This summer’s hat trick of Jeff Koons shows stood in strange contrast to his low profile over the past four years. In 2008, just five days before the Lehmann Brothers crash, Koons became the first contemporary artist to open a major exhibition at the Château de Versailles. His show at the Liebieghaus, succinctly titled The Sculptor, echoed Versailles insofar as it was based on a confrontation between his sculptures and a historical context. But what set 2012 and 2008 apart soon became clear: the permanent sculpture collection at the Liebieghaus is not an ostentatious display of absolutist rule, but a treasure chamber of art history stretching back millennia.
In this setting, Koons’s golden ceramic Michael Jackson and Bubbles_(1988) met with partially gold-plated ancient Egyptian mummies and death masks; the breathtakingly fluid chrome surface of _Metallic Venus (2010–12) from Koons’s latest series Antiquity (2009–ongoing) encountered a Renaissance statue of Venus; the Pink Panther (1988), clinging helplessly to the front of a semi-naked pin-up girl, faced off with Johann Heinrich von Dannecker’s classicist Ariadne on the Panther (1803–14); and Koons’s painted wooden sculptures from the Banality series (1988) were combined with altar carvings and medieval sculptures of saints. The message of these arrangements was clear: instead of cheekily equating Koons’s art with the hegemonic interior of the Ancien Régime, his oeuvre was now to be put in its proper place within academic discourse. This art historical argument claims to identify in his elaborate objects the same major themes that have prevailed since ancient Egypt: beauty, transience, representation, the human form and sex. The alignment of the Antiquity series with classical Greek motifs followed the same line of argument. But however precisely Koons’s sculptures were inserted into their alleged historical habitat and however perfectly the incunabula of art history were mirrored in their chrome surfaces, the overall strategy still felt glibly calculating.
Things were no better at the Schirn Kunsthalle, where the second part of the Frankfurt presentation, titled The Painter, focused exclusively on the artist’s paintings. Most of these works have been made since the beginning of the Celebration series in 1994, alongside and on equal footing with the sculptures. In his more recent series Popeye (2003–ongoing), Hulk Elvis (2007–ongoing) and Antiquity, hotchpotch compositions – for the most part designed on the computer and then realized using a complex painting-by-numbers procedure – are punctuated by the comic figures and motifs presented as sculptures in the Liebieghaus show. Together with the kids’ birthday and gift-wrap motifs of Celebration, these works dominated the exhibition space. Koons’s paintings may reflect the zeitgeist by portraying the cut-and-paste culture of Photoshop and the depth-less space of the Internet; far less timely was the artist’s insistence on enhancing their value with handwork, although assistants did the fiddly painting job.
Prominent among the few convincing works in the show were the prints of advertisements for spirits from the Luxury & Degradation series (1986). Faced with these overblown renderings of commercial graphics, visitors got a brief glimpse of a different Koons, who played in a more ambivalent way with the affirmation of glamour, commerce and pop. More of these subtler works would have been welcome, more of the reflexive marketing tricks that reveal Koons as the unloved father and historical precursor of a more recent art that continues to critique the market in marketable forms. It would have been good to see the artist not only as The Sculptor and The Painter but also as The Trickster – although there was no room for such an ambiguous role in the oddly strict curatorial categories of painting and sculpture.
The Fondation Beyeler told quite a different story. This exhibition – Koons’s first museum show in Switzerland – was soberer: devoted more to an appraisal of the artist’s oeuvre than to art historical grand narratives and rigid media categories. Arranged in strictly chronological order, the show began with the absolute highlight of this year’s Koons bonanza: a comprehensive presentation of his first large series, The New (1980–87): plain glass vitrines containing vacuum cleaners, floor polishers and carpet shampooers, lit by rows of neon tubes. This presentation echoed the first one of this series in 1980 in a window display at New York’s New Museum. The foundation added another historical touch with the lightbox The New Jeff Koons (1980), which showed a photograph of Koons as a child with crayons and a colouring book.
According to the wall labels, Koons’s themes of the pure, the new and the childlike – combined with their exploitability as commodities – emerged for the first time in this series. Here, the artist achieves his typical heightening of the banal and the ordinary by simply lighting the objects with shop-bought neon tubes – not by means of fastidious perfection, as manifest in later works. This artistic device itself is banal, yet this banality may be why these works still feel fresh and timely, in contrast to the outrageously expensive meta-craftsmanship of later Koons products. Much credit is due to the Basel show for giving such a prominent place to these works (alongside the usual Koons icons from the Celebration and Banality series). It presented a different Koons to the one most people are familiar with: one whose air-filled works can literally breathe. They are far removed from solidifying into the chrome and steel grotesqueries of the cast inflatable dogs and rubber animals of later years which facilitated the artist’s rise to the position of pet artist for a global caste of super-collectors.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell