Jeff Koons on Renaissance art
Simply sign up to the Arts myFT Digest -- delivered directly to your inbox.
I wasn’t really well versed in art history until I went to art school. Here, I realised that art effortlessly connects to all the human disciplines, and that through art I could be involved in philosophy and psychology, history and theology. And of course, that dialogue, that connection, that total curiosity and exploration of what life can be for us, goes right back to the Renaissance – and humanism. It’s that aspect of the movement that gets me excited: celebrating being alive and being human. Art is just a vehicle in that exploration. One of the best vehicles.
In Renaissance times, people were curious: artists found themselves in a moment where there were new resources, opportunities and the platform for them to be able to create their work. The Dark Ages were over, there was a lot of trade, a lot of ideas circulating, a lot of travel and a lot of opportunities in education. People looked at history, and they embraced history. There were excavations taking place, and they were discovering sculptures – the Farnese Bull, the Farnese Hercules, all these different, amazing antiquity pieces were being unearthed, and they embraced this in their culture and it influenced sculpture, painting and the idea of a new classicism. They really raised the bar for what we can become as a society – what it means to be a human being, feeling a sense of community that’s bigger than the self, and rejoicing and finding interest and relevance in the past – which can give a sense of future.
Whenever I go to Florence, my interactions with the works there are always powerful, it could be with Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine; or I love the Bargello, with Donatello’s sculpture of David and Michelangelo’s Bacchus; and then there’s the Uffizi with Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. But for me, it always goes back to the people, rather than specific works. It’s about celebrating Michelangelo and Donatello and Botticelli. The works are just, you know, part of the journey of that person, and that’s all part of our journey, and our understanding of what we can be and what we can become.
And that’s the beauty of art, because you need the viewer; a person can make art in a room by themselves, but it’s about the people observing. A great work of art is nothing, absolutely nothing without a viewer; they finish the narrative. It’s called “the beholder’s share”, an idea that was introduced to me by the neuroscientist Eric Kandel. So if you go to the Uffizi, or come to my new exhibition, Shine, at the Palazzo Strozzi, the art is not in any of the objects. It’s in the viewer. It’s that sense of the essence of their own potential as a human being. That is what is of value and the only thing that has any relevance. And so, automatically, art becomes this dialogue with the community.
When I had the opportunity, in 2015, to exhibit my Pluto and Proserpina statue in Piazza della Signoria between copies of Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes – I had to pinch myself. Both those sculptures would also once, like mine, have been gilded, polished to a very high reflectivity and gleaming in the sun. “Reflection” is one of the words that is used often in philosophy. And reflection comes from shine, and the idea of transcendence and of coming into being. If we think of Apollo, he was the God of light, of shine; if we think of Christ, we think of light. And so transcendence, throughout cultures, really is based in the power of light. It’s funny how, in certain times, in certain cultures, shine is embraced, but at other times it can be looked at as something that’s superficial.
My new exhibition looks at my artworks that incorporate reflection, which of course plays a very large role in my work. It brings about and highlights the sense of affirmation of the viewer, and of the abstraction. And even the sense of intoxication. But it helps bring everything back to that sense of transcendence. Of becoming.
When I look at Renaissance artworks, I can feel myself changing. I have the raw visceral experience of the work. I look at a Titian and I can feel the transformative power of his passion and desire and light, and the type of pure sensual pleasure, and rejoicing in what it means to be human, both the strife and the absolute pleasure. And in this transcendence, you can feel a sense of the future.
Shine is at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, from 2 October 2021 until 30 January 2022, palazzostrozzi.org