By Richard Lacayo
Updated May 08, 1989 12:00 PM

Jeff Koons is scanning his phone machine, hoping to hear a message from an executive at a major Wall Street investment firm. Earlier in the day, a waitress in a Manhattan restaurant had inadvertently handed the executive’s corporate credit card to Koons and Koons’s card to the executive. If the pinstriper could see Koons—street casual in a black polka-dot shirt and fraying black jeans—he might be a bit concerned. But in this case appearances are especially deceptive; unless the exec has been trading on inside information, it’s almost certain that Koons has had the more lucrative first quarter of ’89. At 34, he is by most estimates the hottest young artist in America—and one of the richest. He is expected to gross about $2.5 million from his most recent show, which was staged—with typical Koons flair—in Chicago, New York City and Cologne, West Germany. Simultaneously.

As it happens, Koons does know something about Wall Street. In the early 1980s, he spent four years pitching commodities over the telephone. “I was a great salesman,” he says. In a sense he still is. His one-man show earlier this year in New York was the most disputed, puzzled over and hooted at since Andy Warhol unveiled his soup-can art in 1962. Koons had filled Soho’s prestigious Sonnabend Gallery with enormous ceramic knickknacks: a seven-foot-tall bear in a striped T-shirt towering over a London bobby; an ambling pig urged along by winged cherubs; the Pink Panther putting the squeeze on a centerfold cutie.

Inspired by the kind of tacky shelfware available at any airport gift shop, but elaborately redesigned by Koons, the pieces were created in porcelain or carved wood by some of the oldest craft foundries in Europe. Koons doesn’t actually make his own work. As he once described it: “I supervise production.”

His latest exhibit, the tri-city spectacular, was a pileup of colliding motifs: swank fabrication and dime store imagery; gooey sentiment and gleaming surfaces. Prices ranged up to $250,000 for pieces like the larger than life-size statue of Michael Jackson, reclining on a patch of gold flowers with his chimp, Bubbles. “It’s the largest porcelain ever made,” claims the artist, who explains that he admires Jackson for his ability to “embrace anything necessary to communicate. The radicality of his plastic surgery I find very stimulating.”

Each of the 18 works was fabricated in triplicate for the three identical shows, making a grand total of $5 million in what his dealers say is mostly sold-out goods. Koons’s cut is half. Production costs come out of that, but for somebody who gave up painting a dozen years ago, after college, Koons can still draw a nice bottom line.

Critics, however, were left sharply divided. Was he satirizing an art market that peddles expensive playthings to the rich? Or just cashing in? The New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik announced that Koons was making “the most shocking art in America,” by summoning up “the world of the 13-year-old-boy’s bedroom.” Considerably less impressed, neoconservative critic Hilton Kramer called the show, “Nothing but a recycling of kitsch taste for jaded sophisticates.”

Recycled kitsch, Jeff? “None of [the works] were that,” says Koons, who favors a solemn, stilted way of speaking with a poli-sci majors vocabulary. “My art work is very bourgeois,” he explains. “The thing the bourgeois respond to at the present time is really banality. They feel a lot of guilt about this, too. I was trying to remove the guilt and shame of the bourgeoisie. [To do that] it’s necessary to be baptised in banality.”

Saving the bourgeoisie from itself has paid off handsomely, yet Koons and his girlfriend, Lizz Lambert, 26, a graphic designer, still live in a one-bedroom apartment in the Wall Street area. “I’m not in the art world for an income,” he insists. “My goal is to make art as powerful a thing as it can be.”

Lately, Koons has been producing photographs of himself in rock-glam trappings: leather jacket, modified Elvis cut. “For an artist to have paintbrushes in his hand just doesn’t do it,” he says. “A skull and crossbones and a tattoo are just more exciting.”

Koons saw little of that growing up in York, Pa., where he started art lessons at 7. His father, who owned an interior-design and furniture business, displayed Jeffs childhood paintings in his store.

The prodigy went on to art school in Baltimore and then Chicago, where he met the painter Ed Paschke. “Ed was very interested in the atmosphere of the seedy side of life,” says Koons. “We would go to strip clubs, go-go clubs, midget bars. Ed was showing me that all the information [artists] need is right there. We just have to focus and look.” After he finished school, Koons took a job as a department store display designer, but he dreamed of bigger things.

One night in 1976 he tuned in to a radio program about Manhattan’s burgeoning new-wave rock scene. “I woke up the next morning and hitchhiked to New York,” he says. “I wanted to participate.” He spent his nights hanging around the music clubs and his days working at the membership desk of the Museum of Modern Art. To attract new members he dyed his hair red and sported a pencil mustache, sequined cufflinks and sponge bow ties. “I just tried to distract the person,” he says. “To get them involved in the enthusiasm of the experience.”

By that time Koons was also producing the first art that would bring him admiring reviews. For a series in the early 1980s called The New he placed pristine vacuum cleaners in Plexiglas display cases. “I wanted to liberate myself from the newness,” he says. Four years ago he created some weirdly indelible imagery by suspending basketballs like unborn creatures in tanks of clear liquid.

Such work has exposed him to charges of gimmickry, and Koons knows there’s grumbling among some artists and critics about his eager self-promotion. He is unfazed and unflinching on all counts. “Art is continually up for grabs,” he maintains. Only by negotiating between his own vision and mass taste can an artist “truly penetrate the mainstream. The great artists of the future will be the great negotiators.” With collectors scrambling to pay six figures for his replicated works, you might say that Koons is already, ahead of his time, a great negotiator.