Artist Jeff Koons paints a portrait of sincerity and self-promotion


Jeff Koons makes art that looks like kitsch, that glorifies him, and that has brought him international recognition.

He has reproduced Leonardo's painting of St. John the Baptist in porcelain -- only Koons' St. John cradles a pig in one arm and a penguin in the other.

He has suspended basketballs in aquarium tanks, made a bunny rabbit in stainless steel, created a body of work called "Banality" that includes a sculpture of a policeman looking up at a big lovable bear dressed in a striped shirt.

In another body of work, called "Made in Heaven," he posed, in photographs and in glass statuary, in various positions of sexual delight with his wife, the one-time Italian porn star known as La Cicciolina.

He has taken out ads in art magazines in which he poses between two seals in front of a multicolored tent, or in a meadow with scantily-clad models, to promote his own shows here and in Europe.

His latest creation is a 40-foot-high puppy, called "Puppy," made of 17,000 live flowers, first shown in Germany last summer and about to be re-created in Long Island, N.Y., this summer.

Some critics either dismiss Koons' work outright or take it seriously only as an ironic comment on the debasement of art. "If it seems . . . that absolutely everything can be bought and exchanged," wrote Michael Brenson of a 1988 Koons show, "then why not make art that proudly advertises itself as a commodity and therefore, the theory goes, focuses attention on the plight of art and avoids being violated and used?"

But Koons, 38, who will lecture at the Maryland Institute, College of Art tonight, apparently takes himself and his work utterly seriously. In the recently published "The Jeff Koons Handbook" he proclaims "I'm making some of the greatest art being made now. It'll take the art world ten years to get around to it. In this century there was Picasso and Duchamp. Now I'm taking us out of the twentieth century."

If statements like that make Koons sound like a shameless self-promoter, that's not the way he's remembered by Abby Sangiamo, who was his teacher and mentor when the native of York, Pa., attended the Institute in the 1970s. "He was an excellent draftsman and a very conscientious student," Sangiamo said of Koons recently. "He had a delicate manner and was gentle and sweet." When Sangiamo saw Koons on a previous visit to the institute, after he had achieved celebrity status, "He was as sweet, gentle and self-effacing as he always was."

Reached by telephone at his New York home, Koons was so soft-spoken, so apologetic about having had to postpone the interview, and so forthright about his art it was impossible not to believe his sincerity.

"I have tried to make work that functions as a leveler," he explained. "It presents itself as lower than or equal to the viewer, not above the viewer, and creates a three-dimensional social space for people to move. It can give those of a lower class with little cultural background a sense of self-confidence and a place to move to. And it provides an opportunity for the upper class to debase themselves and to embrace their own history. . . . It can give them a chance to enjoy what they truly enjoy, and not what's dictated to them that they should enjoy."

The work may contain irony, he said, but not because he's ironic or cynical about it. "I believe many times my work ends up in a position of irony, but I never start from an ironic position. I start from a position of total sincerity and follow my intuition, and if I'm fortunate enough I reach an archetype, something that has meaning to humankind. If you start from an ironic position you end up with a sophomoric attitude."

The sexual work, he said, is as sincere as the rest. "I'm very proud of 'Made in Heaven.' I tried to create a body of work that really helped put people in contact with life by using the body as Michelangelo's work on the Sistine ceiling. You look up and you see arms or a breast that's larger than life and it puts you in contact with your own body, your own muscles."

The work is meant to be spiritual, he said. "Spiritually, the way to enter the eternal is through the biological." And, he added, "it's anti-pornography. It's not anti-sexual, but it's not pornography. Pornography is ugliness and hatred. 'Made in Heaven' is based in love and understanding."

In fact, he believes that the positive genesis of all his work makes it difficult if not impossible to dislike it. In the "Handbook" he writes, "I've tried to make work that any viewer, no matter where they came from, would have to respond to, would have to say that on some level, 'Yes, I like it.' If they couldn't do that, it would only be because they had been told that they were not supposed to like it."

He doesn't literally believe that no one could dislike his work, he said, but what he does believe is pretty close to that. "I think that somebody could dislike my work, but I believe it's really based in optimism and generosity and love, and I don't see how something that's based in that can really be disliked, because it's not harmful to humankind.

"Some people use art to create an intellectual form of segregation. They believe in making [other] people feel they aren't intellectual, that art is a closed system of power and that they are not worthy and intelligent enough to understand the rules. My work goes against that grain."

But he also added, on a note of modesty, "I'm only a messenger. I'm not creating the message, I'm only carrying the message."

Note: Jeff Koons' lecture tonight is oversubscribed and will not be open to the public.

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