Jeff Koons: The Retrospective – Artist or Marketeer?
My first memory of Jeff Koons is from the late 1980s when his “Made in Heaven” exhibition – mainly containing sexually explicit photographs and sculptures featuring himself and the Hungarian-Italian porn-star, later wife of Koons’s, Cicciolina (a.k.a Ilona Staller) – reached the news. Not only did it reach the news world of the arts, but even the prime-time news-hour on Swedish television. I remember watching the evening news on the family sofa and when the sequence came on I got sheepishly shocked, just like any teenager around the age of 15 would be in the face of something sex-related in the company of his parents. Of course, it was a big deal; not only for me, the whole world talked about it. What I also remember is my mother’s outcry: how can this be considered art? Alright, my mother is not well-travelled in the art world, but the question was valid then, and for many it’s still valid today. And it has nothing to do with sex even. A lot has happened since, but Jeff Koons somehow remained controversial throughout his career. Or at least that’s how it comes across.
Fast forward to the present. Now years later, upon a recent visit to Paris we took the chance for a closer look at the Centre Pompidou‘s long-awaited and highly hyped exhibition Jeff Koons: The Retrospective. A few decades later it’s really not the Heaven that is etched to people’s minds about Koons. In recent years it’s mainly the “inflatable” sculptures of the balloon dog and others in this series that has remained a Koons-symbol for most people and made Jeff Koons a much talked about name of contemporary art. It has certainly also helped, that when it comes to art auctions somehow Jeff Koons always pulls it off and makes the headlines for the most expensive art works ever sold. Especially his sculptures are the much talked-about items, his paintings in general have a smaller role to play in his famous oeuvre. Also his large-scale public installations have often caught people’s interest, although it’s been many years now since the latest big hit of the ‘Puppy‘, which attracted admiration worldwide throughout the 1990s.
Centre Pompidou is the perfect place for the Koons Retrospective. It felt all along like a good match, as there is something glittery about both, but at the same time now in 2015 the two almost feel like made for another time. Koons and France have a long history and the artist has always been popular in France, or at least popular to stir controversies around. In the country of the dadaist giant Marcel Duchamp, to whom Jeff Koons is often compared, this association is not always necessarily appreciated. Koons is indeed an artist who is often a hot topic for arguments, be it about his artistic style or about the person. If we would take a sweep among the quotes circulating around, it’s soon going to be obvious that the crowd is divided, there’s no denying. If we would measure art alone by how much controversy it can stir up, Koons could easily be confirmed a highly influential and successful artist. Here’s just a quick round-up of some of the most memorable quotes about the American artist, often referred to as the last member of the pop art era.
Some praise from Jerry Saltz on ArtNet.com:
“No one straddled the cosmic divide between innocence and cunning, hilarity and insidiousness, as effectively as Koons.”
Admiration is also confirmed by some loving words from Amy Dempsey for “Balloon Dog” in the magazine Styles, Schools and Movements:
“An awesome presence…a massive durable monument.”
But then it’s easy to quickly find loads of sour words about Koons and his art as well. Here’s for instance Mark Stevens who said the following in The New Republic already back in 1992 (hard not to wonder what he would say today):
“Decadent artist [who] lacks the imaginative will to do more than trivialize and italicise his themes and the tradition in which he works… He is another of those who serve the tacky rich.”
And then my personal favourite from 2014 in The Guardian, written by Robert Hughes who claims the following about Koons:
“An extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.”
If we jump ahead into present day’s criticism, not surprisingly, also “Jeff Koons: The Retrospective” at Paris’ Centre Pompidou had a few reviewers riled up, like Anne de Koninck in the French Slate (English translation via ArtNews.com):
“But what happened to Jeff Koons? Once the agent provocateur in the late 1980s, he became one of the safest icons and especially the most profitable of an artistic scene that comes too often with financial superlatives. The contemporary artist claims that his art should be “accessible to the greatest number,” but he has won several times the title of most expensive living artist…”
So What to Make Out Of “Koons: The Retrospective”?
The exhibition summarises Koons’s career in chronological order: from his early works of cheap inflatables bought in budget stores in Manhattan, placed in front of mirrors, to the most recent “Gazing Ball” series from 2013. The exhibition goes in a U-shape through the Pompidou Centre’s fifth floor where clearly defined sections are taking the visitor through the soon four decades that Koons made a splash in the art world. The common thread through it all is the glittery, kitsch-like atmosphere, where the shining stainless steel is the common denominator. The kitsch-prize in the collection goes without hesitation to the Banality series from the mid-nineties, with ‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles‘ porcelain statue as the ultimate showcase of tackiness, or style, if you so please.
Some parts are definitely more eye-catching than others: it’s no secret that the highlight for most visitors will be the “Balloon Dog” section of the exhibition and the related works in the series, like the “Hanging Heart”, also having the most prominent place in the Pompidou’s hall. The latter – a version of it sold for US$23.6 million in 2007 – and some of the other works on display are among the works that set several world records for the most expensive art works ever sold by a living artist, so they are quite big deals really. There is indeed something special about the contrast symbolised by the heaviness of the material used for each statue, and the seeming lightness the motifs give the impression of. A contrast that plays with the mind quite a bit, and a contrast that Jeff Koons often used in his works.
While walking through the exhibition a fun part of the experience was to eavesdrop a bit, or at least to observe the reactions of people. Just like my mother 25 years ago, it was quite obvious that many were posing themselves the question of how can this “tasteless kitsch” be considered art. One thing what seemed to be common for most visitors was that they were actually entertained, even if judging from facial expressions, not necessarily every person loved it. Likely not everyone would admit this, but the signs were obvious, people in general had fun. The same was our experience: it was entertaining, glittery, and yes, even quite thought-provoking in its banality. The triviality by the way is almost exaggerated – at least in my opinion – by the overly descriptive descriptions for the art works: it’s not often that I came across plaques telling me what an art work really is supposed to mean, it almost felt like the curator didn’t want to leave much for the personal interpretation. ‘This is what Jeff meant, now live with it’.
Jeff Koons: Modern-Day Dadaist or the Best Marketeer in the Art World?
Exactly that part around the questions of banality is what makes the exhibition interesting on another level. It is easy to draw the parallels to Marcel Duchamp when you really look deeper into the matter, thus the comparison is understandable, at least at first glance – and take the art work descriptions at face value. There is definitely a common thread around the banality of life, be it the floating basket balls in the aquarium, the weirdness of commercials being transformed into art by simply getting it framed, or the silliness of the Inflatable Hulk or Popeye. It is somehow poking fun at the commercialised lifestyle we have, but at the same time it’s impossible to ignore the fact that what really seems to be driving Jeff Koons is making money.
A lot of his critics also claim that he’s not even a technically skilled artist, since he designs the concepts, but is not actually involved in the production of the works; his assistants take care of it. Maybe there’s a point in that, but it’s hard to fully buy it, after all he was clearly showing signs of artistic talent as a student at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and even got Salvador Dali’s blessing. In any case, the part about his artistic skills we leave to those who are better equipped for that debate. One thing is certain, Jeff Koons was a driven artist throughout his life and it’s quite obvious that he seemingly had high focus on his commercial artistry.
‘Jeff Koons: The Retrospective‘ is ultimately a great opportunity to try to decipher the enigma around Jeff Koons, what made his success so huge and groundbreaking. There’s also plenty of time to ponder over of his artistic capabilities and ask yourself the eternal question of what art really is meant to be. Or you can choose not to and focus instead on the business aspect of his art: is a stainless steel heart hanging from a cable really worth more than the GDP of the poorest nations on our planet, and how is that even possible? The two hours spent between his glittery sculptures and colourful paintings is in any case a fitting entertainment park and even if you will come to the conclusion that you can’t stand Jeff Koons you will likely have a little bit of fun. The shock factor? Nah, don’t count much on it. Not only did the 15 year old me grew up since 1989, but it also feels like Jeff Koons got lazy since. The final part of the exhibition, focusing on the latest decade of his career felt quite uninspiring. The edge is gone, but the glitter is still there. If it’s the right medium for our times? Likely not, but the Jeff Koons era seems to be a seemingly strange and fitting memento of those final two decades of the 20th century when superficiality became a norm of our society.
‘Jeff Koons: The Retrospective’ in 2015
If you are in Paris during the spring, ‘Jeff Koons: The Retrospective‘ is on at the Centre Pompidou until April the 27th. The Centre Pompidou has very friendly opening hours, so even if you are in Paris for a business trip there is time to go for a late night showing, if you can sneak away. It is normally open until 9 pm, with Thursday being the exception when the galleries are open all the way until 11 pm. The regular admission fee is 14 Euros. On the Centre Pompidou website you can find out more, or if you are interested in general Paris museum tips, check out our article ‘15 Tips To Get More Out Of Your Paris Museum Visits‘.
After Paris ‘Jeff Koons: The Retrospective‘ moves down to the Basque Country in Spain. From June 9th until September 27th 2015 the exhibition is visiting the Guggenheim Bilbao. The admission at the Guggenheim is 11 Euros and most nights the museum is open until 8 pm.
- Just missed the Jeff Koons exhibition and/or interested in what else is on in Paris this year? Read our article with The Years Best Exhibitions in Paris for more inspiration.
- We also reviewed here if the Paris Museum Pass is actually worth your money.
- For more contemporary art head to the La Defense area, where you’ll find the longest open-air contemporary art route in France.