The Centre Pompidou museum is dedicating a retrospective exhibition to Jeff Koons, today’s highest rated contemporary artist. A hundred works are on display in the magnificent space assigned to them.
With his smooth smile, like his works set in stainless steel or granite, Jeff Koons, the Super (Business) Man, does not seem real. This cool perfection, oscillating between heaven and celebration, is a reflection of the creator: impervious to criticism which flows over it like water on Donald Duck’s feathers. At a time when criticism has become the supreme judge, when those who don’t pass judgment don’t exist, the oeuvre of Koons attempts to escape such disapproval. His art is totally smooth; it is utmost perfection, yet a source of anguish and questioning in our society of excessive consumerism, images and fleeting stars, where everything is levelled, erased, a glorification of uniform and consensual thinking.
Warhol, Dali, Duchamp…
The last prince of Pop Art, with a workforce of more than one hundred people, Jeff Koons is often compared to Warhol, but their ideas are different. The works of his predecessor were steeped in sarcasm. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it,” Warhol would explain. In contrast, Koons describes his sculptures as, “a panoramic view of society”. What do they tell us today? That we glorify mirages? That we prostrate ourselves before fake gods, referring to his Michael Jackson and Bubbles in gold-leaf plated porcelain? That we sanitize everything that reminds us of the passage of time, relentlessly. Could that just be nothing but hot air? The Inflatables, whether his superheroes or giant lobster in homage to Dali’s Lobster Telephone, are proof of Duchamp’s influence. The purpose of his photographs (which were designed in the 1990s, a decade when sex was equated to disease) showing him in the company of Cicciolina, who later became his wife, is to remove our inhibitions with regard to sexual desire. Impressed by Masaccio’s painting depicting Adam and Eve covering their naked bodies in a gesture of shame as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden, Koons sublimes nudity, the symbol of purity and privilege of the gods over men who are guilty and forced to wear clothes. The works of recent years are inspired by Antiquity: the proportions are perfect and the figures so well known that our brains are no longer able to distinguish any subtle differences. Koons adds a blue sphere in Murano glass acting as a mirror to the world.
Banality and scarcity
Jeff Koons grew up in Pennsylvania, surrounded by neutral objects, a by-product of his father’s profession as interior decorator. He honed his drawing skills by copying the old masters. His early paintings were inspired by his dreams (Jung) and surrealism until he met Dali at 18 years of age (in 1973), with a dramatic impact on the way he would think about art. He got to know Duchamp through his art teacher and began using everyday objects. He created his first ready-made which were Hoover vacuum cleaners; exhibited at the Illeana Sonnabend gallery in New York and began working on his public image. According to him, to be an artist does not mean that one has to do physical work, in the style of Pollock, but has to come up with an idea and give it shape using the best available techniques. A workshop in Germany produces the steel sculptures, another in Bavaria makes the wooden ones, the Pennsylvania workshop handles granite and he commissions his blue Gazing Balls from Murano glassmakers. Nothing is left to chance and everything has to remain scarce. Somewhat comparable to that of Rubens, his studio produces no more than thirty works in a year which are immediately snapped by collectors. The prices paid for his works have kept rising since the turn of the century: Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 2.1 million dollars in 2001; Popeye, 28 million dollars (Sotheby’s); Tulip, 33.7 million dollars; Balloon Dog Orange, 58 million dollars (Christie’s) in 2013… And Koons got what he wanted: the critics were unanimous after the retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NY. If we gaze at the famous Balloon Dog, we will see in it a typically American consumer product, we will see vacuum, emptiness. But if we look closer, we will also see ourselves reflected in the steel, a mirror image of ourselves, our civilisation, our futility. Like the 17th-century vanities, the works of Koons also invite us to question the value of life and our own judgment, which the granite and steel sculptures will outlive…
Jeff Koons, the retrospective
Centre Pompidou, gallery 1, level 6
Until 27 April 2015