Jeff Koons | The new Dalí?

A great Jeff Koons exhibition was held in Frankfurt in 2012. The relatively expensive entrance ticket (14 euros) allows the visitor to see 40 Koons paintings at the Schirn gallery of modern art in the centre of the city and visit also the beautiful Liebighaus sculpture museum that is situated on the river Main. There, along with the sculptures by Koons, one can admire the museum’s permanent collection which includes sculptures from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome as well as medieval religious ones and some others.
The new Koons paintings which take up an entire floor of the Schirn are impressive thanks to their size and their shiny colours. The subjects are connected to childhood: swimming-pool toys, comics heroes like Popeye the sailor man, puffy donuts and other sweets. According to the explanations in the leaflet, the childhood themes are a means for the artist to bridge the gap with his son who is away. They are apart due to a legal battle between Jeff Koons, the father, and his ex-wife and mother of his child, the porn star Cicciolina.
If the visitor could isolate these personal stories, he or she could objectively observe these gigantic works depicting apart from the above, some other extraordinary things, like an Greek Orthodox Easter brioche with a red egg in the middle (one guesses that the artist must have spent his Easter holidays in Greece thanks to his friendship with the collector Dakis Ioannou), a flashy jewel and many others.

At one end of the room, a warning sign in front of a false wall tells us that children under 18 are not allowed to see these paintings. A lady who’s come to see the exhibition with her small grandson turns back. I’m able to proceed and see the well-known provocative pictures of the handsome or narcissistic artist and his ex-wife in love scenes. I must admit that although they were taken so many years ago, they are still shocking and fascinating in a strange way, although one realizes that they were made only for commercial reasons. I have already read the biography of the artist who, as a young man, had met Dalí. So I understand that somehow Koons wanted to repeat Dalí’s tricks with Gala, anything that could create some buzz around himself. This series of pictures includes “the silver shoes”, a second picture with the couple surrounded by butterflies, a third one which is a homage to the painter Manet. All this stays with me when I leave the place.
In order to reach Liebighaus I must walk some distance and cross the well-known Frankfurt bridge with the Homeric phrase «Πλέων επί οίνοπα πόντον επ’αλλοθρόους ανθρώπους» (sailing on the wine coloured sea among people speaking strange languages). This makes me think that this is true of me, too, I’m among people who speak strange languages. I take a look at the locks the couples in love have the habit of putting here on the irons of the bridge. The locks have the couples’ initials and some, obviously important to them, date.

I arrive at the Museums’ riverbank. I pass from the telecommunications museum, I admire the stately Staedel and am at the Liebighaus, a beautiful building with a garden. Entering the exhibition, I’m left speechless when along the carved wooden church altars, medieval Crucifixes and sorrowful Pietas, I see the profane Jeff Koons pigs, representing banality. Each room contains works from a different historical era, and with them a Koons sculpture, related or inspired by the old masterpieces. The artist spent a lot of money in order to commission porcelains and marble to the best italian workshops or ask Bavarian and Austrian artisans to make carved wooden pieces for his works. Ever since his youth, he must have been fascinated by the plastical figures of ancient greek and roman statues, by Renaissance, baroque, rococo. His first attempts at art were copies of the works of Great Masters which he had signed «Jeffrey Koons». His father showed them in his store and sold them all. These first copying attempts seem to have given J.K. the idea to alter these glories of the past and turn them into a glamorous “kitch” which he managed to impose on the art world. Also here the visitor is impressed by a gigantic Popeye shining with colours reminding of Christmas ornaments, or by the famous sculpture of Michael Jackson with a monkey, or by an enormous plastic kitten hanging from the clothesline. There’s also a silver coloured bust of Roi Soleil and a new series of sculptures evoking children party balloons shaped like dogs or rabbits. Especially for his exhibition in Germany, Koons is inspired by the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf and gives his own remarkable version.
As I leave the place I can’t help but wonder: what is left inside me of all these loud colours, the enormous sizes, the modern, the kitsch, the mixture of old and new? What is left of the comparison to Dalí? Is today just a very hard working copy of yesterday? Or are my explanations too simplistic? I’ll need some time to ponder upon and give an answer.

First published on 24.08.12