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John Waters On the Work of Jeff Koons and Descending the Staircase Nude

John Waters On the Work of Jeff Koons and Descending the Staircase Nude

“I’d kind of like to start at the beginning and ask you a very Freudian question,” said John Waters. “Did you have a secret art life as a child?”

And that’s how we fell down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. At the receiving end of Waters’ question was contemporary artist Jeff Koons. Waters and Koons conversation, which took place in the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, was part of The Broad’s — pronounced “Br-OH-d” — Un-Private Collections Series.

Waters and Koons may have kitsch in common, but their conversational demeanors couldn’t be more different. Whereas Waters remained candid with the audience throughout the entire evening, Koons kept his answers academic. You might even call Koons a bit aloof.

Leave it to Waters, though, to keep things real: “But you never felt alienated by art? I remember when I first went to the Baltimore Museum, I bought a little Múro print and brought it home. All the other kids said, ‘Ugh, that’s ugly. Why would you put that ugly thing on your wall?’ I thought, ‘Ah, the power of art.’ It really made me feel glad that everyone hated me. And as a kid, I used to pretend I was nude descending the staircase. I would come down the steps nude and only I knew. That’s what I meant by a secret art life.”

Art as sacred? As if! Here are the best of Waters’ not-so-secret impressions of Koons’ work:

JW: “Let’s look at the one, number 13. The caterpillar and the ladder. To me, that’s threatening. Everybody knows you don’t walk under a ladder.”

JK: “John mentioned the nude descending the staircase — that was my nude descending the staircase.”

JW: “To me, that’s scary. That reminds me of a playroom in a prison. You always look at this other room where the children are supposed to play when they’re visiting their parents that have a life sentence. It’s a joyless place. And I always look at that little room and no one’s in there. No children, anything. Can you look at your work and like it in the wrong way?”

JW: “…the big balloon dog. Now, is this sexual? Because basically the dog’s neutered. I mean the only way it’s going to reproduce is on a plate. A limited edition.”

After Koons responded that he saw the tail as a reflection of “male energy,” Waters quipped: “But it’s cleaned up, this dog can’t shit. Y’know nobody’s going to follow it around with a newspaper bag. It can’t have sex. It’s neutered in a way — in a great way. So is it manufactured perfection? Which would be good.” Koons insisted that “it’s still prepared to have sex.”

JW: “So this one, y’know, really, I’m against people riding dolphins. Get your lard ass off those things. Bullshit spirituality. However, how do you feel about them?”

JW: “To me it’s your scariest work. Does Bubbles know the truth? A jury thought one way — does Bubbles know the truth. That third arm.”

JW: “Now this is one, y’know, a very optimistic piece it feels. But when I look at it, I always wonder, who deserves to wear this hat? Are children always an ager? Y’know, I guess I’m thinking negative sometimes. Only because I’m saying it’s so cheerful that it hurts almost.”

JW: “Of course, I look at it so perversely, I look at this symbol, that’s what the Manson family did: One in Charlie. I know you didn’t have that in mind.”

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Fantastic gem. It seems like I was always waiting to hear Waters' take on Koons work and didn't know it! It didn't disappoint.


I saw this exchange on Monday and you're far too kind to Koons. I found him to be totally boring and pretentious. John Waters was utterly delightful, so I am appreciative that this article is Waters' wonderfully candid responses.

My favorite part of the night in regards to making enough money for yourself.
Koons: I just want a trailer and enough money for as much beer as I want. (coming from the guy who has two New York lofts ranging in the tens of millions of dollars.)
JW: Two things. I wanted enough money to buy whatever books I wanted and not have to look at the price and enough money to keep assholes away from me. (Fantastic)

Long live John Waters.


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