Koons, The Koons, and Me: An Encounter with the Art Star Jeff Koons

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On Sunday, I sat for some portraits by my photographer friend Matthew Morroco. His signature move is to enter the frame with his subjects, then spoon them. Mid-embrace, I told Matthew I was heading to the Whitney later in the week for the H&M-sponsored celebration of the opening of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective. Michael winced, but didn’t blink.

“I’m assuming you hate him?”

The truth is, I didn’t know.

Jeff Koons’s reputation precedes him: an artist many times bigger than life with an historically personal brand. His mention elicits the rare sort of eye roll and wan smile reserved for the richest, most earnest, most flamboyant celebrities. Kim Kardashian earns them, as does her husband. They’ve crept up on Marina Abramović and Tilda Swinton after years of more solemn adoration. Lady Gaga holds at least a 35% stake in eye rolling and wan smiling.

Upon further reflection, Matthew’s question led me back to what I consider my first ever Koons opening: the album release party for Lady Gaga’s Artpop. Undeterred by accountants or questions of ROI on an album yet to drop, Mother Monster filled the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a platoon of Koons monuments commissioned for the event. Eager to rankle the atmosphere–though still unsure why–I drained a plastic cup of champagne and abandoned it on one of the display pedestals.

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It was mean! It was nasty too. If it was funny, it wasn’t because I was saying any kind of meaningful “Fuck You” to Gaga, or even Koons. My clear plastic stink bomb was funny because it was useless: a tiny dent on the hood of an extraordinary machine. When a fan video surfaced of Lady Gaga, mid-performance, plucking a used plastic cup rather triumphantly off one of the sculptures, I wasn’t sure whether I’d won or lost.

That’s the thing about Gaga, and especially Koons: no matter how hard you want him to work for you, he’s always working a little harder for himself. As my girlfriend Brandon Serpas, a Whitney intern, walked me through the galleries last night, the psychic tug of war going on between The Koons and Me began to feel very much like some kind of foreplay. For every charming, Cliffordesque balloon dog he laid at my feet, he doubled down with a closeup of his dick sliding into an Italian porn star (at that point, one remembers the dogs go for $60 million). Making one’s way through Koons: A Retrospective is to get hot, then bothered, then both. Three plastic cups of prosecco didn’t help much.

But then, there He is, or was.

Beaming, suited, politely shrouded by a gaggle of onlookers: the Man himself.

Finally, a chance to make up my mind.

I whipped out my iPhone and scrolled over to Voice Memos, and pounced:

How do you feel about making new work in light of having exhibited a retrospective at the Whitney Museum?

Koons: It’s always about becoming, and following your interests. That’s a pursuit you have your whole life. I look forward to continuing to make work until, eventually, I leave this place. But that’s what you look forward to every morning: to experience the highest state of enlightenment you think is possible.

What is your estimate for the number of #KOONSSELFIES that will be taken tonight?

Koons: I really have no idea. There could be a thousand.

That’s a good number. What your favorite color?

Koons: Blue.

What’s Lady Gaga’s favorite color?

Koons: I couldn’t tell you exactly. I think she enjoys a lot of colors. I see her wear white a lot. She seems to enjoy white.

How do you feel about the Transgender Movement?

Koons: It’s fantastic. People should be able to experience life the way they’d like to. It’s fantastic. It’s wonderful.

I thanked him, and then I asked him for a selfie. He obliged:

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He was nice: positive, professional, maybe a little curt (I’ve heard he used to work on Wall Street). His testimony taught me nothing I couldn’t have Googled or asked my dad. The same might be said for some of his work. But then, suddenly, one remembers the scale of things: the million dollar art and the billion dollar man. Everyone’s famous now, so it’s crushing and kinda hot to behold a Man & Work combo so utterly, historically, analogically massive—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

And yet, as I hobbled away from Jeff Koons and peered up into a colossal stainless steel party balloon, I saw myself–and only myself–at the center of whatever I’d come uptown to see.

I dug my phone back out of my wallet to check the #KOONSSELFIE tag on Instagram.

There were 12.

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Hari Nef is an actress and writer living in New York City.