King Of Kitsch Takes Over Versailles

Koons sculputure at Versailles i i

hide caption"Balloon Dog," a sculpture by U.S. artist Jeff Koons on display at the Chateau de Versailles in Paris.

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
Koons sculputure at Versailles

"Balloon Dog," a sculpture by U.S. artist Jeff Koons on display at the Chateau de Versailles in Paris.

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

The first retrospective exhibit of controversial artist Jeff Koons is on display at Versailles, just outside Paris. In recent years, only a few select works of contemporary artists have been displayed there. Now, Koon's giant red aluminum lobster, vacuum cleaners and floor polishers display and giant balloon dog adorn the palace. Critics are calling it a sullying of French culture and identity.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Pop artist, Jeff Koons has fans of his own and more than a few detractors as well. Now a retrospective of his often controversial art is featured inside the Palace of Versailles in France. Eleanor Beardsley sends us this report on how visitors are responding.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Thanks to the Baroque music piped into loudspeakers discreetly hidden in the hedges, visitors to the gardens of the Chateau of Versailles are plunged into the atmosphere of Louis XIV's France. But inside the Sun King's gilded palace, there's an invasion of modernity that's not pleasing to everyone.

Mr. PAVAL KASHLAROV: Scandalous. We just came here to see the palace. But it's blasphemous - the red plastic lobster in the king's chamber, so this is terrible.

BEARDSLEY: That's Russian tourist Paval Kashkarov(ph) staring with disdain at a large lobster that looks like a swimming pool float hanging from the ceiling in the Mercury Salon. Kashkarov's eyes grow wider as he spots Koons' porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles, displayed next door in the Venus Salon. Seventeen works by Koons, the world's biggest selling living artist, are being exhibited in the royal apartments until December 14th. The exhibit was the idea of palace director Jean-Jacques Aillagon.

Mr. JEAN-JACQUES AILLAGON (Director, Palace of Versailles): (Through Translator) I thought the absolute notoriety of an artist like Jeff Koons could hold its own against the absolute notoriety of Versailles. And I also wanted to see if there was an emotional affinity between this contemporary artist and the palace that Louis XIV left us.

BEARDSLEY: Standing in Versailles' Orangerie shortly after the exhibit opened in September, Koons said he was inspired by the Sun King when he created an 11-ton stainless steel statue, half-donkey, half-dinosaur, covered in 90,000 live plants and flowers. It's called Split-Rocker.

Mr. JEFF KOONS (Artist): I thought this is the type of work that Louis Quatorze would wake up and have a fantasy that he'd want to see and he would tell his staff, and voila! He would come home and in the evening, there would be Split-Rocker.

BEARDSLEY: On the walls of the queen's antechamber hang portraits of Marie Antoinette surrounded by her children. In the middle of the room is Koons' exhibit, Hoover Convertibles, a collection of 1960-style vacuum cleaners. Twenty-one-year-old Solagne Jolie(ph) says the contrast is delightful.

Ms. SOLAGNE JOLIE: (Through Translator) I think it's super. It's a great idea and people don't seem to be too shocked. Anyway, in every era, modern art is controversial.

BEARDSLEY: Whether loved or hated, the exhibit is provoking debate and not just only on the editorial pages.

Mr. MARTIN CHALEI: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: When 25-year-old Frenchman Martin Chalei(ph) tells me he loves Jeff Koons and feels that Louis XIV would have loved him, too, a woman standing nearby shoots back.

Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Well, my daughter is studying French history and that's what we came here to see, she tells Chalei. I've got plenty of awful plastic junk like this in my attic.

Mr. CHALEI: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: That's old France, Chalei assures me, before turning around to tell his neighbor she needs to be more open-minded. Art, he says, is all about exchange. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley at the Palace of Versailles.

SHAPIRO: This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Renee Montagne will be back tomorrow. I'm Ari Shapiro. STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Jeff Koons Has A 'Ta-Da' Moment In Chicago

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Naked ladies, rabbits, basketballs and a big, shiny blue heart are all on display at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, courtesy of American painter, sculptor and artist-provocateur Jeff Koons.

A very successful artist — his shiny blue heart sold for more than $23 million not long ago — Koons is one of the best-known and most popular artists of his generation.

On a recent day, most visitors to the Koons show were smiling, laughing or puzzled.

One person smiling was Andrew Vasalinovich of Chicago.

"I love Jeff Koons," Vasalinovich said. "He's a lot of fun. I like artists [who] encourage a positive outlook on the world."

Among the puzzled was Will Barzhay, who lives near Cincinnati. Will, age 12, was standing in front of Koons' "Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank" — three Spalding basketballs, suspended in distilled water in a rectangular glass box.

"They're just floating," Barzhay said. "It's strange. All he used was a fish tank and a ball."

Koons made the piece in 1985 as part of a series titled "Equilibrium." It featured different numbers of balls suspended in liquid.

"That's just strange," Barzhay said.

Portrait Of The Artist

Also on display is a work titled "The New Jeff Koons." It's a lit-up, blown-up photograph of a small boy with his Crayola set.

In the sepia-toned image, Koons looks to have been about 7 years old, with carefully combed hair, posing with a crayon in hand.

"It's a perfect photo of Jeff as an artist. The portrait of the artist as a young boy," said Trisha Van Eck, the curatorial coordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She helped guest curator Francesco Bonami and Koons himself put the Chicago show together.

"It's typical of everything that Jeff does," Van Eck continued. "He changes the context.... Everything that he does is some kind of magic that he spins on the work."

In this case, Koons, 53, has taken an old snapshot his grandmother may have carried around in her wallet, enlarged it, backlit it and put it in an exhibition.

The message, Van Eck said, is simple: "'Here's my work — ta-da!' And 'ta-da' is a huge thing for Jeff."

The artist came home one day to find his son drawing, Van Eck said. And the boy announced he was finished by saying, "Ta-da."

"And Jeff said, 'Ta-da' — That's what I work all week in the studio to capture. Ta-da."

Everyday Objects, Polished

In the ta-da category, the Chicago show includes a shiny red lobster and, most monumentally, a massive, shiny orange dachshund made in specially colored stainless steel.

"It is what it is," curator Van Eck said. "It's shiny, it's big, it's perfect. It's taking objects we're all familiar with and making them larger than life."

Behind a sturdy concealing wall, the museum is also displaying larger-than-billboard-size images of Koons and his former wife, Ilona Staller — also known as Cicciolina, the former soft porn star and Italian Parliamentarian — in various stages of undress and contact.

"Jeff would say everything he does is art," Van Eck said. "He has always tried to cross boundaries between what is art and what is not, what is high art, what is commercial product."

As for the basketballs, it can be a challenge to keep fancy art theories in mind when viewing everyday items that have been placed in a case — and in a museum.

Koons, Van Eck said, is "looking at what's already out there in the world, subtly twisting it, representing what you like as a person. You like basketballs. They're here. Why shouldn't basketballs be art?"

In a lecture at the museum, Koons put it this way:"For me, art really starts with acceptance, self trust. Wherever you come to with art, it's perfect. You don't have to come with anything. What you bring to something is the art. That's where it's found. It's found within you."

A Knack For Populism — And The Commercial

Jeff Koons has his critics, of course. One of them is Robert Hughes, erstwhile art critic for Time magazine. Speaking on NPR once, Hughes had this evaluation of Koons:"He's one of those guys who would have been ... brilliant at selling swamp in Florida or raising money for the excavation of entirely fictional gold mines in Nevada."

Curator Van Eck agrees that Koons has a talent for selling things, along with a savvy sense of the art world and its market. But, she says, he also has a deep sense of art history, aesthetics and creativity. And that outweighs criticism from the experts.

"He's not interested in that critical dialogue," Van Eck said. "He's going to look around — what do people like, I'm going to show them that. And critics don't like that."

But if the smiling crowds in Chicago are any evidence, the people like Jeff Koons just fine.

The exhibit Jeff Koons is at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago until Sept. 21.

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