Pop artist Jeff Koons is interested in the art of the grand gesture. But it is art on a very small scale that got him interested in FEGS, the Jewish communal organization that deals with employment, job training and counseling.
Koons became involved with FEGS through real estate developer and UJA-Federation of New York honorary board member Larry Silverstein and his wife Klara. He was invited to tour a downtown FEGS center in 2009, where he saw art being used to help people with various ailments.
In an interview at his studio, Koons recalled his visit. "I came into contact with people who have disabilities in some form, learning disabilities or just problems with life. They were interacting with art, and you could get a sense of how art was being a positive influence in their life, of giving them a greater sense of self and of their own possibilities."
Koons’ subsequent work with FEGS has earned him the group’s first Voice of Art Award at the organizations 10th Annual Partnerships for a Changing World Benefit Dinner. The fundraising event takes place May 24 at Cipriani on 42nd Street. FEGS is recognizing Koons for his commitment to the artistic expression of those with disabilities.
A sense of opportunity is central to Koons’ art production. The artist is best known for his large-scale paintings and sculptures, which are often based on found objects. He mixes high and low references, and he works with Americana. "Puppy," an enormous floral sculpture, was displayed in Rockefeller Center in 2000, and he was the first living artist to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles eight years later. Through his art, Koons tries "immediately to let people know that their own interests are as valid as any one else’s interests. Art can be this terrible debaser," he said. "It can make someone feel totally inadequate that they can’t participate, that they can’t get involved."
Koons is 56, though the all-American, brown-haired, blue-eyed artist is fit, and looks much younger. When we met, he dressed casually in a blue T-shirt and black pants that he wore with sneakers. Koons’ desk sits at the center of the administrative portion of the large studio space in northern Chelsea where his staff works quietly at big-screen Apple computers; art history books line the white walls.
"I’ve been given tremendous support in the art world so I have every opportunity to do something special," he said. "So I really want to try and take advantage of that. If I don’t I’ve wasted a tremendous opportunity." The artist, who was named artist of the year by the American Friends of the Tel Aviv Museum in 2007, says he tries to "pinch" himself every day.
Koons has never been religious. He was born Protestant and "grew up being taught an appreciation that other people’s experiences in life and their rights." The artist is pleased to be honored by FEGS, an organization whose mission he identifies with. "There’s a sense that whether somebody is Jewish or whether they’re Protestant or whatever anyone’s background, we have a shared history – a shared human history and our motivations, our possibilities, our desires are shared. So I really like trying to be involved with the world community as a whole, and so that why I’m thrilled to participate."