Koons, the guru of bliss or Little Prince of contemporary art? Naughty or nice? Liar, vile merchant or nice artist?
When you arrive in Bilbao in the middle of the night, your gaze is mainly drawn to Gehry’s exploded building, with its silver metal wings, softly glowing in the night. Then, there is the huge Puppy, covered in flowers for the occasion, quietly sitting at the museum entrance.
The Jeff Koons retrospective that opened at the Guggenheim in Bilbao is the same as the one shown at the Centre Pompidou a few months ago. In the rooms of the Spanish museum, large-size works are at ease. It works. Space and art. There is ample room to breathe. Jeff Koons in person leads the tour. As usual, he is wearing a tailored grey suit, a thin tie and a big smile. Moving from one work to another, he speaks in a soft voice, delivering a well-oiled speech that we had already heard at the Almine Rech Gallery in 2012; he likes to pose for photographers, lies down under his lobster for a cool photo, autographs press copies of his catalogue for journalists and does not refuse a selfie. A nice guy. Really.
Koons moves crowds. His works are accessible to all; they are smooth, colourful, presenting a clear and simple shape. “Enjoy” the artist seems to say. You, the rich collector, you, the passer-by, you, the unsuspecting visitor, look, here, everything is beautiful, colourful, cheerful and uncomplicated. You can only love it. Love.
In the world of Jeff Koons animals do not die and bloom again in spring. The women are young, sexy, curvy, like Cicciolina, his first wife. Sex is frontal, without complex or erection problems, easily accessible and without privacy. Beach toys are huge, inflated to the limit, heavy, coloured, cheerful; classical sculptures are painted white, without rough edges, topped with a blue gilded glass sphere; Michael Jackson is frozen and gilded in fine porcelain; flower bouquets never wilt.
What do all these works embody? Uninhibited pleasure? Today’s world? Koons asks us this question: could art be that promise of happiness for all? Koons invites us to enjoy, to each live our own success story, based on the model of his own. Koons, promoting happiness for all? He keeps repeating it: “You have to believe in yourself, be positive, follow your instincts. This self-acceptance programme allows us to reach a higher state of consciousness, to accept others, and cease to be prone to judgement and criticism.”
The illusion of hedonism
Far from artists who like self-criticism, sarcasm or to criticise the world as it is, Koons likes to show us a society free from any conflict. To achieve that, he produces art devoid of any ideological programme and major utopias. “By challenging the critical function that modernism gives to art, Koons also denounces the famous self-criticism which every medium is supposed to undergo, calling into question the familiar motifs, constantly creating new shapes… Koons pushes art towards what Theodor W. Adorno calls with obvious contempt the Kulturindustrie, the culture of “kitschy” trinkets, cartoons, pornography, you name it…” He is quite frank about it: “Art must have as much impact as the entertainment industry, films, pop music and advertising industries,” Bernard Blistène writes in the catalogue.
In this development of what we can already call an illusion, the idea that it is possible to create an art without ideology, Koons in fact creates an ideology: that of art that is everything and for everyone, without roots or negative aspects.
Yes, but how?
Here and there, Koons takes objects and styles, sticking them together. For his large paintings, he starts with a collage of bits of pictures found in newspapers. Digitised, they all contribute to the creation of an image which is itself enlarged, and then re-divided, since it is reproduced pixel by pixel by a team of painters, using colour mixtures obtained in the huge workshop. So, the process involves: taking, digesting, decomposing, fractioning and joining.
Same thing for the sculptures, whose design and development takes more than two years. The world of Koons is smooth and without roughness, the surfaces of his works are shiny and polished. The visitor can see his reflection in them. What do we see reflected in those empty, hollow surfaces, without inner life? The world’s fear, its deathly vacuum?
To provide the public with works without criticism and which cannot be criticised: is this the recipe this little prince of contemporary art has concocted to be happy. And successful? And make a lot of money? And what if, through all this optimism, what we are given to see is his own vertigo, his own violence which sanitises everything? And what if the real oeuvre were this artistic performance that is the amazing journey of Koons in the world of art, his works sold at staggering prices to ecstatic collectors via delighted galleries – this whole show? Or maybe he is the first to be convinced by his system which works like a flashy toy in a perfect world?
Is Koons sometimes sad and anxious? Ask him the question: he dodges it every time. He quotes Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but it’s yet another ploy. Can one live without showing some darkness? And if so, where do you store it?
Koons also says: “The discovery of Dali helped me to start as an artist and to believe in myself. At 18, I had the chance to meet him in New York. He was impeccably dressed. He liked to give the impression that you were living the most important moment of your life.” Koons, the 21st-century Dali? In any case, Koons is happy; he does not hide it and loves to share. The riddle has yet to be solved. The Pandora’s box remains closed. This must suit him.
Jeff Koons:the retrospective
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
Until 27 September