Jeff Koons Credit: Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Jeff Koons is one of the world’s most sought-after artists. “I’ve made what the Beatles would have made if they had made sculpture,” he once declared brazenly. “Nobody ever said that the Beatles’ music was not on a high level, but it appealed to a mass audience. That is what I want to do.” In 2013 his sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at auction for $58.4 million, the highest price ever paid for a work of art by a living artist.

Koons began his art career in Chicago as a student at the School of the Art Institute and as an assistant to Chicago Imagist painter Ed Paschke. This week he returned for a lecture in celebration of the 150th anniversary of his alma mater. I sat down with the 60-year-old in the Drawing Room of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel to talk about his childhood in rural Pennsylvania, the years he spent in Chicago, and how he came up with the idea to make stainless steel balloon dogs.

Annette Elliot: Your father was an interior decorator and owned a furniture store in York, Pennsylvania. What was his impact on your decision to become an artist?

Jeff Koons: My father supported my dream to become an artist. He never once questioned, “Is this something you can make a living at?” When I would paint, he would say, “You know what, Jeff, I want to put that in my showroom window.” If a client wanted a particular artwork, maybe a woodland dance by Jean-Baptiste Pater or an amorous procession by Jean-Antoine Watteau, I would carefully copy the paintings and sign them “Jeffrey Koons.”

In Chicago you worked as a studio assistant for Chicago Ed Paschke, who would take you out to local bars and strip joints.

On weekends I would stretch canvases in Ed’s studio. At the end of the day Ed would ask me, “Do you want to go out tonight? I’d like to show you this club I just went to.” He took me to tattoo parlors, a midget bar on the south side, a club where a pregnant woman was dancing, her whole body tattooed. Garish colors, risque costumes and flashing neon lights all became part of his painting. He taught me to create my own personal iconography from the world around me.

And then you heard a Patti Smith album, Horses, on the radio, and that inspired you to hitchhike to New York. What was the art scene like in 1976?

I really had no interest in the New York scene, dominated by art critics like Clement Greenberg, who seemed too concerned with rules. Inspired by surrealism and Dada, I was interested in dealing with intuitive thought. But I did want to be part of my generation of artists. When I heard Patti Smith on the radio one night, I realized the kids were gathering in New York around poetry and new-wave music. I thought, “I want to be part of this.” We hung out a lot at bars—CBGB on the Lower East Side, the Mudd Club, Fanelli’s. That’s what you do as a young person, you hang out, you tend to drink a little too much, you talk about your ideas, and then you act on those ideas. I became part of an underground scene, showing at alternative spaces such as Artist Space and White Column.

In New York, you also invited new friends to your East Village apartment to see bright inflatable flowers set against hardware-store mirrors. Can you tell me more about these small installations?

At that time I had very little money. To support myself I worked at the membership desk at the Museum of Modern Art. I think my rent was $125 a month, but I painted my apartment, I decorated it. Every square inch was covered with artwork. Eventually I reached a point where I couldn’t live like that anymore. I couldn’t live in a dilapidated apartment. So one day I just moved over to Chelsea and rented an apartment with absolutely no clutter at all. There I would show my encased vacuum cleaners (The New) and that would be it. I’d even hide my bed.

You elevate dime-store novelties to the position of high art. Why do you consider these objects beautiful?

I was always attracted to the inflatables because they are anthropomorphic. We’re breathing machines. We inhale. When we inflate, a breath of air fills the body. When we exhale, our last breath is a symbol of death. And so inflatables relate to our being, our precarious balance between preservation and mortality.

What made you decide to stop making inflatable sculptures and start casting cheap plastic toys in stainless steel?

I realized my inflatables weren’t permanent. If I bought a plastic inflatable bunny it would look really fresh in the beginning, but over a period of time the vinyl would start to stretch out. I wanted my artwork to be more permanent. Stainless steel is extremely durable. I never wanted to work in platinum, silver, or gold. I was never attracted by the pursuit of luxury, but rather the idea of false luxury.

I loved the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Dr. Eric Kandel’s response to your exhibition “Gazing Ball.” He said, “When you looked at the sculptures you saw yourself embedded in the gazing balls. Artists sometimes put mirrors in works, but they don’t design the work so that you find yourself in the arms or chest of a statue, which is what Jeff did.”

In “Gazing Ball” I wanted to go to the core of the visual experience. Growing up, I observed gazing balls, a simple lawn ornament in a suburban garden. The gazing ball tells you where you are in the universe. You see your reflection and the world around you reflected in 360 degrees. Gazing into the blue reflective glass, you touch on the aspect of the eternal.

You work together with highly skilled craftsmen to fabricate your projects. You have employed centuries-old techniques, collaborating with wood carvers in Bavaria and glassblowers in Pennsylvania. How is the history of material important in your art?

I work with materials very intuitively. There is a gentleman named C.S. Villari who crafts white and gold porcelain Venuses emerging from conch shells. I thought that this was the type of sexual tension I wanted for my porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles, so I had him make the work. For Bear and Policeman I employed artisans in the mountains of northern Italy who carved sculptures for the Catholic Church. Chiseled from linden wood, the carvers imbue sculpture with a certain spiritual, transcendent quality.

You currently employ more than 100 assistants in your West Chelsea studio. How did you arrive at this Renaissance-style production model?

I enjoy my studio more and more every day. When I was younger I made everything myself. At a certain point I started working with fabrication companies. I didn’t have a studio then and I was traveling all the time. I would spend two weeks in Europe, two weeks in the United States, two weeks in Europe, back and forth constantly. In 1991 I decided to refocus and just have a studio experience, where I could oversee production all the time. I never wanted to be in a room by myself. I like being with people. It gives me the opportunity to work in a lot of different media, from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional. If I was to create a sculpture from this vase of flowers, some might interpret that violet as a little more red than I do, or they might interpret the shape not to be as round. I want to remove the personal subjectivity, so the production is like that of a machine but with the generosity of the human touch.

Your artistic career has not been without challenges. You have faced eviction, bankruptcy, divorce, and an acrimonious custody battle. How have these experiences shaped your career?

The only thing I ever wanted to do was participate. For me it has never been about money. These types of economic hardships were nothing so long as I was in a position where I was in control of my work, where I was not dependent on collectors and I could create in the manner that I wanted to. There are a lot of artists who believe they want to participate, but when they are given the opportunity to actually perform they make excuses and run away.  v