Jeff Koons resembles his work: shiny, appealing, and reassuringly ebullient. He speaks with the endearing charisma of a born salesman, hooking you with cultural and art-historical references before the hypnotic upsell to humanistic psychology, in which everything can be viewed in terms of “life energy” and human potential. (His fondness for mirror-polished stainless steel, for example, is all about “the intoxicating quality of looking at something that affirms your own existence.”) Koons’s monumental balloon-flower bouquet, “Tulips” (1995-2004, at right), is expected to fetch between $20 million and $30 million this evening at Christie’s in New York, but what really keeps the artist up at night isn’t the prospect of overtaking Jasper Johns as the most expensive–or most life-affirming?–living artist. It’s Picasso.
“At night, what I like to do, as an individual, when my wife is getting ready to go to bed and my children are already in bed, I go online and I just look at Picasso’s work. I really enjoy it,” Koons told NYU professor Pepe Karmel in a recent public conversation at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where the “Picasso Black and White” exhibition is on view through January 23. Koons is a frequent visitor to the online Picasso catalogue raisonné, which he likes to browse in chronological order and follow the subtle adjustments to recurring motifs. “There are very similar works–Dora Maar, over and over again, but always a little different each time,” said Koons. “And then all of a sudden, bam! Something will come in that generally has an ugliness about it. It’s really not the most beautiful thing when it happens, but it’s something so new and refreshing. And then the next day he’ll go right back into his repetitive vehicles and these themes. I guess it gives him a sense of being, a sense of freedom, a sense of definition, to give him the courage that when he makes those movements into these kind of uncharted, completely different dialogues that are just so powerful.”