One of the ‘things’ we ‘did’ in Paris (I went to Paris, btw) was go to the Pompidou Centre, because it was recommended and in the guidebooks and it’s a neat building and Andrew and I like going to art galleries. They only had 1 of their 2 galleries open, which meant that we got to see only the most recent bits of modern art (1980s onwards) and the Jeff Koons retrospective, toured there from the Whitney in New York.
We took in the Koons retrospective first; Andrew didn’t really know much about Koons or the controversy surrounding him, and I’d heard enough to greet the entire thing somewhat suspiciously, but with as open a mind as I could muster.
Having just read this excoriation of Koons and this show published in The New York Times last year (good read, check it out), I think my opinion now is the same as when I walked out of the retrospective;Jeff Koons makes pretty delightful work. To explain further: he doesn’t seem to have very much to say, but he’s really interested in saying it in a big way that tries to delight onlookers. This has made him enormously wealthy and famous.
I know that in certain circles, calling it art intended to do no more than delight is a savage criticism, but I wonder if those folks have visited the permanent collection of the Pompidou Centre, not the dadists and surrealists, but the 1980s and beyond stuff? It’s dreary as fuck. It’s art that’s more complex, thoughtful, and even occasionally illuminating, but it’s also generally terribly dull, none of its conceptual nautre benefiting in any way from being realized in a museum (hat tip to Andrew for that observation). Gallery after gallery, so little of the work was playful, or fun, instead exclusively reflecting the darkest parts of the dark decades since the 70s, drawing connections between darknesses, moments of levity often coming only through depravity. It’s impossible not to view it as a counterpoint to Koons’ work from the same period, galleries upon galleries of aggressive and often political work, set against Koons’ outsized tchochkes, toys, and relics. It certainly made a statement.
I was lucky enough to visit an installation at The National Gallery of Canada last year, itself complex, thoughtful, illuminating, and dreary, that was excellent. It’s called …from the Transit Bar, by Vera Frenkel, link here. A functioning dive bar (with alcohol) (I had a bourbon), a working piano, and interviews with various people who’d had to leave their homes for various reasons, played on CRT monitors and TVs around the room. Newspapers in various languages printed, conversations in languages you couldn’t understand, ominously dark, foreboding, and all of it illuminating an experience and a feeling and many, many ideas. A place that you didn’t really like, and you stayed just long enough to figure out where to go next. The remnants of violence everywhere. Powerful stuff. Produced in 1992, roughly the median of the Pompidou collection artworks, this had a similar tone and feeling but was considerably more successful, and successful at imparting ideas about security, about travel, about borders and languages than anything I saw in the Pompidou collection… in particular the many works trying to do just that.
So, yeah, it was very interesting to me to come out of the Koons exhibit, which I’d been told I’d hate (because he’s a shallow, horrible man, and because his work is so thin of premise you could shave with it) and feel kind of elated, a little giddy at it. I kind of want a metal balloon dog for my shelf, or maybe one of those shiny Popeye’s. To then be confronted with reams and reams of work imbued with meaning that were frankly boring and said little that wasn’t painfully obvious, well, shit, I’ll take the reproduction of the 12 foot Hercules with the glass sphere, please.
So, here’s the thesis, at the end instead of the beginning since this is a bit freeform: I think society is in a tough place, and security and comfort are universal needs. We’re being offered security, in the west, primarily through consumerism, and Koons has been aware of that for a long time. Rather than being the angry artist painting Ronald McDonald with a gun and a money bag robbing America, he’s the one enshrining him as the head of our ideals in shiny steel. That’s a repugnant image for many, particularly in the art world, but it’s no less valid a realization of how society views and uses consumerism, and frankly, it’s delightful to look at.
I had a fun time at the Koons exhibit. I left the Pompidou Centre exhausted. Go see the show if you can, it’s worth seeing. Keep an open mind, and a skeptical eye, and skip the gift shop because they don’t have little metal balloon dogs or shiny Popeyes.
P.S.: It’s very difficult for me not to read any sprawling criticism of ‘low art’ see it as a criticism of comics, the lowest of low art and the most commercially compromised art there is, generally. I would’ve introduced this idea into the above, but I haven’t really thoroughly interrogated it yet, so here it is as a postscript.