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Jeff the First, the new Sun King, and his courtiers

In my previous post on Paul McCarthy's huge, inflatable sculpture running amok, I referenced the rabbit balloon by Jeff Koons that was in last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The original stainless steel Rabbit (1986) that it was modeled after will soon be the centerpiece of a Koons exhibition at Versailles, in both the château and its surrounding gardens, to run from September 10 through December 14.

The show is an expansion of an existing program, "Versailles Off", that has previously displayed contemporary art on the palace grounds for a two day run. But the Koons exhibition is much more adventurous and certainly a more expensive project, lasting three months and requiring many man hours of installation. Over a dozen pieces will be shown. The famous topiary Puppy (1992) that would seem to be a natural for the gardens will not be recreated. A more likely outdoor work will be Split-Rocker (2000), a sculpture which consists of tens of thousands of flower pots, incidentally owned by French billionaire François Pinault (more to come on this association).

Other works will include Balloon Dog (Magenta) and Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold). The latter set the record at auction in 2007, $23.6 million, as the highest price paid for a work by a living artist. What can we mere mortals offer when confronted with such a figure, except to cry out from the audience: "L'opulence! Toujours l'opulence!" And what might Koons say, in emulation of Louis XIV, the Sun King and builder of Versailles, except: "Le prix, c'est moi!"

Will Michael Jackson and Bubbles make the cut? What about an equilibrium tank with basketballs? This digital montage shows how Lobster might look installed in such august surroundings. Homage, homard!

Cries of betrayal, accusations of anachronism and vulgarity, and of the desecration of history, come from expected sectors of the cultural sphere - the preservationists, conservative historians and other Gaullist remnants - who are visibly and vocally outraged, as only the French can be. Typical in this regard is Edouard de Royère, a principal patron of the Palais. "I am not against contemporary art but I am absolutely shocked at its descent on Versailles, a magical, sacred place ... Even for three months, Jeff Koons at Versailles is a mistake."

And even now, in the age of Sarkozy and globalization, when America is no longer supposed to be viewed as a cultural bogeyman, there is still: The Horror! It's as if Eurodisney decamped en masse upon Versailles. (Actually, the two are geographically close, with the House of Mouse just about as far from the center of Paris, but off in another direction). And let's go one step further. Try to imagine the crescendo of outrage were Paul McCarthy to replace Koons, plopping his inflatable merde right in the middle of the precisely manicured gardens. That would be very entertaining.

All this reactionary fuss, and its Ancien Régime advocates, would endear us to Koons, and even place him in an unexpected role of underdog. But then we have to hear his glib apologia offered for undertaking an exhibition at Versailles. Contemporary art, he states, "is so imprisoned in the present that juxtaposing new works with old ones allows you to rediscover a connection between history and the history of art. The baroque is the ideal context for me to highlight the philosophical nature of my work."

Which might lead me to inquire: If contemporary art is in fact "imprisoned" in some era, when would that not be the present? But it seems Koons is already far beyond such temporal constraints, and quite eager to commune with the pantheon, to assume the apotheosis of the ages. I say, if it comes, let it come, but don't rush it. Don't court it so assiduously. Otherwise we might detect an unwholesome whiff of ego, and witness delusions of grandeur no artist should publicly acknowledge.

I enjoy Koons' work, his personal achievement as a bright, shiny object in the firmament, even his devolution (or depending on your orientation, his elevation) to the status of kitsch meister. The institutional imprimatur of Versailles ratifies his position as the embodiment of a baroque impulse in contemporary art: for his inclusive, faux innocent embrace of neo-pop aesthetics; for his exaggerations and dislocations of scale and context; and for the way his celebrity status runs concomitant with larger marketplace issues, with an ever more convoluted and expanding arts economy. He is, if you will, the advent of post modern baroque, combining mass cultural fame and strategies of appropriation to synergistic effect. As with Warhol, we can hardly separate the projected persona of the artist from the actual, physical body of work.

But the star making spectacle, the machinery of patronage clicking into place behind Koons, makes it clear that we are not really talking about art anymore. We are confronting the brute imperatives of money and power. This is hardly a revelation. But consider one piece, Balloon Dog (Magenta), shown below in 2007, wagging its tail outside the Palazzo Grassi, the contemporary art museum in Venice owned by Pinault, and at the time managed by Jean-Jacques Aillagnon. This piece will soon be seen at the Salon d'Hercule as part of the Versailles show, under the management of - guess who? - the self same Aillagnon, who is now president at Versailles. Obviously, the dog just likes to follow him around. I wonder what he feeds it.

Cultural mandarin-ism is not unexpected, and Aillagnon (before Pinault, before Versailles) was culture minister for the whole country. So he is used to wielding aesthetic influence, just as Koons is used to being the recipient of same. Such consensus, manufactured at the highest levels, will inevitably trickle down, and is good for all of us. Because unless we are told what is of value, what to like, and what should command the highest prices at auction, we might be confused, or worse still, think that the appreciation of contemporary art is unduly influenced by a very small elite of the super wealthy and super connected. We might imagine there is corruption or self interest. But, when confronted with such doubts, we have the radiant face and the benign entitlement of Jeff the First to reassure us.

Four Weeks Later

My initial misgivings (posted four weeks ago, on August 15, 2008) about cultural mandarin-ism, the interlocking directorates of the "courtiers" surrounding Jeff Koons, and the various hats worn by Jean-Jacques Aillagon (first culture minister, then François Pinault's employee at Palazzo Grassi, now director at Versailles) were just echoed in reportage from Le Monde via's International News Digest. It seems six of the 17 Koons works at Versailles belong to M. Pinault, who casts a long shadow over this "public" exhibition. The telling comment by M. Pinault to M. Aillagon, about to take over at Versailles: "With all the gardens that you have, you will be able to exhibit my Split-Rocker!" Mais oui! The Artforum text follows.


Jeff Koons’s forthcoming exhibition at the Château de Versailles is not just irritating French cultural purists who would prefer to keep the American king of kitsch off the castle grounds. As Le Monde’s Clarisse Fabre and Emmanuelle Lequeux report, there are now charges of a conflict of interest around the exhibition at the former residence of Louis XIV. The exhibition’s origins go back to Venice in June 2007. “Jean-Jacques Aillagon found himself with his friend the businessman François Pinault,” write Fabre and Lequeux. Aillagon was then responsible for the Palazzo Grassi, where Pinault shows part of his private collection. “Monsieur Aillagon, also the former French minister of culture, was getting ready to take over at the Château de Versailles,” write Fabre and Lequeux. “Pinault then asked him: ‘With all the gardens that you have, you will be able to exhibit my Split-Rocker!’” Koons's Split-Rocker, 2000, is one of seventeen works that will go on display this week inside the castle and on the grounds. Although a former employee of Pinault, Aillagon seems to be doing his old job by including a total of six Koons works from Pinault’s private collection in the Versailles show. That’s not the only problem. Elena Geuna, who is curating the project with the Centre Pompidou's Laurent Le Bon, is an employee of Pinault.

“I find this argument specious and discourteous,” says Aillagon in Geuna’s defense. “Koons’s works have obtained impressive prices well before being exhibited at the Metropolitain a few weeks ago and at Versailles today.” Of course, many of those impressive prices have been reached at Christie’s, which is owned by Pinault’s holding company. The director of the Friends of Versailles, Anémone Wallet, would have liked to have had the chance to make one request to the artist: to create a work that would have deferred the costs of the exhibition, estimated at around $2.7 million. At Versailles, the public purse is paying for around $400,000, while the remaining $2.3 million has been provided by partners, most of whom also happen to be Koons collectors with works in the Versailles exhibition: François Pinault, Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou, and Edgar de Picciotto. coverage of the Versailles opening here.