Thursday morning, Jeff Koons was at his New York City studio finishing the art car design he unveiled Tuesday.
His multi-colored BMW M3 GT2 will race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race this June in Paris. It joins a line of commissioned BMWs created by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg.
But on Thursday, Koons mind was on another accolade. At noon, he would leave for York to accept the Distinguished Arts Award during the Governor's Awards for the Arts. His mother and some friends would join him at the event. "I really feel very honored," Koons said. "Art has been just a wonderful vehicle in my life."
Koons' contemporary art has been exhibited internationally, but he pointed out that many Pennsylvania artists preceded him including Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Keith Haring and Raphael Peale.
At the age of 7, Koons started art lessons in York. On Saturday mornings, his mother and father would drive him to his teacher's Queen Street home. He would sit in the basement and sketch flowers with charcoal and pastels. His teacher, who he said was about 80 at the time, would summon him at 2 p.m. to examine his work.
Most of the time, Koons said, she would take her eraser and make corrections, to show him how to create his vision.
"I think to this day, the reason that I feel comfortable working with people -- I have a large studio with a lot of people that I work with -- is from learning very, very early on this type of. . . intimate relation of working and enjoying the creation of something together," he said.
Before he left New York for Thursday night's event, Koons answered a few questions about his relationship to York County and his next art project:
Full interview audio:
Did you visit The Strand or Capitol Theatres while you were growing up? I was born in 1955, so I used to spend a lot of weekends at the Strand and the Capitol. I remember seeing the James Bond movies there. I used to enjoy very much going. . .on Saturday afternoon. I haven't seen the interior (since before the 2003 renovations). I've heard about it. I know that it was completed several years ago. I ran into my friend David Byrne. I guess he performed (at the Strand) in the last year. He was telling me that he enjoyed it. He enjoyed being in downtown York, and he enjoyed performing.
Where else did you used to hang out in the area? When I was younger, I enjoyed very much the historical society. It made a very large impression on me. They moved the Conestoga wagons and some of the exhibits to the Industrial Museum. On Market Street, they used to have the wagons in there just as they have the little panoramas now. That made a very large impression on me. I remember going there and getting a lot of postcards. It made me very interested in the history of Pennsylvania. I won a blue ribbon for one of my history books I put together for Pennsylvania at the York Fair one time. I end up, later on with my artwork, collecting source material (including) postcards. . .as kind of a base for a lot of my artwork in the early '80s and when I think back, it's similar to putting together this history book. I used to go to. . .the drag strip to Route 30. I worked there to make a little extra money. I used to enjoy a lot of the different areas of shopping (including) the York mall. As a child. . .I used to always enjoy going to the farm shows and, in York, to go to the farmers' markets. It was always great to go there and have some chicken corn soup. My dad always enjoyed the fried oysters.
In the past decade, you restored your grandfather's farm in the county. Do you still visit? I was born and lived my first five years. . .close to York Suburban (High School). Then, we moved to Dover and then I went to school in Weigelstown Elementary School and then to Dover high. My grandfather always had a farm right outside of East Prospect, so we have my grandfather's farm now. (My family) spends most of our weekends in York and down on the farm. We're right along the Susquehanna River, and we really enjoy it. My wife and I -- my wife's name is Justine -- it lets us have our children be able to share in an agrarian culture. It's very, very different than New York City. They're able to participate, ride trains and just get a better understanding of a different way of life.
It must be nice to show your family where you spent your childhood. I really didn't have such a desire that specifically I wanted to have my children experience these exact same things, because my wife has had different experiences in her life. But when we went looking for a farm. . .we looked at many different farms. We never found one more beautiful. When my grandfather's became available, we immediately got the farm and, yes, we were thrilled. We have a lot of second and third cousins (in the area who) my children enjoy being with.
Are you excited about the opportunity to work with BMW? It will be the first art car to race at Le Mans since '79 when (Andy) Warhol designed an art car. I'm really honored to have a work participate in the same tradition as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. Usually, I'm not involved in making things that are involved with corporate identity. But in this case, to do an art car you have complete freedom, and you're just able to realize whatever idea that you have, so I was really open to it.
The BMW project did seem like a more commercial way to present your art to the public. But that's not the route you want to take in the future? The way that you're really able to communicate with people is through idea. So distribution has some effect in the world, but the idea is much more powerful. So, I really just believe in making the artworks that I want to make and following my own interests. (With the BMW) there's a sense of connection and kind of a continued vocabulary in this area of working on something specific.
Are you working on any other projects? I'm working on a new series called "Antiquity." I'm creating different paintings that are using images of different Venuses and Aphrodites and dealing with "The Rite if Spring." (I created) large marble sculptures that have flowers embedded into them and ballerinas -- old Dresden Porcelains -- that are enlarged to 8-and-a-half feet that become like Venuses. It's all carved in marble with very elaborate lace that goes around these ballerinas. One of my most known works is the "Rabbit" made out of stainless steel. People often will ask me, "Where does an idea like that come from?" I would think that somebody just has to drive around York County, and you can kind of get an essence -- especially if you drive around Easter time (when) there are a lot of inflatable rabbits. There (are) always a lot of gazing balls, whether they're blue or just silver and red. This type of generosity to your neighbor, of putting something in your yard. . .that always made a very large impression on me. When I made the "Rabbit" I was trying to share my own cultural history, even though it's in stainless steel and mirrored and very reflective, I really believe it just comes from just trying to share this type of environment. When people put things like an inflatable out in their front yard or put a gazing ball in their front yard, they're really doing that for the pleasure of their neighbor. In York, for Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day or any excuse, people enjoy putting a lot of things out in their yard for their neighbor.
You've also curated other artists' exhibits. Are you doing any of that kind of work? Whenever an artist makes and exhibition, you more or less curate it. You choose which works that you would like to show of yours. Recently, I was asked to curate a show at the New Museum (in New York City). I curated that for the Dakis Joannou Collection. It was called "Skin Fruit." I think that it's a wonderful collection. It's the first time the collection had been seen in the United States in whole. I also just curated a show of a teacher of mine (who) I had when I was in art school -- Ed Paschke from Chicago. Ed always had a very large impact on me, and I always loved his work. He passed away a couple years ago, and it was just wonderful to pull together a strong group of his work and just show it to a community that may not be so familiar with it.
Are there other emerging artists you've seen? There are a couple young artists (who) are very good. There are a few artists (in the New Museum) who are very good. Urs Fischer (is) a very good artist. Tauba Auerbach, she's a young painter who's very good. I just was in Tokyo a few days ago, and I saw a projection image of video screen art. But I tend to. . .enjoy older work only because it's a way of connecting with humanity and other people as far as what it means to be a human and be alive.
On the Web:
For details about Jeff Koons, visit www.jeffkoons.com.
Also of interest· Jeff Koons' sculpture brought record for a living artist's work.