Paris seems an appropriate city to showcase the work of Jeff Koons. Not just because his work brings to mind the pyramids of sugary macaroons in patisserie windows, or the colourful extravaganza that is the architecture of the Pompidou centre itself: I am thinking of the parallels that are consistently drawn between Koons’ found inflatables and the king of the readymade, Marcel Duchamp (the latter was very recently the subject of another Pompidou retrospective). The first room of the Jeff Koons show features his early inflatables alongside some rather sleek vacuum cleaners and scaled-down versions of billboard advertisements: his approach to consumer culture and industrial products is Duchamp, quite literally, blown up. For is that not what has happened to the art world since Duchamp attempted to turn it against itself? Rather than buckle beneath the mocking tones of DADA and all the conceptual work that has come along since, the canon of art history has thrived off, even made cliche, the notion of the readymade. People are quite noticeably getting filthy rich off of it – Koons included, as the market continually drives up the prices of objects we wouldn’t look twice at outside a museum context. Is this absurd, or brilliant, or both? Whatever your opinion on this ultra-glamorisation of the art world, this Koons retrospective proves that he knows exactly how to exploit this glamour and use it to sell completely banal subject matter, in a move that is perhaps closer to another cliche – that is, Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, he also taps into the world of celebrity, as in ‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles,’ perhaps his most notoriously ugly sculpture.
Meanwhile, his ‘Cat on a Clothesline’ sculpture, resembling a Lisa Frank sticker that has taken steroids (becoming, much like his Incredible Hulk inflatable, the monster to his Frankenstein), is so hideous that you cannot help but want to exclaim how beautiful it is. We can scoff at its ‘poor taste’ but at the same time, we eat it up as happily as if it were that tower of macaroons. Even his explicitly pornographic sculptures and photographs look like they belong in Versailles, and it is no coincidence that Koons has already exhibited there too. He flattens out the divide between expensive and ordinary tastes and renders them equally obscene. A kitsch purist such as myself might disagree with the conflation of money with elevation (nothing truly kitsch would need to pose as ‘high art’ to become popular, as its availability to the masses is what make kitsch inherently popular). But it is hard not to maintain a sick and hypocritical fascination with the process that keeps Koons laughing all the way to the bank. He shows us an ugly side to ourselves, but it’s so much fun that we don’t even care.
Jeff Koons is on show at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, until 27 April 2015, . Entry € 13, € 10 TR / Package provides access to all the temporary exhibitions and permanent collections.