do you think it plays into the audience experience?

Gioni: Al Riwaq is really quite special – Koons’ work has never before been shown in a space that is so large, with vast uninterrupted galleries. In the central space, which is almost as long as a soccer field, you can catch at a glance more than 40 years of work, from the legendary Rabbit – one of Koons’ most famous, reproduced artworks – to the most recent Party Hat, which is having its premiere in this exhibition. The sequence of works in the main three galleries is an explosion of forms and colors, like a grand Baroque spectacle or a strange, dreamlike pop-up city. For the viewer the effect is first of all very physical: you feel the scale in your body and are also allowed the extraordinary opportunity to witness the way in which Koons went from rather small-scale sculptures to grand gestures.

In front of Koons’ sculptures, we are miniaturized, made small, reduced to a child version of ourselves, perhaps. Some might find this experience infantilizing, others will find it liberating – and the way in which people become ecstatic and immediately joyful in front of certain pieces might serve as a demonstration of this childlike enthusiasm that Koons’ work produces.

Q. Koons has spoken before about his view of art as a dialogue with the audience. What is it about his art that is so engaging?

Gioni: You only need to see your reflection on the surfaces of Koons’ work – an experience that is central to almost all the pieces in the exhibition – to understand that his sculptures really only become alive when the viewer steps in front of them. When we see ourselves reflected in them, together with other members of the audience, we are participating in a contemporary ritual of visibility, affirmation and narcissism. Koons’ sculptures almost behave like cameras: they capture and multiply our presence.

Visitors inside the galleries of the exhibition Jeff Koons: Lost In America

Jeff Koons (American, b. 1955). Left: Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994–2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating; 307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm. The Mugrabi Collection. Right: Play-Doh, 1994–2000. Polychromed aluminium; 315 x 386.7 x 348 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Qatar Museums © 2022

Q. Koons has expressed his desire to create art that is accessible to anyone, yet has also said that some people are misinterpreting the work. Is there a conflict there?

Gioni: Like many great artists before him, Koons has this ability to be popular and accessible, highly communicative, but at the same time his work still raises questions that are very important within the realm of culture and in the specialized field of art history. It is a balance that not many artists have been able to achieve, and it is also the reason why Koons’ work reaches very far, beyond the professional art world. All this to say that Koons’ work is capable of being extremely democratic and yet very sophisticated. It can speak about accessibility and also teach us something about elitism.

Who owns and shapes taste? Who defines what is acceptable and aesthetically or even ethically appropriate? These are the central questions that Koons' work tackles. They are basic questions that apply to both philosophers and general audiences, because we are all just trying to understand our needs and desires, and perhaps to be reassured that even our most secret passions, our most embarrassing tastes and appetites are worthy of being explored and being celebrated.

Q. What is the role of controversy in art, not just in terms of Koons, but more broadly? Does it serve a useful purpose?

Gioni: I don’t think we can judge art solely on the basis of controversy, particularly nowadays when controversy is so easily built with the help of media and can be constructed to reach quite conservative ends. On the other hand, one could say that controversy can act as a litmus test of the ability of certain artworks or artists to bring about a complete redistribution of values, hierarchies and tastes. There are some artworks that can still initiate profound crisis and doubts, raising questions about what is appropriate and legitimate, what is permitted and what is to be accepted. When controversy is a consequence rather than the main aim of the artwork, that’s when things get more interesting, I think.

Massimiliano Gioni is Artistic Director at the New Museum in New York City.

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