It was twenty years ago, while halfway joking, that I surprised George Rodrigue with a white porcelain vase produced by artist Jeff Koons of his 3-D artwork, Puppy. George was unreserved in his criticism of Koons, and yet I also sensed his fascination with the artist who, among other things, fetches millions of dollars for pristine vacuum cleaners suspended in showcases on the walls of lofty museums and exceedingly wealthy collectors.
At the time, I lead a banally named, yet thought-provoking class called “The Art Discussion Group.” We met at 721 Royal Street in the French Quarter (across the street from the Rodrigue gallery’s current location) for monthly two-hour sessions during which we explored a wide range of artists, some local to New Orleans and others internationally acclaimed.
In all cases we connected their philosophies and artworks to George Rodrigue’s, with a particular focus on his original paintings surrounding us on the walls. We used this experience to explore even George’s most familiar subjects, including Blue Dogs, Oak Trees, and Cajuns, in a new way.
For each session I chose three artists, plus George Rodrigue, and formulated a loose syllabus. We explored the artworks with books and, in George’s case, original canvases. As far as regular participants, there were six of us, including me and my mom, with an occasional, although significant, bump in attendance for classes, such as the two on Andy Warhol, assisted by George himself.
Otherwise, George did not attend. It was the same reason he rarely attended gallery openings: he worried that his honesty would sway opinions or, worse, in the case of exhibitions, dissuade an artist. Yet the class, as well as my passion for it, excited him. He became my preparatory muse, usually while sitting on our Faubourg Marigny porch swing, as he expressed openly to me his thoughts on the various artists and their works.
That’s how I learned, during a passionate diatribe, of Rodrigue’s disdain for Koons.
When he unwrapped Puppy, George laughed and immediately asked me what I paid —which I refused to answer, and still do, other than to say that while it was expensive, it was far less than the vacuum cleaners. I filled Puppy with roses and can still see George shaking his head at this kitsch manifestation of my debate with the Blue Dog Man.
But it got better.
Some weeks later, George came home with his own Puppy. He couldn’t wait to tell me that he paid $5 at a local junk shop for a plaster dog, uncannily similar, yet charmingly distinctive, to Koons’s ‘fine art’ expression. Originally painted brown and black, George hand-painted the new dog…
From then on the (unsuspecting) Koons-Rodrigue collaboration, Puppies, was a focal point of our New Orleans home. We often adorned the dogs at holidays, and they sparked lively discussions with guests about art, as well as the art market.
Yet while Puppies persisted, The Art Discussion Group disbanded. After three years and some thirty meetings, our last class was November 30, 2004. I recall the date, because my mother, who was also an artist, died unexpectedly that morning. George received the call as I was leaving the house, books and notes from that morning’s class in hand, because my mom and I had planned to spend the afternoon exploring the arts.
Without her, I lost the heart to continue the class.
The Life & Legacy Foundation and Art Tour, now entering its sixth year, was conceived, in part, from this experience. Like The Art Discussion Group, the presentations are unplugged. Occasionally, I use books, but more often original paintings dictate the flow. This visual and storytelling experience replaces the syllabus, so that sincerity and openness make way for infinite interpretations.
Oftentimes, I’m as surprised as my audience by the discussion’s trajectory.
Meanwhile, at home in New Mexico, my art books and notes not only spark intriguing memories of The Art Discussion Group, but also encourage fresh explorations, oftentimes with my husband Douglas Magnus, of these artists. Together, we study them and their works in relationship to each other, to George’s art, and also to Douglas’s paintings and stone carvings.
Nothing, however, makes a stronger or more enduring statement than Puppies. Now inseparable, the sculptures continue to challenge, intrigue, and amuse, all while locked in a mysterious and perpetual conversation.
As pristine as the vacuum cleaners, the statues sit before me as I write this, and I can’t help but think that these Puppies are, as a pair, Priceless.
“Puppy to me is a dialogue about Humankind and God and the relationship, as well as the aspects of the eternal.” -J.K.
-from the book, Jeff Koons: Pictures 1980-2002, by Thomas Kellein and Jeff Koons, Published by D.A.P., New York