‘Gary!’ Koons calls out across the room to a guy with sideburns and a hot pink T-shirt manning a beefy white Mac computer. ‘Get me the track listing for Led Zeppelin I!’ Koons, 52, one of the world’s most successful contemporary artists and Warhol heir apparent, was attempting to explain in his idiosyncratic art speak – heavy on words like ‘transcendence’, ‘sexuality’ and ‘vagina’ – his project for Wallpaper*. In homage to Led Zeppelin, one of his all-time favourite bands, Koons has selected or reworked various pieces from his recent Hulk series (which was exhibited at London’s Gagosian Gallery earlier this year) to create a portfolio of images that explore the myth and meaning of 1970s heavy-metal deities Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
‘When I was a teenager, I was always interested in art, but I didn’t know what art was,’ reflects Koons, who grew up a complete outsider to the art world in a small town in Pennsylvania, sporting a rocker shag and peeling around in his Firebird 400, Zeppelin cranked up at full volume. ‘I did know that the closest I got to this sense of transcendence that art can bring into your life was Zeppelin’s music. So my understanding of transcendence and how art functions comes from Zeppelin. In a primal way, I’m trying to share that transcendence.’ There is no Stairway to Heaven emanating from an expensive sound system to help channel inspiration, though. Koons says he only listens to Zep at home or in the car, although he suspects his studio assistants listen on their iPods.
These days, Koons, with his cropped brown hair, leisure-cured tan and boyish good looks, could easily pass for an investment banker. Even his bland studio attire – a grey Puma T-shirt, grey jeans, and cordial smile, are not much of a giveaway to his controversial post-pop canon of works. Koons says he’s just trying to turn everyday objects into art that’s accessible to everyday people, but debates still rage over the merit of his early 1990s series Made In Heaven, which had paintings graphically depicting him having sex with his porn star/politician now-ex wife La Cicciolina (Ilona Staller) with titles like Jeff Eating Ilona and Ilona’s Asshole. Or whether there was irony in the 40ft-high topiary in the shape of a West Highland terrier, and the life-size gold-and-white statuette of Michael Jackson with his pet chimp Bubbles.
So when Koons channels Zeppelin, don’t expect the obvious re-hash of concert tour T-shirts, druid imagery, or the band’s logoed aeroplane. Rather, Koons places Zeppelin in his abstract netherworld inhabited by an Incredible Hulk inflatable pool toy, Warhol’s Elvis, locomotives and, of course, silver line drawings of vaginas.
To prove his point, Koons suddenly pulls out a neat white binder and pages hastily to a print of his painting Dutch Couple. Page and Plant appear as abstract dots on the canvas alongside other Koons concerns, such as the Kama Sutra, another vagina, an inflatable monkey head and some birds that reference Tiberius’s pond in ancient Rome. ‘If you squint, can you see Page’s guitar?’ Koons asks.
‘And the side of Plant’s face?’ To complete the thought, Koons flips to an image of a fashion shoot he staged for The New York Times Magazine with the actress Gretchen Mol dressed up as Bettie Page in fishnets and a garter belt. Mol is sprawled suggestively atop an inflatable lobster and dolphin, two beach toys that, along with the monkey and the Incredible Hulk, are piled up in the corner of Koons’ studio like off-duty supermodels. ‘How is the Mol photo related to Zeppelin?’ anticipates Koons. ‘It’s not really.’ But he’s making his point. Led Zeppelin represent primal sexuality. And, more importantly,a youthful, primal sexuality.
Which brings us back to the album, Led Zeppelin I. Koons’ studio assistant, Gary, finally succeeds in locating the track listing. ‘Good Times Bad Times,’ Gary reads, ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You; You Shook Me; Dazed and Confused.’ ‘Take Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,’ says Koons. ‘That song starts off like “Baaabe. Baaabe. I’m gonna leave you.” It’s like migration. Like a big elk. You have a certain consciousness about developing out of an animal, but at the same time it’s very primal, instinctive. Sexual. Then it gets into Courbet territory and makes landscapes that are like Courbet’s The Origin of the World.’
For the project with Wallpaper*, Koons desperately wanted to interview Page and Plant in person, but the band had too many previous engagements. Koons was keen to ask Page and Plant about thethinking behind Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. ‘Were they thinking about migration? This type of sexual tension? Were they thinking about this transcendence of an animal having consciousness of emotion?’ Because, Koons points out, ‘there’s definitely a pull about leaving, but also the benefits of staying there’. ‘The most important thing in life is procreation,’ says Koons. ‘When Zeppelin were in their prime, they were 20-year-old kids with not a lot of life experience. But they were conquering the world and doing it very viscerally.'
Koons is now standing in front of a model for his latest project, a 70ft, life-size replica of a 1942 locomotive train suspended from a crane that will dangle over the entrance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with the price tag of upwards of $20m. ‘The train is very masculine facing down. So the whole environment becomes feminine.’ Koons presses a button and the locomotive begins to whistle. ‘That’s the orgasm,’ he says. And when the train begins to slow down, Koons explains it as the last ‘drippages’ of sperm. ‘Don’t you think it’s a lot like Led Zeppelin’s Bring it on Home?’