The conversation: Jeff Koons and Almine Rech / Global
Selling with soul
What do artists and their dealers talk about? Jeff Koons and Almine Rech are friends who work together, so when they’re not talking Picasso over dinner, she’s moving walls to accommodate his work. Here’s a window on their unusual world.
The relationship between artist and dealer is a fascinating one. At a simple level, one makes things and the other sells them but the dynamic becomes complex, political and personal immediately thereafter. How many, say, “Balloon Dogs” can your artist make? Is he fed up with making them but you really like selling them? If you sell one too many, what happens to their artistic and financial value? How much should they cost?
Jeff Koons is the most famous and most expensive living artist; his new shows are landmarks that are talked about, argued over and remembered. His work is sold by the dealers that represent him and then the auction houses that sell for often even bigger bucks on the secondary market. Almine Rech is renowned for her intuitive, instinctive way with artists; a low-pressure approach to representation is summed up by the many good words said about her by the artists in her stable. Or is she in their stable?
That’s the thing with artists and dealers: in good relationships, lines often blur; collaboration and communication are key. Ahead of a new Koons show to open Rech’s new London gallery, they sit down to talk about Duchamp, vastness and bending time.
Koons is the world’s most expensive living artist – his “Balloon Dog” sold for $58m (€52m) – and has been a titan of the contemporary-art world since the 1980s. His often controversial work and high-specification production techniques have influenced many other artists, not least his friend and fellow blockbuster merchant Damien Hirst.
Rech opened her first gallery in Paris in 1997, a second in Brussels in 2007 and her first London space in 2014, with an interest in minimal and conceptual art. She represents James Turrell, John McCracken and Joseph Kosuth and started working with Koons in 2009. His show will open in a new space in London on 4 October, running until 21 January.
Almine Rech: Do you remember when we first met?
Jeff Koons: I recall you and Bernard [Ruiz-Picasso, Almine’s husband and Pablo’s grandson] sitting on a bleacher at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, where Picasso had his show and I showed “Split-Rocker”. I came over and said hello and you were so nice and kind.
AR: That must have been 16 years ago or something. In fact, I saw you once when I was very young but you did not meet me! It was in the Venice Bienniale in 1990 and I did not dare speak to you, even though I wanted to. I was already really admiring you and your work. Me, Bernard and Justine [Wheeler-Koons, Jeff’s wife], when we are together we share a lot of ordinary things but we talk a lot about art too. We talk about Picasso, about ancient art and about your new pieces – and we are always planning visits to museums.
JK: Do you remember that night in Brussels when we went to Le Coq and talked and talked about art? It gets woven into every aspect of our lives; we look at our lives, our families, our interactions with other people; we have a similar philosophical relationship with art.
AR: For me, working together is something that has to be more factual than just a friendship – but it changes nothing.
JK: You know, you have the ability to share your love of art with people; being able to tie contemporary art with the public. You let people know that they’re alive in a moment when artists are making things that are significant. They may not be to the level of Picasso but they could have interesting conversations with him if he were still around. Your attitude allows people to say, “Wait a minute, we’re alive today and we’re experiencing great things.” Art is about this moment and enjoying life, trying to get the most out of it and having the greatest future possible. Having that attitude is unique in the contemporary-art world.
AR: I absolutely have a desire to celebrate art that lives in the moment. I love the idea of a collection but I like to be active in the contemporary-art world; to take a risk, to go to studios, to know what’s going on.
JK: You have some pressure with the Picasso name and that history but you try to show people what’s happening today. I know that whenever an artist shows with you they have an opportunity to show their work in the greatest context possible; they can be in a historical dialogue.
AR: A sense of community is important in the art world – and the ability to communicate. I feel it’s easy for us to communicate. For this show, I just said, “Well, Jeff, I’m going to have a lovely new space in London in the fall” and you said, “Well, let’s do a show then.” When I saw the first images I knew it was going to be fantastic. So much of art is about making choices and you’re always making choices.
JK: You know, I have very few exhibitions; I’d say approximately every three years. I really want to show the best of my work and try to show what my ideas are about; to deal with the power of the 20th century, the idea of the avant garde and the way that we look at the world, the foundation of Picasso and Duchamp and the effect that they’ve had on my work and my generation. You have this aspect of control but at the same time you get pulled into this intuitive undercurrent that pulls you to places you could never conceive of on your own.
AR: I’m really confident that this show will bring a lot of conversation because it’s really about time. Norman Rosenthal [the British art historian] will write something for the show about Einstein understanding that the universe is all about acknowledging the bending of time. I think in this show we are really into that: the bending of time from renaissance works to 18th-century pieces to your work. It’s going to be an important show.
JK: I hope that it can communicate that what’s really wonderful in life is to give it up to something outside yourself and that’s really a kind of love. The richness of life where we can really become greater beings and enjoy ourselves more and feel more vastness is achieved by giving it up to things outside the self. If you’re Manet you can give it up to Giorgione or Titian; or you can give it up to Courbet if you’re a contemporary artist. I think people have a hard time giving it up. To see that something is greater than you are – all that connectivity, that’s what love is.
AR: The gazing ball [an object that appears in a series of works] itself will push people into giving it up because you enter this infinite reflection; it’s the past, the future, the present. I think it’s going to be a wonderful moment when we are able to welcome people to the gallery with all those masterpieces.
JK: You’ve been so good at the practical stuff too – like moving walls! “Do you want a wall here?” “We don’t need that wall, we could move it.” At the end of the day we’re showing these objects, these artworks, these physical images and objects. It’s exciting working with things that are greater than the sum of their parts. We’re hopefully creating an experience that will make people feel a greater sense of opportunity with their own lives; that somebody will change their perception of their own possibility.
AR: Absolutely, I do hope that people feel that. It involves the artist parting from their work too, of course.
JK: Yes, I try to keep some of my artwork for my family but I really believe that when you make a great artwork – or you come across one – you carry it in your heart forever. It’s not in your physical possession but it’s still with you. Owning things is a responsibility. Just seeing them can be powerful and transforming. This act of ownership of art really is non-existent. When you put on a show like this you make art available to everyone.
AR: You know what Duchamp said, that the viewer completes the work of art? So we need the viewers. It’s generous of you to do the show at the gallery and it’s also the way to complete the work, in a way.
JK: That’s really interesting. A lot of people think that the work is more relevant than the person but it’s the person, you know?
AR: We must make a date to go and see some things too. How about the Prado?
JK: That’s going to be a very long day. Several days! We’ll be moving quite slowly; it’s such a great experience. There’s so much to look at.