Interview: Jeff Koons on His Exhilarating BMW 8 Series Collaboration and More

A hand-painted celebration of life, energy and mobility from the acclaimed fine artist

A work of art both inside and out, limited to 99 models worldwide, Jeff Koons‘ custom BMW 8 Series Gran Coupe exudes excitement. Known as The 8 X Jeff Koons, the vehicle incorporates playful hand-painted illustrations—from cartoon-like explosions to charming vapor-thrust clouds—all of which unite to lend the body a sense of animation and acceleration, even when it’s stationary. Inside, premium materials, primary colors and meticulous accents punctuate the level of customization. Perhaps most compelling, Koons’ interpretation of a vintage BMW logo sits on the hood and looks very much like an energy source for the automobile.

It’s important to underscore that this is not a one-off BMW Art Car—a term that represents a series of unique commissioned works from legendary artists. (Koons participated in that program in 2010 with the Jeff Koons BMW M3GT2, which went on to race at 24 Hours of Le Mans.) Rather, this is a limited release available to purchase. Koons himself will be driving one and another will be auctioned at Christie’s on 4 April to benefit The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. Late last year, we visited Koons at Pace Gallery, where we were able to see The 8 X Jeff Koons in-person, and speak with the artist about how it came to be and what’s driving him today.

Before we touch upon The 8 X Jeff Koons, can you tell us how you came to be involved with BMW and developed your 2010 Art Car?

I always wanted to be part of the BMW family. I love the Art Cars. I love Andy Warhol’s car. I love Roy Lichtenstein’s car, Jenny Holzer’s car. I had an exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Thomas Girst came. Thomas was in charge of cultural programs with BMW. I told him I loved the Art Cars and he said maybe I could make one. I received a call later on that I was invited to participate in the program.

What was important to me was to be a part of that family, to be in dialogue with these other artists—all the different participants. Then, of course, I tried to make the best car possible to communicate with the public about the possibilities of an automobile: the energy of it, the meaning you can find within it.

Did you approach the development of The 8 X Jeff Koons differently than the Art Car? Or are they related?

When I worked on the Art Car, I went to BMW and I met with the design department. I brought three different plans. BMW was really supportive of Plan A. It was going to incorporate lenticular photography. I wanted it so that when the car went by, whoever was viewing it would see “Pop! Pop! Pop!” It would be like flash explosions. BMW said I could do it but it was going to add weight to the car. I wanted the car to race. I wanted it to go as fast as possible. So I eliminated Plan A and developed Plan B, which is the Art Car that came out.

For Plan B, I looked at all different forms of energy in the universe. I looked at stellar energy and exploding galaxies. I looked at nuclear energy and all different forms of explosion and power. I ended up using Christmas tree lights, and the photography of Christmas tree lights being blurred. The dynamic quality of that energy was captured. Plan A is what you’re looking at now [for The 8 X Jeff Koons] but without the use of lenticular photography.

How did you develop The 8 X Jeff Koons?

I received another call from Thomas Girst. He said, “Jeff, what would you think about making a special edition car?” This was around 2015. I said, “That’d be fantastic.” Originally we thought maybe I would work with a V12. BMW delivered a V12 car, which I drove around for a couple of weeks. Then I decided that the time wasn’t right. Some time went by and then I looked at a 7 Series. I drove one around for a couple weeks but I didn’t commit to the project. It wasn’t until the pandemic that we were back in discussion again. We started asking, “What’s the perfect car?”

BMW sent me the 850i and it was perfect. In a way, it’s BMW’s world car. It’s accessible for different markets around the world. I like sportive qualities. I like fast cars. I worked at a drag strip in York, Pennsylvania as a kid. At the same time, I love being with people. I love being with my wife in a car, and my friends and my family. I have eight children. So designing a Gran Coupe allowed me to create the ideal car that I wanted my whole life for myself, one that has dynamic power and meaning. At the same time, there’s this sense of democracy within the car. No matter where you’re sitting, it’s of equal position in the power hierarchy.

What role do Art Cars, or the car as a canvas in general, play in the art world?

The automobile has been one of the main forces within the economic life of the world. Different developments in the automotive market influence the type of colors I have as an artist, the type of pigments that are available. A lot of that has to do with what they’re producing that year, or what they’re not producing. It’s also important to be able to create things that have a platform, that go out into the world and make ideas accessible to people everywhere.

Is it important to drive a vehicle before transforming it?

You get an understanding of the power. When I was driving the 850i, I was amazed at its power. I wanted to capture that vitality. A lot of that informs what you see in the adrenaline-type quality of the interior, and this very visceral exterior [of The 8 X Jeff Koons]. We are able, in our lives, to share meaning with people through feelings and sensations, through these visceral experiences; they create the basis of our ideas. I hope when the car goes by, people go, “Wow! did you see that?” when they look at it. It’s not the traditional cliche flash of a sports car. You find meaning about what it means to be a human and be involved in the history of movement and the future of movement.

Your work often employs a magnetic use of color and materiality. Can you share insight on your relationship to color?

My whole experience in art began with the fact that I didn’t know what art was. I took art lessons from the time I was a child but that was defined by having the skills to make illusions, to draw a vase of flowers that looked like a vase or to give perspective to a landscape. When I got to art school and started to realize the history of art, one that people look up to with great admiration—I realized art could be something that people find very daunting. I realized I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know Cézanne. I wouldn’t have known Gauguin. But somehow I survived that.

Everything about you, every individual, is perfect and it is all about this moment moving forward

I always wanted to create artwork that allowed me to accept my own cultural history, where I could accept myself, but where I could also communicate to other people that whatever your background is, whatever your experiences in life have been to this moment, they are perfect. Everything about you, every individual, is perfect and it is all about this moment moving forward. I do not want the art that I am involved with in any form to disempower or segregate. I work with colors that are accessible. I work with images that everyone is familiar with. You never feel that they are above you. In some manner you always feel equal to or above the image.

Have your goals changed with success?

When I was younger, I learned that I could make different colors, different images, I could put things together to create different textures. I could control the sensations I had [in reaction to this], these very intense feelings. I could control it and do it over again. Then, I learned how to make it more intense. At a certain point, I wanted to share this type of transcendence of experience with other people.

When I make something today, I want to transcend. I want to become a vaster person, a better human being, but at the same time I feel an equal desire to be able to share this experience with the community. I think it’s a natural process that happens with a sense of awareness of life.

Do you attribute sentimental value to your work?

I enjoy the history of my work. I am proud of all the works that I make because I usually think about each piece a minimum of two years before I make it. It takes a lot of time and energy to bring things to realization. I feel really close to what I make but it’s an ongoing journey. I like to look at everything I’ve made as part of one philosophy or one act or one gesture.

You’ve been working with digital art for decades. Do you have thoughts on the movement around NFTs?

As a platform or as a way of defining a space, NFTs are fantastic. It’s one more medium. I look forward to participating in a way where I can share my ideas and use it as a platform for communication. It’s important, however, that artists don’t rely on a new platform or medium to think that “because it’s new my art will be new.” It’s important that artists realize the freshest, newest ideas come from a really old place: our human history, our biological memory, our universal vocabulary. What’s really important on any platform, whether using a piece of paper or clawing your finger nails through the earth or creating an NFT is that you have to share something honest with people, you have to communicate what’s important to us as humans to sustain ourselves.

Images courtesy of BMW