Jeff Koons’ Big Bunch of Banality

Review: 'Bunch of Tulips,' Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons and friend / Getty Images

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On November 13, 2015, Islamic terrorists stormed the Bataclan, Paris’ storied concert hall. In a hail of bullets they murdered 89 people and injured scores of others. The violence was part of a coordinated attack at several sites in the city; in all, 130 people died in France’s deadliest massacre since the Second World War.

After the killings, there were the candlelight vigils, the laying of wreaths, the uttering of slogans, the lighting of candles, the laying of mounds of flowers, and the solidarity arm-in-arm marches, the all-too-familiar ritualized mourning in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe. These, the mayor of London now tells us, are a "reality" that London, New York, and other big cities around the world "have got to be prepared for." In other words, the new normal.

In wake of the Bataclan vigils, French authorities collected the banners, flowers, candles, and other memorabilia for preservation, while an organization called the Association Génération Bataclan, solicited, with decidedly mixed results, designs for a permanent memorial to be built sometime in the future.

On the first anniversary of the carnage, President François Hollande unveiled a memorial plaque and the rock star Sting commemorated the event with a concert (featuring "Petrol Head" and "Inshallah") on the same stage stormed by the killers just a year earlier.

But the then-American ambassador to France and Monaco, the Honorable Jane D. Hartley, felt that there needed to be something bigger, something more au courant, but not anything usually associated with those boring memorials to dead people from the past.

So she proposed Bouquet of Tulips, a $3 million, 34-feet high, 27-feet wide, 36-ton bronze stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons slated for a space near the city’s Museum of Modern Art.

Exactly why Hartley thinks she is the arbiter of such a memorial for the citizens of France is unclear. Did she, one wonders, consult with the victims’ families or even think about raising the $3 million to help the survivors?

The left wing Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was over the moon about the Koons: "The capital of France," she enthused, "will be happy to welcome the iconic work Bouquet of Tulips, which is intended to become part of Paris heritage." (This raises the question of how exactly a sculpture can become iconic before it’s made.)

Bouquet of Tulips is a gigantic forearm and hand (Koons says it "references [sic] the hand of the Statue of Liberty holding the torch") clutching a bunch of pastel green, pink, yellow, blue and white balloon tulips—not exactly the sort of thing that springs to mind when one thinks about the Bataclan killings.

Ambassador Hartley told National Public Radio that Koons agreed to donate the design, but the cost for the making and installing of the sculpture would have to be found elsewhere. (Bouquet of Tulips is not even an original design; rather it’s a modified copy of a $33 million Koons piece that Steve Wynn bought in 2012 that now resides in his casino in Macau.)

The choice of Jeff Koons is not surprising. He’s the fashionable darling of elite critics and art dealers who have promoted his work for years, and he has made a fortune from it.

For example, Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58 million, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. His aggregated sales over the last decade amount to over $600 million, or roughly twice the amount of his nearest competitor, and many times more than his priciest contemporaries.

Koons’ works are found in many of the most prestigious museums in this country including the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. In 2014, he was given a major show at New York’s Whitney Museum, a tastemaker, no matter how dubious, of contemporary art. Koons is the establishment artist of the rich and famous of the 21st century, much in the way Frank Gehry is the "starchitect" du jour.

Like Gehry, Koons is also a much sought after commercial brand. A recent advertisement in the Wall Street Journal for Oceana, a condo building in Bal Harbour (the British spelling tells you it’s a classy place), Florida, features a photo of Koons’ Ballerina (Seated). "THE ART IS IN THE RESIDENCE," the advert proclaims. There is "a striking similarity" between the condos and "the [two] Jeff Koons sculptures we have on site." Just to be sure prospective buyers get the point, they are told, "Both are remarkably contemporary and highly sought after."

But Koons’ star power attraction is not limited to condo buyers or museum curators. Plenty of savvy bankers, realtors, and investors have lapped up his work (sometimes buying them before they are finished) because their dealers convince them that they are brilliant financial investments, and the critics tell them that his sculptures are masterpieces.

It’s true there are some dissenters, none more perceptive than the maverick Australian critic Robert Hughes, who wrote that he decided to put Jeff Koons in his "The New Shock of the New" TV series "not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks." Hughes nails it when he writes that Koons "really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it."

The example par excellence is billionaire Eli Broad, who has drunk deeply of the Koons Kool-Aid. His namesake Los Angeles museum has over 30 of his sculptures in its collection, including one of his most famous works, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a life sized, garish, bright gold and white ceramic confection of the pop star and his pet monkey that Hughes terms "syrupy, gross, and numbing."

There are other freakish things in Koons’ oeuvre, but none more notorious than his Made in Heaven series. These are huge color photographs of the artist and the porn star La Cicciolina, his then-wife (and a former member of the Italian parliament), engaged in graphically depicted sex acts. Individual photographs from the series sold for nearly half a million dollars.

But Koons claims an artistic heritage that extends even beyond Michelangelo. He told Le Figaro that Bouquet of Tulips "has nothing to do with current events, and everything to do with American values." The sculpture, he added, "transcends the present moment and reaches back to older times, a longer history that goes from Greek antiquity up to today, beyond events that are by their very nature temporary." Whatever that means.

What Koons and his patron fail to understand is that a great memorial should be an exclamation point, not a question mark. It should stir the observer’s emotions and intellect, prompting contemplation about what or who is being remembered. Above all, it should honor those whom it memorializes.

Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial climb a long, broad flight of steps leading to a colonnade of classical columns through which they glimpse the monumental statue of the martyred president, or they somberly read the names of the fallen in the mirror-like black granite surface of the mournful Vietnam Memorial. Although worlds apart in form and content, these memorials work.

Koons’ design for the Bataclan memorial lacks all these essential elements. It is contentless, ahistorical, lightweight, and just plain silly. Not an iota of feeling, contemplation, sorrow, or even the knowledge of what happened at the Bataclan will be engendered by Bouquet of Tulips. If ambassador Hartley succeeds in funding Koons’ folly, she will leave Paris with an emoji instead of a memorial.

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