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Jeff Koons arrives at the Pompidou Centre this week with a show that packed the Whitney Museum through the summer and more or less vanquished critical judgment in New York. The exhibition, masterfully curated by Scott Rothkopf, is crisp, clear, absurd, spectacular, dull, numbing, repulsive. It includes paintings of Play-Doh and Popeye, porn sculptures in purple glass, a polychrome wooden “Poodle” and a porcelain Pietà, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988), featuring a golden, larger-than-life singer and pet monkey, each with desperate grin and deadened eyes.
This is the Pompidou’s standout piece, the only one with a whiff of emotional resonance, and the emblem which fixes Koons as a siren of the 1980s age of Mammon. He has done nothing original since. All the same, this show matters: defiantly vacuous, Koons’s feats of monumental mirrored artifice from the past two decades scream out questions about the forces – financial, social, technological – that make his art the most recognisable and expensive in the world.
A three-metre orange “Balloon Dog”, a painted stainless steel take on the inflatable canine twisted into being at children’s parties, sold last year for $58.4m, the record for a living artist. The Pompidou shows a magenta version, its flawless surfaces icily reflecting those of a giant blue “Moon” and red “Hanging Heart” from the same “Celebration” series, begun in 1994. All are loaned from a French collection – that of billionaire François Pinault.
Nevertheless, Paris is not Manhattan, and a key interest here is how Koons’s global brand comes up against history. As it happens, a landmark Duchamp show is running next door to Koons’s retrospective within the Pompidou, also home to Brancusi’s atelier. So the super-shiny “Rabbit”, a cast of an inflatable plastic bunny that in 1986 launched Koons’s entire metallic zoo, goes head-to-head with Brancusi’s streamlined, polished bird sculptures, which it parodies. Similarly, the pristine vacuum cleaners enclosed, virginal and inviolable, in Plexiglas, such as “New Hoover Convertible”, with their suggestive sucking orifices and inflated tubes – the series that made Koons’s name in 1980 – take their place as found-object descendants of Duchamp’s curvaceous “Fountain” and phallic-spiked “Bottle-rack”, and stand in relation too to his erotically chilly, unavailable Bride in “The Large Glass”.
The context counts because Rothkopf proposes that “one could tell nearly the whole story of Koons’s art through the lens of the ready-made”. He begins in 1979 with actual inflatable toys mounted on mirrors and the gleaming “Toaster”, attached to a neon wall: clever fusions of minimalism – Smithson, Judd, Flavin – with post-pop glitz, which already demonstrate Koons’s flair for what Rothkopf calls “amplifying an object’s quiddity through a framing device even more puissant than a pedestal”.
For the rest of his career, Koons elaborated that gesture: exaggerating the aura of cheap, ordinary things, aggrandising them into works of art in increasingly expensive materials, and proffering them back to the one per cent as ultimate positional goods. This is the ready-made on capitalist steroids: Duchamp’s anti-market move of “Fountain” transformed at a stroke into commodity aesthetics.
The Pompidou unfolds the ironic drama of excess and simulation with which Koons, in the 1980s, developed successive series of hyper-realised, fake-fabricated found objects, each launched with advertising campaign-style posters: the stainless steel “Baccarat Crystal Set” and “Ice Bucket” from “Luxury and Degradation”; “Louis XIV”, copy of a copy of a royal bust from “Statuary”; the grotesquely enlarged dime-store ornaments of a pig ushered in by angels and “Bear and Policeman” from “Banality”.
Did Koons learn, from a spell working as a Wall Street trader, to unfold these limited-edition trinkets as the latest commodities, escalating costs for the deluxe fabrication with each series like so many speculative ventures? Or did his instinct to sanctify the kitsch and cloying emerge from memories of his father’s home decor store, Henry J Koons Decorators, where, Rothkopf recounts, “he witnessed first-hand the power of merchandise to tell stories and seduce”.
Certainly, as this show progresses into the 21st century, it is clear that Koons’s summons to regression (“the highest state of being is acceptance”) depends on increasingly stale appeals to infantile taste. Trix Rabbit eyeing the sundae in “Loopy”, from the humdrum “Easyfun-Ethereal” photorealist collages, or a polychrome aluminium “Lobster”, whose every crimp, seam and pucker reinforces the illusion of its weightless pool-toy model, evoke that prelapsarian childhood world, before discrimination set in.
As the market has endorsed and enriched him, Koons has swollen, in his two latest series “Antiquity” and “Gazing Ball”, into the most tedious self-imitation. “Balloon Venus” blends his own inflatables lexicon with the archaic forms of the Venus of Willendorf. Outsize plaster replicas of classical figures – “Farnese Hercules”, “Ariadne” – bearing bright balloon-like glass spheres are destined, no more and no less than the garden ornaments they incorporate, for manicured suburban lawns.
“He says, if you’re critical, you’re already out of the game,” announced Koons’s dealer David Zwirner when these repetitive follies launched last year. Dollar power goes some way to explaining why Koons’s smooth sales-speak – “when people make judgments, they close all the possibility around them” – is not seen for what it is: a reversal of the spirit of intellectual openness that has allowed art to flourish since the Enlightenment. And of course it is obvious why Koons, like any entrepreneur boasting a luxury monopoly, directs his factory to produce a controlled stream of high-end, high-tech baubles. Less obvious is why this trading currency for the super-rich should interest the rest of us, or why museums and critics are endorsing it.
According to the Pompidou, Koons is “l’artiste le plus radical de son époque”. Reviewing the Whitney show, the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl called Koons “the signal artist of today’s world”, adding that “if you don’t like that, take it up with the world”. In this reading, Koons is beyond critique: a realist for an age that has shed idealism or hope. Rothkopf similarly concludes that Koons’s works “take as much as they can from the world in which we live and offer in return a powerful picture of it. We could ask for more from art, but I doubt that we will find it.”
Oh yes we will: down the escalator at Duchamp or Brancusi for a start. Everything banished from Koonsland – eloquence and experiment, mystery and meaning, poetry and tragedy, delicacy and doubt – comes to life here.
So does another truth about Koons. What he really shares with the thwarted voyeuristic narratives of Duchamp’s “Large Glass” and “Etant Donnés” is not inventiveness or anarchy but – from the untouchable vacuum cleaners in 1980 to the frigid “Gaze-Balls” in 2013 – a leitmotif of frustration, sexual and economic. He shows what happens when money and celebrity become yardsticks for culture. It is not a pretty sight.
Jeff Koons, Pompidou Centre, Paris, to April 27, centrepompidou.fr
Photographs: Jeff Koons/Gagosian Gallery