(Paris.) Love it or loathe it, but Jeff Koons has well secured his place in art history. Koons started, or at least spearheaded something new; if history is a chain of influences he is one important link between Pop Art and whatever it is we see today. Without Warhol no Koons, and without Koons no Murakami.
Moreover, it will be forever impossible to talk about the late 20th/early 21st Century’s art market and not mention Jeff Koons, the personified wet dream of every auctioneer. Since the 1980s, Koons portrays his time and culture, and if this time and culture should be unsubstantial trash – well it wouldn’t be his fault. Jeff Koons is a contemporary gesamtkunstwerk (a gesamtKoonstwerk actually); he merges business, art and persona like few others. All through his career, he has made extensive use of the experience gained when he was working as a broker between artistic education and life as a fulltime artist. He, who knows Wall Street from the inside, was one of the first to foresee how art should turn into just another branch of the leisure industry. And this winter, Jeff Koons has finally made it to Centre Pompidou’s top floor, the exhibition space reserved for the big boys.
Every interpretation has to deal with the artist’s assertion that there is no hidden meaning or critique, not even in the choice of surface itself. But Koons also insists on being an artist, not a designer, and one should never listen too much to anything an artist says. Meaning is not exclusively inscribed by him, and it still exists. Even if Jeff Koons never intended his work as subversive, it could be analysed as such, if it uncovers facts and mechanics that otherwise would pass unnoticed.
As usual, the exhibition starts with a text. Providing an overview on life and work, Centre Pompidou describes the Luxury and Degradation series from 1983 as “(exploring) the strategies of advertising”. On the opposite wall, much bigger letters announce the sponsors who made this show happen. If only we could be sure, they saw the irony.
Koons’ commerce commenced back in 1980 with readymade vacuum cleaners and other household objects. More precisely, thanks to added neon tubes and plastic cases these works must be ranged somewhere between readymade and assemblage. The Centre Pompidou makes the link to Dan Flavin, but they forget Richard Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, the collage that (more or less) started pop art in 1956, and that prominently features a vacuum cleaner. With Koons there comes the multitude, a robot army to clean up the world and take over the future.
The afore mentioned Luxury and Degradation series consists of enlarged and printed adverts for cars and spirits. We surely don’t want to nitpick over every text in this exhibition, but here the curators claim expensive alcoholic beverages would use abstract images to attract their target group, whereas your common booze accentuated "pastime and seduction". From this they draw a parallel to art that abstract would be intended for a elite audience also. - Being determines drunkenness?
Sadly, the exhibits don’t corroborate the thought. Premixed Gin Tonic in a can seems not intended for the upper ten thousand, yet the ad is abstract: said cans before a landscape of magnified ice cubes. On the other hand, Hennessy is perhaps not the world’s most expensive cognac, yet it is hard to accept a theory suggesting this ad would be aimed at the unemployed steel worker: It features a black couple (in the early 1980s, minorities in advertisement were still avant-garde), him bent over a serious looking tome, and her approaching clad in a hint of nothingness and two glasses. The slogan: “The civilised way to lay down the law”. Indeed, this is "pastime and seduction", but it also screams social climber and upper middle class. Advertising either recreates dreams that are contrary to the target’s life in order to make them appear attainable by buying a product; or it recreates the target’s life for that he may recognise himself in the product. There is few to support the first option in the given case: it simply is “not rich enough”, much too distinguished and too much focusing on social ascent through education (just compare it to a perfume of today that in name valuing a million aims for the poor in mind, money and style). The other exhibits equally contradict Pompidou’s thesis. It seems not too farfetched to presume that pure Gin in bottles is more expensive, and the renowned producer more concerned about social standing, than those longdrink cans. Yet, the bottle is promoted with a non-abstract beach scene. And ever so forth. There is nothing that could justify the claim of a connection to abstract art being appreciated only by the few – if such a connection exists, it is definitley not evident here.
More interesting is the lie that underlies each and every ad for alcohol. If you’d be honest you’d show a scene of debauchery (“F... the taste, our stuff will get you wasted in half the time”), but common hypocrisy bans Dionysian pleasures from open admission. Instead, advertising creates its own, personal, delirium tremens. No matter if intended or not, Jeff Koons’ presentation exposes the lie. In front of these posters we are more inclined to ask if it is necessarily a good idea for a lawyer to lay down his work and have a drink – could this result in his client being sent on death row? – than when actively ignoring them in a journal.
Advertising also plays a role in another early series. Starting from Nike ads with Moses Malone mimicking his biblical namesake, Jeff Koons shows how “jersey is the new cassock”. Professional sport has long become a full scale religion, with its own messiahs, miracles, and confessional wars. Let there be Basketballs walking not over, but free-floating in water, a priestly deceit set up by science and an able creator.
Ads pumped up to posters, sport to religion, Koons should pursue the idea in the following years. As early as 1978, he had converted inflatable toy animals to art. Much later followed the same aesthetics in steel, and finally in bronze. No clown could handle these "balloons". Image and aesthetics, are independent of technique and material. This is actually art history inversed, where bronze came before steel and plastic. And it is symbolic for an artist’s career: In the beginning, he offers something visually new and everybody knows it’s just a lot of hot air. Pinch it and the bubble will burst. But he perseveres, and it gets more and more solid on the inside without a change on the outside. And finally you would only hurt yourself by trying to kick it aside.
A different type of sculpture looks like supersized Kinder Surprise™ toys, such the effigy of the contending king of pop Michael Jackson and Bubbles or more classical Buster Keaton as Don Quixote. It takes a second look to identify the Bear and Policeman as not the same beast whose film posters are littering the city these days (no offense, I'm sure it's a good movie). Made from porcelain and wood respectively, the technique cannot easily be told from the outside. Surface covers, but does not eliminate, content. The seemingly light and superficial may prove heavy and relevant by closer inspection.
Himself an avid collector of old masters’ paintings, Jeff Koons is well versed in art history. The past is ever present in his work, most obvious in a bronze Hulk covered in organ pipes. In terms of cultural significance, a cartoon superhero is equivalent to a Baroque crucifix, a Roman emperor or a Greek god. And so is a lobster, symbol of decadence, a poodle. The trivial became art at the same time as history turned to the stories of the small life instead of merely registering the succession of rulers. In times of the plural, “Culture” is no longer a normative, but a descriptive term. Koons' most recent works are replicas of antique statues – and also a less historical but soon out-dated engine - decorated with a blue ball. Is this a metaphor for the inspirational spark, the extra, the mystery, or if you prefer, the glitter, the defacement? Art always stays the same, but different.
A society that is obsessed with entertainment and childhood could not find an icon more suiting than Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog. – On the occasion of this show, he <strike>created</strike> licensed it for the use on a cheap retailer's handbag. It is officially sold out, but a quick glance at eBay reveals that not many buyers are intending to keep it. Market strategies, once again. – Koons’ art all reflects the state of things, no less truthful than renaissance church painting. His plastic/steel/bronze inflatables quite literally mirror the viewer, in the end, it’s all about portrait-making. The idea reaches its climax with a set of actual mirrors in the shape of cartoon characters (the very act of identifying them as such tells a lot about visual patterns).
Speaking of climaxes, a closed room holds photographical documentation of Jeff Koons in close council with Italian member of parliament Ilona Staller. In other words, the Made in Heaven series created with his then wife, adult film star La Cicciolina (the ‘80s, female, version of Il Cavaliere). Ok, why not.
Jeff Koons, Centre Pompidou, 26 November 2014-27 April 2015