Koons Makes Art The Old-Fashioned Way

I think we all know that Jeff Koons worked on Wall Street before he became an artist. It’s mentioned in many of his profiles. But what, exactly, did he do? And what relevance, if any, does it really have for his work? And on the reception of his work?
Ben Davis provides a perfect example of this bio-factoid-as-analysis in his ambitiously thoughtful unpacking of the aftermath of postmodernism:

Unprecedented new wealth, a more mercurial environment of speculation, the celebration of individualism brought on by the attack on the welfare state, demoralization and fragmentation — all these form the background for the artistic vocabulary of “postmodernism.” I mean, jeez louise, Jeff Koons actually started out as a commodities trader!

In her 2005 book, Understanding Interational Art Markets and Management, Joan Jeffri wrote that “Jeff Koons gave up his job as a trader of cotton futures on Wall Street to become an artist.”
But the Wall Street connection is not just used to bolster theoretical arguments, or to connect with middle-managers; it’s definitional to the art itself.

The Sammlung Daimler writeup for their Koons sculpture includes sections with headings “Strategic Ingenuity” and “Commodity Broker”:

Koons, who worked as a publicity manager for the Museum of Modern Art towards the end of the seventies, later perfecting his financial talent as a commodity broker on Wall Street, knows like no other artist how to adapt his sterile and auratic objects to the rules of the art market.

In fact, this bullet point appears pretty early on in Koons History. In 1987, two years after his breakout East Village show at International with Monument, Koons was described this way in a NY Times roundup of artists’ reactions to the $54 million sale of Van Gogh’s Irises:

Jeff Koons, a successful New York sculptor in his 30’s who until 1984 was a Wall Street trader in cotton futures, said yesterday that he believed such high prices encouraged growth throughout the art world.

A year later in 1988, when Koons opened simultaneous, identical shows at Sonnabend, Donald Young, and Max Hetzler, the Times did a whole feature [“Greed Plus Glitz, With a Dollop of Innocence”] on the artist’s commercial audacity in the era where the art world is ruled by “the almighty buck”:

No artist is more informed by this climate than 33-year-old Jeff Koons. Having been a publicist for the Museum of Modern Art and having then spent more than five years selling mutual funds and commodities on Wall Street, he knows the allure of the moment and the rush of buying and selling.

So let’s piece this together:

  • worked at MoMA in the late 70s
  • “More than five years” through 1984, so what, 1979-84.
  • When Koons [b. 1955] was 24-29 years old.
  • At which point he “was a Wall Street trader in cotton futures” and/or “selling mutual funds and commodities.”

It could easily be a case of 800 finance-blind writers over the years describing the Wall Street elephant, but those who work in the financial industry will know the rather significant difference between trading and sales, particularly retail sales, and between commodities and products like mutual funds. Given his age and experience level–and his BFA, and his presumed complete lack of financial education–I would guess that, if he wasn’t an admin or a trader’s assistant, Koons was doing cold call retail sales for a brokerage, i.e., entry-level/grunt work, or sink-or-swim sales.
The most detailed description of this time period I’ve seen comes from a long profile in Artnews [May 2005], by Kelly Devine Thomas, which complicates the generally accepted Koons creation myth:

Koons moved to New York when he was 22 and got a job selling memberships at the Museum of Modern Art. His earliest supporter was dealer Mary Boone, who met him in 1979 when she bought his green Mercedes as a birthday gift for Schnabel. Boone sold two of his works–to Saatchi and collectors Donald and Mera Rubell–but after a year Koons left her for dealer Annina Nosei, with whom his relationship was also short-lived.
Koons’s work, with its roots in Pop, Conceptual, and Minimalist art, was out of step with the brash Neo-Expressionist style of artists like Schnabel and David Salle, which was in favor at the time. Frustrated by a lack of sales, Koons moved to Florida in the summer of 1982 to live with his parents and save enough money to move back to New York in the fall.
For the next few years, he personally financed his art by working as a Wall Street commodities broker. Koons has said he spent a lot of his time at Smith Barney consumed with a new series of sculptures, calling physicists to help him figure out how to suspend basketballs in water.

Ah, a broker, which is not the same thing as a trader. Also, there’s a firm, Smith Barney. A quick Google search shows the first time Koons seems to have mentioned Smith Barney by name, in a 2000 NY Times Magazine “Q&A” with Deborah Solomon:

Didn’t you begin your career as a commodities broker who made millions of dollars a year?
I started selling commodities in order to support my art. But all I ever thought about was art. When I was at Smith Barney, instead of working I’d be speaking with Richard P. Feynman, the Nobel Prize physicist, asking how I could get the basketball to float in the water.

First off, Solomon has since added a disclaimer to these interviews, acknowledging that she rewrites her pithy questions and re-orders the whole thing. So on the one hand, it’s possible, even probable, that Koons was not actually asked if he “made millions.” But if he was, he did not challenge or deny the figure.
And from Thomas’s account, there is a gap–Summer 1982–where Koons, then 27, was so broke he left New York and moved in with his parents. So no millions. And floating basketballs, meanwhile, was a 1984-5 issue, so this stint was presumably after moving back to the city.
But more importantly, there’s a reordering of priorities, and a lengthier engagement with art and the art world [beyond, of course, the fresh-off-the-boat MoMA connection]. In fact, if anything, it sounds like Koons was just like any other young artist with a dayjob.
In his 2004 book Paris/Manhattan: writings on art, Peter Wollen has another version of the story. Boone scheduled a show for Koons, and “ever the indulgent Mom [I have no idea what that means. -ed.], installed his rug shampooer piece in her office.” For the show, “Koons planned to put a Mercedes on a revolving turntable” in the gallery, “but she unexpectedly canceled the show, thereby propelling the unfortunate artist into selling mutual funds for a living.”
“A Mercedes”? THE Mercedes! Not only did Koons not meet Boone by selling his Mercedes to her for Schnabel’s [October] 1979 birthday present, the Mercedes was supposed to be for his show, the cancelation of which forced him into his finance job?
Koons, Wollen writes, “was offered a job by Merrill Lynch, which he turned down after getting an even better offer from Smith Barney.” This might add a couple of years back onto his Wall Street resume, but it also flips the picture of Koons, from a canny Wall Street operator moving into the art business, to an artist struggling to make a living and finance his art.
In the same paragraph, alas, Wollen jumps across the 1982 gap to say that the Smith Barney job helped underwrite the production of the large metal castings and such for Koons’ next/first show, Equilibrium, which wasn’t until 1985. Does this mean there was a mutual fund gig first, which ended–with Koons broke–in the Summer of ’82, and then he returned to a Smith Barney commodities desk some time from Fall ’82 through 1984? Wollen doesn’t say. [Wollen also calls everything up to this point–from Koons’ father selling his childhood paintings in his design showroom, through the New Museum and International With Monument shows, his “Mom and Pop world.”]
And what about Ma and Pa Rubell? Here’s how Don and Mera described their first encounter with Koons’ work in an Art in America interview last December:

The first Koons piece we bought was “Pre-New Vacuum Cleaner.” We saw it at an exhibition across the street from Barneys. He rented a railroad apartment and painted it pristine white and filled it with objects illuminated by fluorescent lighting. Unfortunately we intended to buy three pieces, but we didn’t have the strength to move the washing machine or the fridge. So we ended up with just the vacuum cleaner.

So no mention of Mama Boone or her office, only an ersatz, self-produced show in a tenement. But wasn’t Koons’ first show in NY “The New,” in the window of the New Museum in 1980? That’s where his own exhibition history starts. [Taschen’s 2009 monograph, Jeff Koons, has a small photo of the “The Pre-New” exhibition, and photos of some of the works, including the fridge the Rubells didn’t buy–DUDE, it’s only a mini-fridge! How heavy could it have been??–but not a vacuum, and no washer to speak of. They didn’t have the iconic vitrines yet, either; those came with “The New.” But doesn’t the Rubell’s vacuum have a vitrine? Is it really a “Pre-New”? Ah, no sweat. Of course, they have two. One with a vitrine from 1980, and one without, from 1979,. They also have a slew of other ur-Koonses, too. If you ask me, though, it still doesn’t take the sting out of not pulling the trigger on the mini-fridge.]
In 2003, Koons talked with Katy Siegel for Artforum about this era, without a single mention of Wall Street. [Though he does mention hitchhiking to NYC in 1976, and moving in 1977. And how his friends from the Art Institute were friends with the Talking Heads. But artist and David Byrne RISD classmate Jamie Dalglish dates the 7.5 hours of artist interviews that includes this classic YouTube clip of Koons rapping with Byrne to the Summer of 1975. To be fair, if you asked me which Halloween my friend Alison and I slathered ourselves with bronzer and went to Copa dressed as Kelly and Calvin Klein, I couldn’t tell you if it was ’90 or ’91. My future art historians better hope I never retroactively declare it a formative performance experience that informed my later career.]
Koons tells Siegel that he was friends with Schnabel and Salle first, and that they liked his work, and introduced him to Boone in 1980, and that Boone was supposed to give Koons a show, but it never happened. Still no details. Anyone want to start asking these people what went down? [And then tell me what this Mercedes was, and where I can find it?]
He talks about the New Museum, but makes no mention of what the Rubells describe as a self-funded apartment-turned-gallery. And after he moved back to New York, Koons noted, “I was in a lot of good group shows from 1982 to ’85,” including “Science Fiction,” curated by a then-also-emerging Peter Halley at John Weber Gallery in 1983.
All of which sounds like the very familiar arc of an emerging artist’s career: art school; crap job at a museum; make crappy work; get a dayjob; friends with artists; failed starts with some dealers; sell a piece or two; go broke; get another dayjob; get in some group shows; which leads to a solo show. And the rest, we know. [sic]
The very early media mentions of his Wall Street experience almost certainly originate with Koons himself. If they’re relevant at all, it’s as an example of the artist’s reading and manipulating media coverage of himself and his work at a moment he was making it, when the art world was being discussed, framed, hyped, and unconvincingly criticized for its commercialist excesses.
It’d be easy and tempting to dismiss such coverage as “just” the NY Times hype, made for general consumption. But to do so would deny the pervasive influence such narratives have on our memories and perceptions. It’s barely 20 years, and already there are factual contradictions and divergences over the circumstances of the creation of Koons’ first significant works.
And this is why I wondered about the details behind these early biographical one-liners we use and accept so uncritically. What else are they obscuring? Do they make points, or serve as shorthand to help some preconceived notion slide across without too much friction? Matthew Barney, the former J. Crew model. Robert Ryman, MoMA security guard. Kathryn Bigelow, assistant to Vito Acconci. Andy Warhol, department store illustrator. James Rosenquist, one-time billboard painter.
OK, maybe the last one or two might be useful for understanding the work itself. And there’s the rub. The Wikipedia entry for Richard Serra boils this conundrum down nicely: “While on the West Coast, [Serra] helped support himself by working in steel mills, which was to have a strong influence on his later work.” There’s a tendency to comb through an artist’s life to seek out influences and explanations for art work. In some cases, and with a certain critical awareness, that may be valid. But I think Koons’ example shows the limits of this method, which is susceptible to manipulation or overdeterminism–or both–by the artist, or the writer–or both.