Jeff Koons isn't just the artist behind BMW's latest art car — he's also created some seriously erotic artwork. Take this piece, depicting his porn-star ex-wife, titled "Dirty Jeff on Top." Is this the kind of artist BMW wants? (NSFW)
Confession time: When it comes to art, I am an uncultured goon. I have spent most of my life immersed in literature, automobiles, engineering geekiness, and the study of the quick-service hamburger, and I've somehow reached the ripe old age of twenty-nine without learning anything about art. I can appreciate it; I can enjoy it; I occasionally even want it. I just don't know jack about it.
Blessed are BMW's art cars, then, for they give me a way in. On the rare occasion that I find myself in a museum, I can stroll down a hallway and think, "Ah! That Rauschenberg piece! It reminds me of the wheels on his 635CSi! I get it!" or "Hey man, Frank Stella did some cool stuff, and damn if I don't see a bit of CSL in that thingamawhatsis on the wall." And then my wife looks at me like I'm an idiot and tells me to tie my shoes and stop using my outside voice indoors. But I digress.
For the most part, BMW's art-car program was not planned. Thirty-five years ago, French racing driver and art dealer Hervé Poulain convinced his friend Alexander Calder to paint the 3.0 CSL that he had entered in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car that resulted did not finish the race, retiring after nine hours with a failed universal joint, but it did generate an enormous amount of enthusiasm. Munich soon mirrored Poulain's efforts, commissioning various artists to lay their hands on BMW racing and production cars. The collection that resulted — 17 cars over three decades, conceived by everyone from Andy Warhol to Olafur Eliasson — has been shown at both the Louvre and the New York Guggenheim. It is arguably the only approachable and critically acclaimed pairing of art and the automobile in history.
And so we come to Jeff Koons. Munich's latest artist was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1955. He studied painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and he worked as a commodities broker on Wall Street before finding success as an artist. The GT2-spec E90 M3 that he designed is due to race at Le Mans this summer.
Koons is an odd duck, but he's also a really interesting guy. He rose to celebrity in the 1980s by glorifying everyday objects — he's known for taking things like basketballs ("Equilibrium," 1985) or vacuum cleaners ("New Hoover Convertible," etc., 1987) and presenting them in funny, funky ways. A respected museum curator that I recently spoke to noted that, in many ways, he is "accredited with making art fun again" after the dry, intellectual 1970s. His portfolio contains everything from inflatable bunnies and fifteen-foot-tall balloon dogs to giant puppies made of flowers. Also, there's a pretty bitchin' sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the chimp.
Still — and yeah, we know, Bubbles! — that's not the most interesting part. Like many artists, Koons's personal life all but upstages his professional one. Take his ex-wife: In 1991, he married an Italian porn star and politician (!) named Anna Elena Staller, a.k.a. Ilona Staller, a.k.a. la Cicciolina ("cuddles" in Italian). She was a member of the Italian parliament from 1987 to 1991 and is famous for, as Wikipedia so succinctly puts it, "delivering political speeches with one breast exposed."
"I am not here showing my breasts. I am speaking about poor people so it is not necessary — not because I don't have beautiful breasts... even now. But it's not necessary because poor people have no interest in my breasts." —Ilona Staller, Jeff Koons's ex-wife
She also once offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein in exchange for hostage release. She has a decent-sized musical career in Europe, having recorded several childlike hit songs, the most famous of which is a tune entitled "Muscolo Rosso" ("red muscle") that focuses on il cazzo ("the dick").
Neat gal, right? She and Koons broke up in 1992. Their son, Ludwig Maximillian, was born a few months later. Here's the fun part, though: When Staller and Koons were together, he made some art. Some... er... explicit art.
The artwork in question is part of an older collection entitled "Made in Heaven." (Yes, that's Jeff and Ilona without any pants on.) The glass sculptures seen here are the size of a paperweight or small lamp; they have titles like "Jeff Eating Ilona (Kama Sutra)" and "Violet Ice (Kama Sutra)." As our curator friend puts it, they exude a "polished sexiness, a kitsch. They're really salacious scenes turned into small precious decorative objects. They're meant to be at odds with the subject matter; they're made of shiny, pretty material, the kind you'd find on a tacky tourist sculpture of a dolphin in Tijuana. It's one kind of kitsch traded for another."
Self-involved? Pretentious? Funny? An ironic comment on the something something of our times as related to the magnetism of the human testicle? That's up to you. What's important here — and stay with us on this — is that all of this makes Koons a good fit for BMW.
Think about it: For the most part, BMW's art-car artists — people like Warhol, A.R. Penck, Sandro Chia, and Jenny Holzer — are celebrated, household-name individuals with a broad public base. They're established professionals with proven track records, people not picked at the height of their fame. The artists on the list are usually chosen because they are likely to provide something that will be interesting, coherent, and legible to the general public.
Where does Koons fit in? In the words of our curator friend, he has always been "interested in the sexiness and texture of a polished surface, in the dialogue between commercial goods and the aesthetics of popular culture in America." He is someone for whom a commercial good like a car already holds an aesthetic interest.
This matters, and not just for the Andy Warhol parallel. There are boatloads of artists who would never touch a mass product for fear of being corrupted, but Koons, like Warhol, digs it. He is neither a safe nor a dangerous choice, and his pairing with BMW — a marque generally identified with shallow, self-involved customers and the joys of engineering-driven materialism — was a good call. As the saying goes, I may not know anything about art, but I know what I like. And I like Jeff Koons.