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May 14 2012

Jeff Koons at Fondation Beyeler

Fondation Beyeler in Riehen near Basel, Switzerland, presents a large solo exhibition with works by Jeff Koons. In collaboration with the artist, the museum decided to show series of works that are central to Jeff Koons’ oeuvre: The New, Banality, and Celebration.

Jeff Koons’ early period-series The New consists of ready-made-like cleaning appliances, symbols of newness and purity. Banality comprises traditionally crafted sculptures in porcelain and wood. With Celebration, Keff Koons produced high-gloss steel sculptures and large-format paintings. Among the works on display are Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988); Ushering in Banality (1988); New Hoover Convertible (1980); Winter Bears (1988); and Balloon Dog (Red) (1994-2000). The giant Split Rocker is installed in the garden of the museum.

In this video we walk through the exhibition on the occasion of the media reception and Dr. Theodora Vischer (Senior Curator at Large, Fondation Beyeler) gives us a short introduction to the show. Hit the jump for the full-length version of the video, an introduction to the exhibition in German language, and the Jeff Koons lecture at Fondation Beyeler.

Jeff Koons at Fondation Beyeler is the first exhibition ever devoted by a Swiss museum to the American artist Jeff Koons. The show runs until September 2, 2012.

Jeff Koons at Fondation Beyeler. Press Preview and introduction by Dr. Theodora Vischer (Senior Curator at Large, Fondation Beyeler). Riehen / Basel, Switzerland, May 11, 2012.

PS: See also our report on Jeff Koons’ exhibition at Versailles with Jeff Koons talking about his work.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.
> On YouTube:

Full-length video (12:55 Min.):

Introduction to the exhibition in German language (9:50 Min.):

Jeff Koons Lecture at Fondation Beyeler (1:33:09):

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April 26 2012

The Olympics is about sport not art, so culture needs to drop out of the race

When the best the Cultural Olympiad has to offer is bouncy castles and BMWs, you know it's time for art to take a back seat

A question arises looking at the full programme for the London 2012 festival, and that question is: why? What's all it for? And how does it connect in any interesting way with the Olympics, or use that sporting even to further art?

As far a visual art goes there is nothing odious about the choices made, but nothing very coherent or spectacularly important, either. To be honest, from Jeremy Deller's bouncy Stonehenge touring the nation to an installation by Richard Wilson in Bexhill on Sea, many of the artworks for the festival sound a bit ... cheap and cheerful. A bouncy castle can't cost that much and Wilson is an artist of subtle ephemeral installations. It's hard to see how the festival is raising anyone's game here. Where's the ambition? Oh, there is, and its name is Anish Kapoor ...

Another element of the art programme that adds to the sense of public money being in short supply is that we are supposed to get excited about a display of BMW cars painted by the likes of Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. This is an innovative and creative contribution to culture how? These painted cars have been around for centuries, and if the London 2012 festival is driven to rely on them as a major part of its programme it is in serious trouble. There is nothing special about a show of these pop art vehicles, nothing cutting edge, and the only explanation I can see is that the organisers are desperately reliant on sponsorship and grateful for BMW's involvement.

It hardly takes a world festival to elicit a new work from Antony Gormley, to take another art element of the programme. But it's time the cultural establishment, which seems endlessly deluded - and by which I mean curators, administrators, and us cultural journalists - woke up to the blindingly obvious fact that when the Olympics opens, we won't be the stars.

I once visited Athens ahead of its Olympics to review its cultural festival. Greece has more reason than most places to make a lot of cultural noise about the Olympics, and did so, with exhibitions on the ancient Greek Olympic games as well as a Gilbert and George show. None of this mattered when the games opened. The BBC did not weave a visit to the wonderful Cycladic art museum into its games coverage. This is about sport, not culture, and after all the fuss, the London 2012 festival implicitly recognises that by foregrounding entertainment (see Stephen Fry at your local comedy club!) and going easy on the brainwork. When it comes to visual art, this makes the whole thing pointless. It will add little to the life of the mind, but may give BMW a boost.


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April 18 2012

Artoon of the week: Jeff Koons

In Peter Duggan's latest redrawing of art history, Jeff Koons discovers his sculptures are surprisingly educational when it comes to teaching his son about the birds and the bees



April 16 2012

Don't judge an artist by his bank balance

From Raphael to Leonardo da Vinci, artists have been getting big money for centuries. So why do we judge contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons on the fortunes they make?

The 16th-century artist Raphael once wrote a very frank letter to a relative. He wanted to explain how well he was doing in his career. The Pope was paying him thousands of gold ducats, he explained, as well as loads of gold scudi. He had also agreed to an arranged marriage with a cardinal's niece. Essentially, he was coining it in. He lived in a palace, and a visitor was amused to find it contained a statue of Philemon, an ancient writer famous for being money-grubbing.

Meanwhile, at the end of his life in France, Leonardo da Vinci was paid several thousand ecus a year by the French king and got a chateau thrown in.

It's worth remembering such tales of the wealth of the great artists when the subject of art and money comes up. There is no doubt that art and money have a crazy relationship in the 21st century. A picture of Cézanne's recovered painting The Boy in the Red Vest at a press conference in Serbia shocked me. This beautiful painting was stolen in 2008 and has now been found, mercifully unharmed. At the press conference it was flanked by two masked, armed men, just to be on the safe side. And why? The painting is valued at £82.8m.

Figures like that are hard to comprehend. The financial value put on art has become fanciful. Writing about art every day but never buying or selling any, in a way I am like a sports commentator who has never put on a pair of running shoes (you can probably think of better images). Yet in our straitened times, the money that art attracts is looked at more critically than it was during recent boom years. When people now see collectors' yachts at the Venice Biennale or a diamond skull at Tate Modern the money becomes the subject, and it may seem wrong and shameful, an absurd corruption of the creative spirit.

I beg to differ. Art has been a luxury good ever since people started to make "art" as such, and artists have been getting big money for centuries. If I say that Raphael was just as mercenary as Jeff Koons, a few answers are possible. One might be that he deserved his money and Koons does not: another might be that Raphael was more grasping than other artists in his time – but Michelangelo and Titian got just as rich. Another answer is that even the fortunes of these artists pale in comparison with contemporary artistic profits.

The last argument, that art's relationship with money today is more out of control than it ever was, makes little sense. Money itself is different. The economy is larger. The fact is that great artists in the past could earn sums that shocked their contemporaries just as they can today. Making a fortune from art is making a fortune from art.

The only honest reason to be disgusted with today's highly paid artists is that you believe their art is not worth the money. Thus opponents of conceptual art are not really appalled that a Koons makes so much money, but that he gets so much for doing what they perceive as so little. It is an argument about artistic quality disguised as an argument about morality. But some people can't see why painters should be paid, either. A footballer opined on the Guardian site last week that a Lucian Freud painting, although he liked it, wasn't worth the money paid for it. Er, how much do football players make again?

Personally I think art is worth a lot more than soccer. But that's just my opinion. Sports fans can presumably see why players are worth what they earn. Neither a sportsman nor a conceptual artist is a miner. Their work is "soft". We value it because we choose to.

The grimmest thing about these grim times is that everyone is more focused on money. It's better not to let that turn into envy. You can love or loathe this artist or that. It is, however, foolish to base that judgment on what you believe to be in their bank account.


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March 11 2012

Damien Hirst: 'I still believe art is more powerful than money'

Damien Hirst has gone from mouthy YBA to global brand over the past 25 years – and become the world's richest living artist on the way. Here he talks about money, mortality and his first retrospective in Britain

Exclusive poster downloads: butterflies shark spin spots

When Damien Hirst was looking though his archive recently, in preparation for his forthcoming retrospective at Tate Modern, he came across some film footage of an interview he did with David Bowie in the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 1996. "I'm sitting on a big ashtray talking bollocks," says Hirst, laughing. "At one point, Bowie says, 'So what about a big Tate gallery show, then?' And I say, 'No way. Museums are for dead artists. I'd never show my work in the Tate. You'd never get me in that place.'"

He grins ruefully and shakes his head. "I was watching it and thinking, 'Jesus Christ, how things change.' Suddenly, I'm 46 and I'm having what they call a mid-career retrospective. It doesn't seem right somehow."

We are seated on a sofa beneath a big blue Francis Bacon in an expansive first-floor room in Science Ltd, Hirst's central London HQ. It is a vast building on several storeys, and it contains more contemporary art than many medium-sized galleries. There are pieces by Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and, of course, several spin and spot paintings, and steel and glass medicine cabinets by the man himself. Hirst's Prada loafers are on the floor in front of us, but his signature tinted glasses are nowhere to be seen. He looks stockier than the last time I saw him, just over two years ago, and a bit quieter, more reflective. "It's mortality, mate," he says. "My eldest boy, Connor, is 16. A few of my friends have died. I'm getting older. I'm not the mad bastard shouting at the world any more."

But you're only 46, I say; it's not as if the reaper has you in his sights. "I know, I know, but it's more that realisation that you're not young any more. I've always thought, 'I don't want to look back. Ever.' I think I was obsessed with the new. That's changed."

A mid-career retrospective will do that, I say, teasingly. "Maybe," he says. "But I think it's more that when you're young, you're invincible, you're immortal – or at least you think you are. The possibilities are limitless, you're inventing the future. Then you get older and suddenly you have a history. It's fixed. You can't change anything. I find that a bit disturbing, to be honest."

The exhibition in question, simply entitled Damien Hirst, will "be a map of my life as an artist, not a greatest hits". It will include most of the greatest hits, though, as well as some not so well-known early work. "There's the painted boxes and boards that I put in Freeze [the groundbreaking show Hirst curated in 1988], from when I wanted to be the new Kurt Schwitters. And there's stuff from my student days at Goldsmiths – gloss-painted frying pans I hung on the wall. Embarrassing stuff like that."

It was Nick Serota, director of Tate, who also insisted that Hirst show the early work, as well as the first piece from every series he has made ever since. "The first spot painting, the first spin painting, the first vitrine, the first medicine cabinet. They're all in there, for better or worse," says Hirst. He then relates an anecdote that illustrates both his cavalier attitude to his work and the weight the work carries. It concerns an early spot painting, executed by Hirst himself, rather than (as is the case with the 1,500-strong series that followed) one of his production team.

"I showed Nick a photo of it and he wanted it in the show. It's all drips and splats. Terrible, really. When I moved down to Devon, I stuck it outside behind a barn. Millicent [Wilner] from Gagosian came down to visit and she was freaking out: 'Why have you put it there? In the rain! Jesus Christ, Damien!' It was like gold because it was me, but, really, it's shit."

Is he happy it's in the show, now? "I am, yes. It tells part of the story of my last 25 years as an artist. It's important on that level. It says that I didn't just arrive on the planet going 'Fuck you' to everybody, which is what a lot of people seem to think."

The "fuck you" work is there in full force, too, though. There's the famous shark in formaldehyde, entitled with typical Hirstian extravagance The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and described in the catalogue as "one of the most iconic images of late 20th-century art". There's Mother and Child Divided (1993), a bisected cow and calf suspended in four tanks, and the mythical bestiary that is the collection Beautiful Inside My Head Forever (2008), which includes a zebra, a unicorn and a golden calf.

There are pristine steel and glass cabinets full of neatly arranged pills, and evil-looking black paintings made of thousands of flies congealed in paint. There are spin paintings with and without human skulls at their centre, and spot paintings that move between the vibrant and the purely ambient. There are more flies, live ones, hatched from maggots and feeding off a severed cow's head in a vitrine, and butterflies, pinned and painted and pressed on canvas, and a single white dove suspended in mid-flight above a human skull. Life and death, beauty and ugliness, the sacred and the profane; all the big Hirstian statements that have appalled some critics with their supposed obviousness, but have also dragged conceptualism from the margins of the art world into the mainstream.

Outside Tate Modern will stand Hymn (1999), Hirst's monumental take on a child's educational figure, complete with exposed stomach organs. Inside, in the massive Turbine Hall, flanked by security guards, will sit a relatively tiny piece entitled For the Love of God (2007), the most expensive work of art ever created in terms of its materials: a human skull cast in platinum and encased in diamonds. A modern vanitas piece about death and money, but mostly about money.

"Putting the show together," says Hirst, "was like a big 180-degree turn for me. I'm looking back at all this work and trying to make sense of it. Some of it is great, and some of it is unrealised and didn't make it in there, and some of it is just shit. It's 25 bloody years of work and, of course, I'm proud of it, proud that I put the effort in, but there's also one part of me going, 'How did that happen?'"

How, indeed? It is a question that exercises the minds of his many detractors in the art world: how did a mouthy, working-class lad from Leeds, with hooligan tendencies, become the biggest – and the richest – artist on the planet? (In the Sunday Times Rich List of 2010, Hirst's wealth was estimated at £215m.) The answer is long and complex, and has much to do with the radical shifts in culture that have occurred over the past 25 years or so, both in Britain and the world: the unstoppable rise of art as commodity and the successful artist as a brand; the ascendancy of a post-Thatcher generation of Young British Artists (YBAs) who set out, unapologetically, to make shock-art that also made money; the attendant rise of uber-dealers such as Jay Jopling in London and Larry Gagosian in New York; and the birth of a new kind of gallery culture, in which the blockbuster show rules and merchandising is a lucrative sideline.

At the centre of this ultra-commodified art world stands Damien Hirst, art superstar: the richest, loudest, biggest YBA of all. Except that, no longer young, he seems – at the very moment when his canonisation by the art establishment is complete – to be in a long period of transition. When I last spoke to him, in September 2009, in his vast studio near Stroud, Gloucestershire, it was exactly a year after the astounding success of Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, his record-breaking Sotheby's auction of 2008. Back then, just before the world markets tumbled, Hirst made headlines by bypassing his dealers, Jopling and Gagosian, altogether, and taking more than £111m in sales in two days of often-frenzied bidding. Right on the cusp of the recession, the Sotheby's auction was a pivotal moment for Hirst – a grand farewell, he told me, to the "big work" he had been making for years. He also told me then that conceptualism was "a total dead end" and said: "You spend 20 years celebrating your immortality, and then you realise that's not what it's about."

Since then, he has been relatively quiet on the creative (if not the commercial) front, working mainly on his own paintings: that is, canvases on which he, and he alone, applies the paint. Many of them, including a series made after the suicide of his friend Angus Fairhurst in March 2008, were completed in a room in Claridge's that his good friend Paddy McKillen (co-owner of the hotel) loaned him rent-free, in return for some paintings that now decorate the Connaught, another of McKillen's London hotels. An exhibition of that work, No Love Lost, opened at the Wallace Collection in London in October 2009 to uniformly murderous reviews, the late art critic Tom Lubbock comparing Hirst to "a not very promising first-year art student".

Undaunted, Hirst has continued to paint, and when I travelled down to his country home in deepest Devon a few weeks ago, he showed me briefly around his garden shed, where a paint-splattered stuffed bear stood sentinel over a group of partially completed canvases, featuring brightly coloured parrots in lush landscapes and a single big painting of a human head in a wash of what you might call Bacon blue. A few stuffed parrots stood on perches in the centre of the cluttered room, bright yellow and green, as if staring at their painted selves. "When all else fails," Hirst quipped, "get yourself a few dead parrots." It all seemed a long way from a giant blue shark in a tank of formaldehyde. "I've spent a long time avoiding painting and dealing with it from a distance," he said. "But as I get older I'm more comfortable with it."

The house in Devon, where Hirst currently lives with his wife, Maia Norman, and their three children, is one of several properties he owns. He also has a stately home, Toddington Manor, in Gloucestershire, that will one day house a collection of his own work. Near Stroud, he has another house with a vast studio attached, where, not that long ago, many of his 150-strong team of assistants laboured over his serial works: the spot paintings, spin paintings, cabinets and vitrines. He has a houseboat in Chelsea, a house in Thailand, where he spent Christmas, and another in Mexico, although he hasn't been there for a while because "it's a bit wild west out there at the moment".

In London, as well as Science, his organisational hub, he also owns a big chunk of Newport Street in Lambeth, which is currently being turned into a new gallery that will open in 2014 and house his extensive collection of contemporary art by the likes of Bacon, Koons, Murakami, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and even Banksy – "We do these collaborations with my spots. I got one from him recently and he'd written all over it in big black letters: Sorry, The Lifestyle You Ordered Is Out of Stock."

Over lunch in Hirst's quayside restaurant in Ilfracombe, beneath a pristine glass cabinet full of pills, I ask him if it was always his motivation to be the biggest, the most successful? "I always wanted to be bigger, but not biggest. Even as a kid in drawing class, I had real ambition. I wanted to be the best in the class but there was always some other feller who was better; so I thought, 'It can't be about being the best, it has to be about the drawing itself, what you do with it.' That's kind of stuck with me. Being best is a false goal, you have to measure success on your own terms."

With Damien Hirst, though, it aways seems to come down to three things: art, ambition and money, though not necessarily in that order. For that reason, as curator Ann Gallagher asserts in her catalogue introduction to the Tate Modern show: "Like no other artist of his generation, Damien Hirst has permeated the cultural consciousness of our times." What that says about us – and about Hirst – is a matter of some debate. Writing recently in the New Yorker on the simultaneous exhibition of all Hirst's 1,500 signature spot paintings in all 11 Gagosian galleries dotted around the globe, the American art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote: "Hirst will go down in history as a particularly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That's not Old Master status, but it's immortality of a sort."

Schjeldahl's critical hauteur is not untypical. The bigger Hirst has become, the more he has become an object of scorn to some serious art critics, a symptom of all that is wrong with contemporary art – and the rampant, market-led capitalism that drives it – as well as an easy target for the flak directed at conceptual art in general. "His work," writes Gallagher, measuredly, "is characterised by its directness as well as its ambition; it is both deadpan and affecting, and it provokes awe and outrage in equal measure."

That, one senses, is exactly how Hirst – mellower these days, but still a northern prole with attitude to burn – likes it. Is there a little part of him that still rejoices in the notion that he is, at heart, a working-class lad who is somehow sticking it to the toffs of the art world? "All of me, I'd say," he replies, cackling. "I mean, I don't fit, do I? I can play the game, but I don't really fit. But you get older and you realise that rebellion doesn't really matter to the market. I kind of learned that early on and I've never forgotten it." How early on? "Well, I remember in about 1989, when I was still an outsider and all my mates were having shows and I wasn't, and it really bugged me. As I was making the fly piece, I was thinking: 'I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna kill you with this one, knock you down dead, and change the world.' And I showed it to a few galleries and they all just turned round and went 'Marvellous, darling.' It didn't have the effect I wanted. It had the opposite effect. I was gutted, in a way."

As a young teenager, Damien Hirst wanted most of all to be a punk, but, as he now puts it, "I was just too young and not angry enough." He remembers his mother melting his one Sex Pistols record to fashion it into a plant holder, and he remembers sneaking out, aged 12 or 13, with his "punk clothes" hidden in a bag, then changing into them when he was out of sight of his house. "I think that attitude crept into my art somehow. I was always looking for ways to sneak stuff into the art world and make it explode in their faces. I was an infiltrator."

Growing up in Leeds, Hirst was a handful for his mother, Mary Brennan, who worked in the local Citizens' Advice Bureau. His punk phase came just after the man he thought was his father walked out on the family when Hirst was 12. He also went through a brief shoplifting phase – he was arrested twice – before he was finally accepted on his second application to study an art foundation course at Jacob Kramer College in Leeds.

As a teenager, he made regular visits to Leeds University's Anatomy Museum to practise drawing, and it was there he found inspiration for his first piece of shock art: a photograph mounted on a steel frame called With Dead Head, first exhibited in 1991, in which his 16-year-old self poses, grinning, beside the severed head of a middle-aged man which sits on a mortuary table. It set the scene, if not the tone, for much of what was to follow.

Hirst moved to London in the mid-1980s, and for a time worked on building sites, before being accepted to Goldsmiths in 1986. There, under the tutelage of the artist Michael Craig-Martin, he realised that for the time being, at least, painting was over and that, in contemporary art, the idea was the be all and end all.

"When I arrived there, I was this angry young painter looking at all the conceptual work being made there and dismissing it as pure crap," he says, laughing. "But I got seduced by it. Initially, I was finding pieces of wood, banging them together, and slapping the paint on. It was Rauschenberg, de Kooning and a bit of Schwitters. It had been done to death and they told me so. I went back up to Leeds and I thought, 'OK, I've got to deal with the world I live in – advertising, TV, media. I need to communicate the here and now.' I realised that you couldn't use the tools of yesterday to communicate today's world. Basically, that was the big light that went on in my head."

The rest is art history, though it took a while to be made. You could even say that Hirst the entrepreneur arrived in the public eye before Hirst the artist, when he curated Freeze, a three-part group show of his contemporaries, including Angus Fairhurst, Gary Hume, Michael Landy, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw. It was held in a disused warehouse in London's Docklands in the summer of 1988. The space – and the ambition – was influenced by Charles Saatchi's big gallery in Boundary Road in north London, which opened in the mid-1980s, and initially showed work by pioneering American conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, both of whom influenced Hirst.

Despite being a student show, Freeze became the most talked-about art event of the year in London, attracting the attention of both Saatchi and Serota. "It amuses me that so many people think what happened was calculated and cleverly manipulated," Craig-Martin said later, "whereas in fact it was a combination of youthful bravado, innocence, fortunate timing, good luck and, of course, good work."

By the time he left Goldsmiths, Hirst was already making spot paintings and medicine cabinets, both in highly formalised series, and made with the help of a small team of assistants. In 1991, he had his first solo show, In and Out of Love, in a disused shop in central London. His creative imagination had taken another leap. Visitors entered a room in which live butterflies fluttered around, having hatched from canvases embedded with pupae. In another room, dead butterflies were arranged on white canvases placed around a white table with four overflowing ashtrays. All the Hirstian themes were already in place: life and death, beauty and horror, as well as the sense of spectacle that would become the defining aspect of his work.

At a Serpentine gallery show that same year, Hirst met Jay Jopling, who would soon become his dealer. Things moved even faster after that. For a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Hirst referred in the catalogue to a work in progress that had been commissioned by Charles Saatchi. Entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of a Living Person, it comprised a 14ft-long tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. It did not appear in the Saatchi Gallery until 1992, but when it did, it radically changed the world of contemporary art – and the course of Damien Hirst's life.

Having been bought by Saatchi for £50,000, the shark in the formaldehyde-filled vitrine became an icon of contemporary art of the 1990s and perhaps the defining work of what would come to be known as the YBA movement. ("£50,000 For Fish Without Chips" ran a headline in the Sun at the time.) In 2004, the work was sold to an American collector, Steven A Cohen, for a reputed $8m. In 2006, the original shark, having deteriorated, was replaced at Hirst's insistence by a new formaldehyde-injected one, which was then loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is that shark that visitors to the Tate Modern show will see. (Both Hirst and Cohen seem unfazed by the big art-historical question of whether a replacement can ever have the import of the original art work. Only time will answer that one.)

"It's what Jeff Koons once referred to as a high-maintenance piece of art," says Hirst, when I ask him about the practicalities of owning a shark in a tank. "The formaldehyde works are guaranteed for 200 years. I would like it to always look as fresh as the day I made it, so part of the contract is: if the glass breaks, we mend it; if the tank gets dirty, we clean it; if the shark rots, we find you a new shark." At 22 tons, it must be a bugger to transport, though? "Not really. The tank and the shark travel separately. Then you clean it and set it up, add the formaldehyde. Basically," he says, without irony, "it's just a big aquarium with a dead fish in it."

Since the shark first swam into the public consciousness in 1992, it has, as Hirst once admitted to me, "been hard to see the art for the dollar signs". His astonishing earning power came to a head with the Sotheby's auction in September 2008, when total sales were 10 times higher than the previous record for work by a single artist. By then, he already held the record for the most money paid in auction for a single work of art by a living European artist, the emir of Qatar having paid £9m the previous year for Lullaby Spring, a steel cabinet containing 6,136 neatly arranged pills.

"Money is massive," says Hirst, when I remind him of the above quote. "I don't think it should ever be the goal, but I had no money as a kid and so I was maybe a bit more motivated than the rest. I used to argue with Angus [Fairhurst] and Sarah [Lucas] about that all the time when we were starting out and struggling. They'd say: 'You're obsessed' and I'd be like, 'It's important.' See, if you don't care about it, often you don't deal with it, then it screws you. I do believe art is more powerful than money, though. I still believe that. And if I ever find out money's more important, I'll knock it on the head."

For all that, Damien Hirst has become for many the epitome of the artist as businessman, entrepreneur and global brand. It is quite a transformation, given that in the wild years of the 1990s, when the YBAs held their own in the drinking, tooting and necking pills stakes with Noel and Liam and the rest of the Britpop crew, Hirst was the loudest, drunkest and, some would say, most objectionable lad of the lot. His bills at the Groucho club, sent monthly to his home address, were legendary, as was his tendency to go out for a drink on a Friday night and get home in the early hours of Sunday morning. He has not touched a drink – nor popped a pill, nor snorted a line – in five years. Does he miss the good old, bad old days?

"Nah. I've done it, man," he says, shaking his head and reaching for a Diet Coke. "I had a beautiful 10 years and then, suddenly, it started to hurt. I couldn't handle the hangovers: waking up in the sticky filth of the Colony Room on the floor; sweating my way though meetings at White Cube; going to meet Larry [Gagosian] on the Anadin, the Nurofen, the Berocca and the Vicks nasal spray, looking like an alcoholic tramp. It wasn't good. I just woke up one day and thought: 'That's it. It's over.' Haven't touched a drop since."

We talk about Louise Bourgeois, whom Hirst visited before her death last year, and I mention her belief that happy people could not make great art. Is he happy? He laughs. "Making art, good art, is always a struggle. It can make you happy when you pull it off. There's no better feeling. It's beauteous. But it's always about hard work and inspiration and sweat and good ideas. I don't believe it's about God-given genius, but I do believe somehow in the magic of art even though I don't want to. I believe in science. I want clear answers." He pauses for a moment. "I want to make art, create objects that will have meaning for ever. It's a big ambition, universal truth, but somebody's gotta do it."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1 to 9 Sep, sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority. Observer readers can buy two tickets for the price of one: the offer is valid on full-price tickets only and must be booked before 4 April. Visit tate.org.uk and quote promotional code OBS241


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October 15 2011

'I don't have a relationship with my son today'

When Jeff Koons married porn star La Cicciolina the world gasped. But then she fled to Rome, and the artist lost all hope of a relationship with his son. Here he talks to Andrew Anthony about his work, heartache and a strange love that soured

The feeling I have before meeting Jeff Koons, the extravagantly successful American artist, is reminiscent of the sense of defeated curiosity I experienced some years ago on the way to interview Gilbert and George. It's the strong suspicion that I'm going to be the recipient of a performance and that nothing I ask or say is likely to affect or alter that performance.

The comparison, it turns out, is both fair and misleading. While Koons does give the impression of a slickly rehearsed act, and there are superficial similarities to G&G – the habitual suit-wearing, the faultless good manners – there is also something quite different about Koons's manner. Where the British pair were elusive, teasing and almost metronomically detached, the American is open, earnest and as innocent as a white-picket fence.

The question, however, remains essentially the same: is he for real?

First, there is the peculiar nature of the art: giant childlike inflatables, a huge topiary puppy, kitsch figurines that look as if they've walked off the advertising pages at the back of the Sunday Telegraph and, most notoriously, the explicit sexual poses of himself and his ex-wife, the former porn actress La Cicciolina, that featured in his series Made in Heaven. If that was not enough, Hanging Heart, his stainless-steel hanging sculpture of a birthday-card heart, set a world record for a living artist in 2007 when it sold for $23.6m.

Then there is the no-less-anomalous quality of the man – the softly spoken one-time commodities broker who combines an acute financial acumen with a kind of hokey sense of wonderment. The art critic Matthew Collings once described Koons's "pleasant cartoon-like face" as "part classic American handsome, part Mad magazine". The handsomeness has since relinquished territory, and hair, to the caricature.

It's been 25 years since he first came to prominence. He's now 56 and the intervening years, while commercially profitable, have not always been kind. Nor have the critics. The harshest judgment came from Robert Hughes, who saw in Koons a sanctimonious intimacy with corporate fashion. "He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida," wrote Hughes in 2004.

Still, the major setback in Koons's life has had nothing to do with critical opinion, but it is the reason I'm visiting the artist on a hot New York morning at his studio-cum-factory in an urban blank spot west of Manhattan's Chelsea district. In 1994, Koons's then 18-month-old son, Ludwig, was taken by his mother, Ilona Staller (aka La Cicciolina) to Italy in contravention of a New York court order. Despite a bitter and protracted legal battle, Koons was unable to regain custody of his son, who remains in Rome. Right from the start he viewed his son's removal as child abduction and sought the help of Ernie Allen, the president of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC). From the resulting relationship, Koons decided to set up the Koons Family Institute on International Law and Policy, which is tasked with providing data and analysis for the ICMEC.

Enter Kiehl's, the American cosmetics company, for which Koons has designed a special-edition bottle top in the shape of his sculpture Balloon Flower. Proceeds from the sale of the limited-edition "Creme de Corps" – estimated to be $200,000 – will go to the Koons Family Institute. Hence Koons is promoting the philanthropy-as-marketing-strategy by talking about his own experience as a victim of child abduction.

First, though, he shows a group of journalists from Europe and Korea around his studio. It's a huge, white, light-filled space in which 25-30 young artists are quietly but industriously engaged in work on a series of large paintings depicting Aphrodite, Pan and Eros. The painting has been pre-bought by Bill and Maria Bell, part of the soap-opera dynasty responsible for such imperishable daytime series as The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless. "The Bells are fantastic," says Koons. "They're great collectors."

He talks about an image of the actor Gretchen Mol sitting on an inflatable dolphin. "It really felt mythological to me. Art's a very intuitive process and its vocabulary is very intuitive, very connecting, very archetypal. Information is profound and communal." The Koreans don't seem to have any more idea of what he's talking about than I do, but nor do they appear particularly concerned, posing for photographs with him as he mugs for the camera.

"I enjoy readymades," Koons goes on. "It's a way that I can communicate a form of acceptance, that everything is perfect. It's about accepting ourselves and accepting others."

Koons tends to talk about art in a kind of readymade language, running together words and concepts that sound meaningful without always placing them in a sequence that is meaningful. But just when you're ready to let it all slide to the back of your mind, he'll slip in a genuine insight. I asked him, for example, about beauty, a quality he frequently refers to when discussing his works, or at least their inspiration.

"I would have to say what I find beautiful in the world is the moment that has been revealed, that something is brought into the light. And it only comes from being human, this process of unveiling, if we can open ourselves up to our possibilities." Or as he once put it: "If I think of the word beauty, I think of the word vagina… or the ass." He was talking then in the context of Made in Heaven, which featured a piece called, with forensic accuracy, Ilona's Asshole. It was in the creation of this work, of which he remains extremely proud, that his parental problems began.

The day after THE TOUR, Koons and I are sitting with Ernie Allen, who is a 65-year-old lawyer and Southern gentleman of the old school, in the middle of the studio, while Koons runs through his story from the beginning. It starts on an autostrada in Italy, where Koons found himself looking at porn magazines. For artistic reasons, of course.

"I acquired them so I could show my production people," he recalls. "If you pick up a Vogue or a Cosmopolitan, you really don't see much flesh. You'll see a hand or an arm, but you don't see what the back looks like. I came across my ex-wife's photographs and I was moved by the fantasy of the photographs. They were like a fairy tale in a way. I guess Eastern European eroticism."

I make sure not to catch the eye of Allen, who has just completed a 15-minute explanation of what his centre has done to combat child pornography – a different category entirely, of course, but not so different that he'd be the first person with whom I'd want to discuss the aesthetic merits of Ilona's Asshole.

In 1989 the Whitney Museum asked Koons to make an artwork about the media. He'd just finished his Banalities series, which included a sculpture of Michael Jackson with his ape Bubbles, and he was the toast of the New York art world.

"I thought as a readymade I will call this woman up, this Italian politician, and I'll just place myself in these sets," he recalls. "And it will be like we made a film. And I thought the next level of stardom in American culture is film, because I've always believed that you weren't viewed as participating in culture unless you were in Hollywood. But of course this is just advertising a film that doesn't exist."

So he called up Staller, star of such adult fare as Il Pornopoker and Dog Lay Afternoon, who traded on her sexual notoriety in the 1980s to become a politician in Italy. Her most memorable contribution to international politics was her offer before the beginning of the first Gulf War to have sex with Saddam Hussein if he would return the foreign hostages he was holding. Koons employed her as a model in the shoot that formed the basis of the resulting work for the Whitney.

"And we flirted a little bit with each other," he continues in the same careful tone, as though recalling a particular artistic detail. "I found Ilona a very, very beautiful woman. I was curious about her, you know, being in politics in Italy. And she presented herself to me as a victim of pornography when she was younger in Hungary. They had no food; she had to bring home money. I went back and we did another photo session and we ended up falling in love. I was kind of living this philosophy: embrace your past. You know, I was naive to think that somebody could be involved in certain areas and then just let go of that completely."

He says that he often asked himself: "Jeff, what are you doing?" but he quashed his doubts and threw himself into the relationship. Still skirting Allen's gaze, I ask Koons if he found the experience liberating in any way.

"I think so," he says matter-of-factly. "Ilona was absolutely very comfortable with her body, so that was a very liberating aspect for me."

The couple moved to New York, married in 1991, and Ludwig was born in 1992. The following year they separated. "When it started to become clear to me that I'd got myself involved in something much more complex than I had any idea of, I tried to take action to protect my son," says Koons. "That's why I filed for divorce."

But Staller fled to Rome with Ludwig, and it would be three months before Koons located the whereabouts of his son. "I always felt that I would get him to be returned to New York because we had shared custody at the time and he wasn't allowed to be taken out of the jurisdiction," says Koons, sounding as guileless as the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. "And I really believed in a system in which people would automatically do the right thing. But that did not happen."

Instead he had to go to Italy. He says he fought for years to get his son returned. "In the beginning, after months and months of trying, I was eventually able to see my son, but only for an hour and a half a day under armed guard. Eventually I was able to take my son outside his home in Rome, but under armed guard – people assigned by my ex-wife."

"Let me interject here," says Ernie, now that we were back on the more secure terrain of child abduction. "This wasn't Syria. This was a western democracy. It was Italy. It really illustrated that this was a really complex problem. Even when you had clear legal right and authority, you couldn't get your kid back."

"I mean, my son was really just turned against me," Koons continues. "I don't have a relationship with my son today. Maybe out of the blue I'll get a phone call from him and then I won't hear from him for another year. There's just no relationship there."

Koons says the legal costs drove him to the verge of bankruptcy, though others have attributed his precarious financial position in the mid-90s as much to his fanatical perfectionism and the vast scale of his Celebration series. One of the things that brought him back from the brink, at least psychologically, was his reunion with his daughter Shannon, who was conceived when he was a student at Maryland Institute College of Art. He says he offered to marry Shannon's mother when she became pregnant, but she thought they were too young for that commitment.

So the girl was put up for adoption, and a broken-hearted Koons left Maryland because it was, he says, too painful to remain. He thinks the adoption helped galvanise a desire to become famous. "I think I was always ambitious," he says. "I think I always wanted to participate in the dialogue of art. But I think that it helped make me want to have more visibility so that my daughter could find me. I always hoped that we could reconnect."

They did in 1995, and Koons has subsequently built what he describes as a "very close relationship" with Shannon, her husband and their two daughters – his granddaughters. He also has five other children by his second wife, the artist Justine Wheeler, who once worked as one of the hired hands at his studio.

He is now not just financially secure but deeply settled, and consequently at ease with the world, even if he still appears – at least to those who don't know him – slightly estranged from himself. He's given to voicing the kind of soft-hearted platitudes that are not normally associated with conceptual artists who graphically depict their lover's genitalia, such as: "Family life is the most important thing to me" and that all that matters in life and art is "actual human interaction".

I wouldn't describe my interaction with Koons as the most full-blooded and humanising encounter of my life, or even week, but I nonetheless came away with an improved opinion of him. For all his arty sales patter, his befriending of wealthy collectors and his mannered sincerity, there is something unmistakably genuine about Koons. No artist could make him up. Not even Jeff Koons himself.


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June 08 2011

Peter Duggan's Artoons - Jeff Koons

Cartoonist Peter Duggan lands artist in a compromising position with ex-wife Cicciolina



June 03 2011

Venice Biennale: Prada on parade

Fashion couple confirm their places as major cultural figures with display from their art collection

If any designer has effortlessly vaulted the confines of the fashion world to become a major cultural figure it is Miuccia Prada and on Saturday she and her husband and Prada CEO, Patrizio Bertelli, will confirm their status.

Their new venture is opening to the public: a semi-permanent display of works from their art collection, housed in a faded but imposing 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Enter the Ca' Corner della Regina from the water, and you come straight to the work that occupies the lofty, Doric-columned hall, Anish Kapoor's Void Field: a series of sandstone blocks, each with a curious black hole penetrating its surface, giving the impression that these mighty boulders are at the same time hollow or weightless.

It was part of Kapoor's 1990 British pavilion for the Venice Biennale, the 2011 edition of which also opens today on Saturday.

In the surrounding rooms are Italian artworks from the mid-20th century and contemporary international pieces. Among them are Damien Hirst's 1996 Loving in a World of Desire, in which a beach ball hovers, lifted by an air blower, several feet above the ground and Maurizio Cattelan's Untitled of 1997, a stuffed ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

Tucked beyond the elegant courtyard is Cell (Clothes) by Louise Bourgeois, which contains the only possible reference to the couple's day job: nighties, little blouses and delicate 1930s dresses drape themselves emptily within the suggestion of a bedroom.

According to Prada – who wears a pleated-silk skirt, black merino sweater and sensible, striped-plastic flat sandals that she swaps for mountainous heels to be photographed – the couple began buying art in the early 1990s after a friend suggested their Milanese working space would be "perfect for sculpture".

That started them off, she says, "on a full immersion in learning ... We wanted to understand [the 1960s Italian art movement] arte povera better, and contemporary art".

Bertelli, more leonine than the impishly twinkling Prada, chips in: "We didn't seek advice: we studied, we went to museums. We attempted to understand how certain things happened in the arts."

This art-history course was not meant to result in a collection. "I hate being a collector," says Prada. "We just bought some pieces. And now there is so much of it it's a pity for it to stay in stock."

At the suggestion that learning is possible without buying, the designer, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of Milan, says: "I completely agree. It's vulgar, this desire to own things, but it is also very human."

The Ca' Corner, which once housed the archive of the Venice Biennale, has recently lain empty. Last year, the Venetian authorities offered it to the Fondazione Prada, which has staged regular temporary exhibitions in the city. The foundation has the space for six years, with the option to remain for another six.

Meanwhile, the couple are also building a large-scale, permanent gallery in Prada's native Milan, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

Under Bertelli's direction, a gentle restoration of the dilapidated Ca' Corner has been undertaken. But this is no white cube: Pino Pasquale's sculpture Confluenze (1967), which consists of shallow vessels of water placed on the ground, sits beneath a glorious painted ceiling on the piano nobile, while Jeff Koons's multicoloured steel Tulips (1997-2005) glints nearby.

As Prada begins to speak about the way the art works in the context of its faded building, Bertelli cuts in and there is a swift back-and-forth of bickering ("He thinks I am speaking in banalities," she says, goodnaturedly).

Bertelli forges ahead: "We didn't want to be too logical with this palazzo. We didn't want to invade, or wipe out the space.

"We wanted it to keep its veneer, and we did not want to exaggerate the skin of the floors or ceilings with makeup."

A critical commentary on each other's remarks is a feature of the conversation: so how do they agree when it comes to buying art?

Into a waterfall of swiftly spoken Italian from Bertelli, Prada interjects: "He is obsessed by Sigmar Polke." And: "Every time he buys another Lucio Fontana, I say 'Not another Fontana!' "

Bertelli bats back: "She is like the fox with the grapes in the fable. It is easy for her to say 'Not another Fontana,' because if I didn't buy them she would."

There are four of the Italian painter's egg-shaped, slashed canvases on the palazzo walls.

They generally buy separately, according to Prada, and only once have they fallen out badly over a purchase.

"It was the first piece I bought, and he sold it, because he thought it was horrible," she says, laughing. It was a Dalí.

Her strategy, she says, is to "never buy anything except those things that change my ideas, if only in a small way".

She also keeps art and fashion well away from each other: "I refuse the connection," she says. "For me those things are completely separate, except to the extent that your mind is your mind, and my work reflects myself."

The opening few days of the Venice Biennale are a social event, with artists, curators, dealers, critics, collectors in the city to see art – and each other.

Roman Abramovich's yacht is moored not far away, and Elton John has pitched up to see an exhibition hosted by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.

Each night sees a baffling array of parties, from prosecco-fuelled celebrations to discreet dinners. Do Prada and Bertelli enjoy the exclusive social scene enjoyed by the world's wealthiest collectors?

Prada replies with a laugh: "I have succeeded in going to not one single party at the Venice Biennale."

On this, at last, they agree: "Our social life," says Bertelli, "is not very sparkling."


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April 22 2011

Easter special: art's top five bunnies

From religious paintings to cartoons, rabbits have been portrayed as both enigmatic and aggressive. But which portrayal is your favourite?

Bunny rabbits have inspired some great art and, as Easter is upon us, here is an artistic survey of the season's creature: my top five rabbits in art.

The most beautiful rabbit in art is surely the white bunny in Titian's Madonna of the Rabbit in the Louvre. It is also one of the most touching in its association with childhood and pets – which is not to say it has no theological significance as a symbol of the mystery of the Incarnation. In Renaissance art the young Christ is seen with all kinds of animals, from birds to cats, but Titian's rabbit is somehow one of the funniest, most natural childhood scenes in a religious painting.

Albrecht Durer's 1502 portrait of a rabbit – or is it a hare? – is a very different work. Where Titian paints a white rabbit as part of a scene of childhood in the countryside, as a prop in an essentially human setup, Durer concentrates with rapt attention on the rabbit or hare as a thing in itself, without people or landscape. This is at once enigmatic and troubling: what is in its brain? What does it see? It is a very serious bunny.

It's almost a relief to go from Durer's alien beast to John Tenniel's Victorian illustration of the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Or is it? Tenniel's study of what a rabbit might look like in human clothes, standing upright and looking at a pocket watch, is so meticulous that it takes on a hallucinatory truth that has haunted the modern imagination along with the rest of his Alice illustrations. It seems that as soon as you move away from Titian's family picnic with an Easter bunny, the rabbit in art becomes uncanny. The mildness of this creature offers a blank slate on which artists have imagined strange personae and possibilities.

The blankest of all bunnies is Jeff Koons's Rabbit, cast from an inflatable toy, its silvery skin a perfect mirror. This is the most uncanny rabbit of all. It is a metaphor for art itself, which it suggests is reflective and ethereal. Not something to touch but something that vanishes, like a dream. A form, but also just light. Koons is a tricky genius and his Rabbit a slippy customer.

Koons's Rabbit is almost as slippy as my favourite artistic rabbit: Bugs Bunny. Created at the end of the 1930s by a team of artists who included Tex Avery, the carrot-chomping, wisecracking Bugs is one of the great popular artworks of the 20th century. His design, like a thin-limbed 15th-century statue, makes him always aggressive, pert, and restless. Rabbits reached their apotheosis with Bugs. If mice are cute and cats are cruel in cartoons, Bugs Bunny is a free spirit, the rabbit as hero. Happy Easter.


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January 13 2011

Copycat dogs?

Koons's influence is everywhere, but seldom acknowledged. He may tilt at balloons, but does he watch Toy Story in bitter rage?

Jeff Koons, whose appropriations of popular culture since he was working at a toy shop in the 1980s have ranged from postcards to pornography, is said to be claiming copyright on all representations of balloon dogs.

It's funny, of course, at least if we believe those reports – the idea of an artist who so enthusiastically guzzles up images from the world around him asserting unique ownership of one of them. But I wonder if Koons has a point. I can imagine that he gets genuinely annoyed to see his influence in so many toys, souvenirs and even design objects without the least hint of acknowledgement.

Somewhere we have an inflatable red Teddy bear that I bought in the museum shop of the Berlin Guggenheim a few years ago. I certainly bought it for its Koons-like qualities and presumably it was on sale for the same reason: the museum had a stupendous show of his Easyfun-Ethereal paintings at the time. So this fun toy, which as far as I know had no actual Koons pedigree (it was too cheap), made a nice souvenir of a thrilling exhibition. If you too want a "Jeff Koons", you can probably find one at a homeware or souvenir shop near you.

Of course, when Koons started making art out of kitsch in the 80s, there was already plenty of rubbish around for him to recycle. But there is a particular style of object and image today that is self-conscious about kitsch and pop in a way that I believe is genuinely indebted to Koons. I know I use the adjective "Jeff Koons-like" in conversation to describe a lot of modern things. Does he watch Toy Story in a mood of bitter rage?

The truth is that, of all artists at work today, Koons is one of the most influential – and yet his influence is the least acknowledged. He has avoided becoming cool. Critics affect to despise him. And yet there is scarcely a work by a young artist or a hi-tech toy that does not have some debt to Koons concealed within it. Of course you can't patent balloon animals. But if you could claim copyright on the spirit of the age, Jeff Koons and his lawyers would have us all bang to rights.


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March 03 2010

Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection / New Museum, New York

Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection at New Museum in New York is the title of the first U.S. exhibition of the Dakis Joannou Collection from Athens, Greece. It’s also the first show curated by Jeff Koons. Skin Fruit includes over 100 works by 50 international artists spanning several generations.

With Skin Fruit, the New Museum launches The Imaginary Museum, a new exhibition series that will periodically showcase leading private collections of contemporary art from around the world. The New Museum invited artist Jeff Koons to curate the first in this series. Jeff Koons had his first museum exhibition at the New Museum in 1981. Jeff Koons and Dakis Joannou are close friends for nearly three decades. Dakis Joannou is a philanthropist, arts partron, and New Museum Trustee based in Athens, Greece. In 1983, Joannou established the DESTE Foundation of Contemporary Art. Ever since, DESTE has been organizing exhibitions and supporting projects and publications internationally.

Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection / New Museum, New York. Press preview, March 2, 2010.

PS: Photo gallery after the jump.

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