A Penetrating Discussion: Jeff Koons Talks Picasso at the Guggenheim

146553543 A Penetrating Discussion: Jeff Koons Talks Picasso at the Guggenheim

Koons. (Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)

Last Friday evening in the Guggenheim’s basement auditorium, Jeff Koons, in his trademark smooth, soothing tone, told a sold-out crowd about something he often does before he goes to sleep. “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,” he said excitedly, “and I just look at Picasso’s work.”

Mr. Koons said that Marcel Duchamp has long been a huge influence on him, but that he has become more impressed with Picasso over the past two decades. In fact, he’s started collecting the artist’s work, and has loaned one of his paintings to the exhibition on view in the Guggenheim’s galleries upstairs, “Picasso Black and White.” A 1969 scene of a bald man aggressively kissing a woman, it hangs near the top of the rotunda.

As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. Koons said, he used to visit Picasso’s 50-foot-tall metal sculpture in Daley Plaza. “I watched children climb on it,” he recalled. “I climbed on it!”

Art historian Pepe Karmel, who joined Mr. Koons for the Guggenheim talk, said a walk-through of the Picasso show with Mr. Koons and the show’s curators took four hours—the artist had a lot to say.

Dr. Karmel was particularly surprised by his response to Picasso’s Milliners Workshop (1926). “You remarked, ‘There’s a lot of happiness there.’” he said, adding that, to him, it was a “dark and spooky picture.” It’s a large work, with mostly gray and black shapes, and shows Picasso’s young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, living with her sister and mother. Picasso’s head appears to be coming in through a door.

“It seemed kind of very optimistic, just the flowing of lines,” Mr. Koons explained. An image of the painting was on a screen behind him, and he aimed a green laser pointer on one bulbous shape. “This almost looks like a hand here opening a doorknob, but that could also be a symbol of Marie-Thérèse touching his phallus,” he said enthusiastically. In the audience, there was some nervous laughter.

Later, this talk of sexual potency led Dr. Karmel to discuss the 19th-century concept of a life force that could be expended through sexual or creative acts. “Balzac, the great novelist, once said, ‘Every time I make love, I lose another story,’ he said. There was a very long pause, and he began to change the subject, but Mr. Koons cut in. “I think with Picasso,” he said, “it’s the opposite.”

arusseth@observer.com