Koons emerged on the downtown scene in 1977, the terminus of a predestined journey from York, Pennsylvania (a humble home, the origin of a lingering accent), to Baltimore (art school) to Chicago (more art school) and then to the East Village (to which he’d hitchhiked without passing go, he says, apocryphally, after hearing a Patti Smith song). In the subsequent 45 years, Koons became, in roughest chronology, one of the most daring, colorful, enigmatic, prideful, hubristic, corny, offensive, confounding, contented—and ultimately best known and most expensive artists in the industry, the city, the country, and the world. His adult practice, which began in an East Village apartment, has grown to include manufacturers, engineers, metallurgic workshops in Germany, stone fabricators on the outskirts of American cities, and the large studio in New York. But in the beginning it was just a guy, working during the day (first selling memberships at MoMA, then selling commodities on Wall Street), in order to make art at night.
Willem Dafoe, who arrived in New York when Koons did, recalls being out in the East Village at around three in the morning, when his buddy suggested, “Let’s go over to my friend’s place. He’s an interesting guy.” This was ’78 or ’79. They arrived at this apartment, Dafoe says, “and there was a guy there sitting at his kitchen table, and he had these model cars and he was painting them and gluing fake jewels and fur on them.” A young Koons, of course. “That’s always been such a strong memory, particularly since, well, it wasn’t that the work had nothing to do with what his work would be later on—but that it would absolutely have something to do with what his work would be. I liked that he had this very jovial manner, very polite, and seemed to work from a sense of pleasure and curiosity, which was always fun to watch.”
Dafoe and Koons aren’t close friends, but they’ve seen each other over the years for decades now. “I hate to get involved with I-knew-him-when recollections, but the truth was that what he presented then was very much the same guy as he is now. And that’s what interests me.” (Dafoe never snagged any early works: “I wasn’t that smart,” he says with a laugh.)
Early in his career, Koons told me, his intention was to slough off some of the subjective tendencies of his earliest work and to pursue “an objective vocabulary.” That is, “to create something that wouldn’t have any more meaning to me than it would to you.” Working with the readymades was a way to work with things that are in abundance, that are familiar and resonant to everyone. “The type of answers that we’re looking for in life,” Koons said, “those answers are abundantly around us, and I just think that we need to find ways to decipher it.”
The scaling up over the years was a natural progression. If in the beginning, Koons explained, “you’re able to kill a hare, and you bring it home for yourself to eat, at a certain point you’re going to want to hunt for mammoth.” Most artists look to their galleries for institutional attention, high-profile shows, and strong sales. But for Koons, increasingly over the past three decades, the test became simpler: Who would foot the bill for the production costs of these extraordinarily expensive works? Some of these pieces took upwards of 20 years to engineer to Koons’s exacting standards. Like the enormous Play-Doh sculpture he debuted at his 2014 Whitney retrospective, fabricated in such a way that polychromed aluminum mimicked the dull finish and distinctive texture of a heap of his son’s modeling clay. His original Balloon Dogs—mirror-polished stainless-steel structures that replicate precisely the distinctive look of inflated latex rubber—famously required such up-front investment that several editions were sold before any were completed. Occasionally, Koons doesn’t deliver on time a work that’s already been bought and paid for. That puts everyone—artist, gallery, collector, market—in precarious waters. (“Jeff pushes his dealers to the breaking point,” one of Koons’s former dealers, who helped fund the Celebration series that included both the Play-Doh and Balloon Dogs, once said.)