The Lives of Artists – Jeff Koons

Amazingly naïve or slyly performative? The New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins watches one of the world’s most successful artists at work
Jeff Koons. Photograph by Bengt Oberger
Jeff Koons. Photograph by Bengt Oberger

If you want to know what it’s like to be in the presence of important and groundbreaking artists, you should really ask Calvin Tomkins. Over the past 59 years, Tomkins has profiled almost every culturally significant figure in the contemporary art world for The New Yorker magazine.

Our new six-volume anthology of his work, The Lives of Artists, brings these profiles together. There are many delightful long reads in there, but there are also moments when, in just a few finely chiselled sentences, Tomkins describes the range of impressions and emotions one might experience meeting an artist for the first time, face-to-face.  Consider this description of Jeff Koons.


Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett
Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett

“Koons struck me as an odd, amorphous presence, someone who was either amazingly naïve or slyly performative. In his soft-spoken way, he could sound like a motivational speaker; this made me (and a lot of other people) wonder if I was talking to the real Jeff Koons, or if there even was one. I decided that he was on the level, and that he had virtually no sense of humor, about his work or anything else. Nobody could figure out what he was up to. Was he satirizing the mass-market culture that produced these tawdry souvenir-shop items, or celebrating it?

When the same question was asked about Pop art in the sixties, there were similar uncertainties. Warhol said that Pop was about ‘liking things,’ but people tended to assume that everything Warhol did or said was in some sense a put-on. Pop harbored enough irony to give it the benefit of the doubt, at any rate, and only the mossback modernist critics condemned it as pandering to mass culture. Koons seemed to strive for art-world approval while reaching beyond it, to a mass audience whose tastes he shared. The formalist academic critics managed to avoid commenting on his work at all; to this day, it has been invisible to them. Yet there was no denying the fascination of his perfectly rendered objects. Casting them in stainless steel seemed both to glamorize and to dignify them. The bright-silver bunny, with its evocative carrot, really did look like a Brancusi."


The Lives of Artists

Isn’t that close to what you’ve always thought about Koons, put into the crispest of sentences?  With Tomkins you get the carrot, and the sticks. For more encounters like this order a copy of The Lives of Artists here. This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit. Buy The Lives of Artists here.

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