Rock Lobster

Gareth Harris on Jeff Koons at the Serpentine


Left: Artist Jeff Koons. Right: Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum with writer Charlotte Birnbaum and the Serpentine's Hans Ulrich Obrist. (All photos: Gareth Harris)

JEFF KOONS KNOWS HOW TO MAKE AN ENTRANCE. Filmmaker Mike Figgis, former Royal Academy supremo Norman Rosenthal, and designer Stella McCartney were among the hordes that descended on the dapper artist as he arrived at the Serpentine Gallery on Wednesday for the opening of his first major survey in an English public space. With four children, two nannies, his wife, and his mother in tow (what is this? The von Trapps?), the ever-amiable Koons stepped aside for a fleeting chat. The artist may be known for his über-kitsch oeuvre, but he has emerged as a major spender on old masters and nineteenth-century European painting—not that he hasn’t invested in some twentieth-century works as well. “Dalí is very important to me,” he noted. But basking in such adulation, what did he consider his biggest mistake to be? “I don’t believe in mistakes,” came the diplomatic reply in between gentle interruptions from his bowler-hatted son.

Children were especially prominent at the private view, sending the young army of black-shirted wardens into spasms whenever a tiny hand ventured to prod the cast inflatable-toy sculptures. Koons’s wife pointed out that their children “are used to not touching the pieces by now.” London dealer Pilar Corrias said that her sons just couldn’t resist patting the turtles and walruses, while adults all around were keen to rediscover their inner child. “It brings you out in a smile,” said an enthusiastic Vidal Sassoon, nodding at the various “Popeye” canvases. The celebrity stylist was joined by his soigné rock-chick wife, Ronnie, who revealed her taste for Arte Povera. “We collect Manzoni and Fontana,” she divulged, prompting a surly passerby to exclaim: “Stuff this flash art. What we need is a good dose of Minimalism.” Over Sassoon’s shoulder, I spotted Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World, who gave a decidedly saucy take on the crayfish on view. “There’s a lot of sexy seafood. A giant red lobster doing a handstand is a great metaphor for the artist’s erect . . . interest in Dalí.”

Left: Musician Paul Simonon. Right: Designer Stella McCartney with Alasdhair Willis.

Before we could really get into Koons’s phallic crustacea, I was waylaid by the glamorous McCartney. She wasn’t the first visitor to draw comparisons between the Serpentine display and Koons’s last major European outing, at Versailles earlier this year. “That space was amazing,” she said, describing how she tore off her stilettos and walked through the Hall of Mirrors, barefoot and alone. “It was great. I felt like I owned the place.” Artist Dexter Dalwood, who has a show at Gagosian Beverly Hills in September, agreed. “Versailles was a triumph,” he said, before cheekily adding that “this selection would look good at Windsor Castle.” Other art-world heavyweights seen admiring the raucous images included major Koons collectors Bill and Maria Bell of Los Angeles; dealers Irving Blum, Nicholas Logsdail, and Gregor Muir; and artist Tracey Emin. Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum was on hand, too. “I’m back to reality now, marking exam papers,” he said, noting his return to his more mundane duties as rector of the Städelschule Art Academy.

By 8 PM, the relative calm inside the gallery was disrupted by the sight of the Serpentine’s “bouncers” (kindly door staff) attempting to hold back a sea of Koons devotees at the entrance. A strict and sensible policy restricting visitor numbers had resulted in a “queue almost down to the Albert Memorial,” according to the Art Newspaper’s Louisa Buck. (The Serpentine is, once again, a victim of its own success.) Jeffrey Deitch said he’d slipped in, however, by displaying “self-confidence.” (Being a big-name dealer probably didn’t hurt, either.)

The Koons clamor is all a far cry from the art star’s first showing at the Serpentine in 1991, said director Julia Peyton-Jones. “We organized a press conference for the exhibition ‘Objects for the Ideal Home: The Legacy of Pop Art,’ and let’s just say the editors of Frieze were considered a major presence,” she confessed. The Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist then joined the lively debate over the rise of Koons’s stock. “As a litmus test, the artist Tino Sehgal often asks young curators: ‘Do you like Jeff Koons?’” said Obrist. “The Serpentine has adopted this approach wholeheartedly,” quipped Peyton-Jones with a laugh.

Left: Dealer Pilar Corrias with sons. Right: Ronnie and Vidal Sassoon.

Left: Hans Ulrich Obrist with Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. Right: Dealer Oscar Humphries.