The Year Ahead/Retail

Jeff Koons on the True Price of Being an Artist

The creator of some of the world’s most expensive art talks about his collaboration with Louis Vuitton and how excitement affects value.

Jay-Z performs at the V Festival in front of a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture in August 2017.

Photographer: Sam Neill

James Tarmy: Your recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton is going gangbusters.
Jeff Koons: 
When the opportunity to work with Louis Vuitton came about, I thought, This is the perfect company: It has tremendous resources, it understands aesthetics, and it’s used to communicating to people through materialism.

As in, people who buy purses are materialistic?
When I say that, I mean through materials—being able to adjust the textures of leather or to enhance color and dyes through different coloring techniques.

Playing with surfaces has been a preoccupation in your art for years.
What art is, for me, is the possibility that when someone views something, they’re able to pick up on the essence of their own potential: It’s a vehicle—something that stimulates their own excitement.

In your mind, is there a creative difference between making a mass-market purse for Louis Vuitton and a $5 million sculpture?
It’s not like I collaborate with people where there’s differences, or tension, or the possibility of an outcome that’s different from what I intended. I try to choose collaborations where we both really believe in a commitment to the viewer—where you can both communicate that what you really care about is them.

That’s obviously a very different approach than the traditional “art for art’s sake.”
What you never want to do is let the viewer down. You never want someone to be disappointed. In life, you have these opportunities to communicate with other people—to show a sense of equality, importance, and trust. [Making art] is an opportunity to show respect.

There’s a certain irony to this, given that you create some of the world’s most expensive art.
The true value of art has nothing to do with its monetary value, which to me in a way is abstract: Society will put these values on something, taking into account how it’s viewed in a particular moment in time or relevance. But its real value is how it excites people and stimulates them and lets them be aware of a vaster life.

Surely you acknowledge that someone spent $58 million on one of your sculptures for reasons other than just life perspective.
I hope that the works are desirable! Desire is a very interesting sensation. I try to embed desire into the art through the use of reflectivity, as a means of a kind of excitement.

Do you follow your work on the market?
So as far as what’s happening in the marketplace, I’m not naive about what’s going on. The only thing an artist can do to help the value of their work, though, is to make the best work they can.

Are you tapped in to the extent that you actively regulate the number of works based on demand?
I mean yes, there are kind of basics of trying to be coordinated, and be in the service of your work so that you’re trying to give it the best platform possible. But at the same time, the way we really communicate value to people—even within this abstracted area of economics—is by the reaction they have when they see an artwork and how they interpret the past and present and essence of their future. When you look at a Van Gogh, the value isn’t in the brushstroke.

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