Mirror Mirror

Linda Yablonsky on Jeff Koons and the LA MoCA gala

Left: Artists Justine Koons, Jeff Koons, and Alex Israel. Right: John Legend. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

LAST WEEK, the Santa Ana winds came in hot and blustery across Los Angeles just as Jeff Koons hit town. Their convergence cannot have been a coincidence. An artist who staked his career on inflatables would naturally be on equal terms with high winds. Generally, they blow in his direction. And these did.

On Saturday, the Museum of Contemporary Art was to honor him at its star-studded annual benefit gala. On Thursday, Larry Gagosian—not one to let an opportunity slip by—opened a kind of popup Koons show that his Beverly Hills gallery assembled from three different bodies of work. Suffice it to say, this was not your usual sample sale.

Many people see only the reflective surface of Koons’s sculpture, because it can distract from the deep vein of melancholy that runs below the folds in the best of it. Yet Koons was positively buoyant, despite the death of his mother, at ninety, less than a week earlier.

For nearly forty years, Gloria Koons was a proud fixture at nearly every one of her son’s openings. I offered condolences. “My mother would have wanted me to be here,” he replied, with a wink. Then he moved through the gallery, attending to core collectors including Bill and Maria Bell and Benedikt Taschen.

Left: Philanthropists Lilly Tartikoff Karatz and Eli Broad. Right: Collector Maurice Marciano and LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne.

Justine Koons, the artist’s wife, carried a Titian handbag from the collection Koons produced in a recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Like so much of his art—or anyone’s, really—it looks better in the flesh. Ditto Ms. Bell’s white Stella McCartney dress with Koons’s Pink Panther image on the back. She also wore a silver Koons bunny on a silver chain around her neck and carried a Koons clutch. What was she planning to wear to the gala? “I may go for some of my normal clothes,” she said, blushing. What’s normal? “I have Rodarte,” she offered.

Irving and Jackie Blum were in the room. So were Mike Ovitz, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art director Michael Govan, Vanity Fair contributor Wendy Stark Morrissey, Jared Leto, and Leelee Sobieski. But the greater number was made up of lesser-known fans seeking autographs and a chance to pose for pictures with the artist. To their unconcealed delight, he complied for each.

One woman, a commercial photographer, told me that she’d driven from Las Vegas just for this opening. She wanted to see the work and its creator, whom she regarded as among the most culturally significant figures of our day. “He gets people talking,” she said. “That matters.”

Several works were on loan from their owners—at least three came from Eli Broad alone. They provided context for the one new sculpture—a dazzling blue bird of ultra-polished painted stainless steel that doubles as a fertile planter holding spring flowers. Based on a porcelain knickknack, it absolutely stole the show from the giant red Balloon Rabbit, the colossal Gazing Ball Hercules, the blue Sacred Heart, the liquescent Seated Ballerina of more recent vintage, and the “Gazing Ball Paintings” on view.

Left: LA MoCA director of education and public programming Amanda Hunt with artist Charles Gaines and LA MoCA assistant curator, Lanka Tattersall. Right: Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin.

“I didn’t want to like this show,” said one patron, “but I can’t help it. I really do.” That was the general consensus. “Doesn’t the show look like the ’70s?” Koons asked, on the way to dinner at Mr. Chow. “It’s so minimal,” he explained. I love the way Koons talks. But when I looked back, I saw that, for him, the installation was actually quite pared down, even spare. Continuing in this historical vein, he compared Balloon Rabbit to Nefertiti. “It follows the same lines,” he said. “And it’s so female, so vaginal.” Frankly, if you look closely, that isn’t a stretch either.

Dinner was of a more intimate scale than usual for this artist, but the weekend gala was ahead. Michael Chow circled the room, handing Koons and other artists present—Alex Israel, Jonas Wood—thick black markers, prodding them to make a drawing on their plates for a collection that will commemorate his restaurant chain’s upcoming fiftieth anniversary. “Can’t I do it on a clean plate?” Israel pleaded. Chow refused. “It’s art,” he said.

“It’s so good to see three different bodies of work together,” gallery director Deborah McLeod began the evening’s toast to “one of the greatest living artists.” She added, “Your art always makes us feel optimistic, which is what we need now.”

Koons stood. “You know,” he said, “you come into this world and you don’t need much. You can just be an artist. You can do anything. You can give people hope.” Noting his mother’s passing, he also acknowledged the many friends who were present, naming Eli and Edythe Broad, Taaschen, and the Bells. “Duchamp had Philadelphia,” he concluded. “I have Los Angeles.”

That was a good one.

Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian and the artist Jeff Koons. Right: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

For many artists living in LA—Laura Owens, Tacita Dean, Toba Khedoori—Friday night belonged to the premiere of Frances Stark’s feature-length adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute on the big screen at LACMA’s Bing Theater. A student orchestra recruited from area schools performed the sound track, if you can say that about an eighteenth-century opera. Only the instruments actually had a “voice.” What there was to watch was the libretto, which Stark brilliantly translated into current vernacular, doubling lines and adding color. “I’m nervous,” she said, before the screening. “Mozart died five weeks after he finished writing this opera.”

Over at Blum & Poe in Culver City, seasoned Carroll Dunham and young Tony Lewis introduced new paintings. Lewis kept to the abstract. Dunham’s canvases depict naked caveman types in the hairy, complicated, genital-extending twists of a wrestling contest demonstrated on the exotic island where female sexuality was on display his last time out. I guess you could say, if pressed, that the new pictures are politically correct. “In art,” Dunham said, “all things are possible.” Even a modified southern menu of baked beans, potato salad, corn bread, and shoe-leather beef. It didn’t go late. The gala was coming!

It arrived Saturday night, in living color, in a big black tent with a magenta interior parked outside the Geffen Contemporary. Sharon Stone, Sean Penn, Ryan Seacrest, Pierce Brosnan, and Ricky Martin walked a purple carpet to slake the paparazzi’s thirst for celebrities who aren’t artists. Pace Barbara Kruger, Doug Aitken, Sam Durant, Dan Colen, Charles Gaines, Mark Grotjahn, Sterling Ruby, Ana Prvački, and the inimitable Genevieve Gaignard, coiffed in the world’s tallest beehive. “We have sixty artists with us tonight!” exulted gala and MoCA board cochair Maurice Marciano in his address to a crowd of eight hundred seated guests. “We have thirty trustees!”

Left: LACMA curator Christine Y. Kim with artists Frances Stark and Toba Khedoori. Right: Wendy Stark and LACMA director Michael Govan.

Then who were all these other people? Collectors and their friends. Dealers and their friends. Real-estate moguls, entertainment lawyers, and their friends. And MoCA’s former bad boys, Jeffrey Deitch and Paul Schimmel, though not together. Deitch, who kept a low profile, is opening an exhibition space in Hollywood. Schimmel had just returned from touring the Pharaonic Valley of Kings. He was dressed in a Bill Blass suit given to him by Nancy Rubins shortly after the death of Chris Burden. “She said he only got to wear it once!” Schimmel exclaimed. Now it’s his.

Scarlett Johansson narrated a film by Oscar Boyson that glimpsed various stages of Koons’s life, with cameos by Frank Gehry, George Condo, Scott Rothkopf, and Gagosian. Then it was MoCA director Philippe Vergne’s turn to wax poetic about Koons, whose editioned balloon-dog plates with Bernardaud—displayed outside the tent—has raised a ton of money for MoCA. Brosnan, who has attended the event before, introduced the honoree by characterizing him as the contemporary artist who “unites the power of art and celebrity.” Didn’t that hit home with this crowd! “We are inspired,” the actor said.

The artist then did exactly what his sculptures do—flattered the guests by flipping the focus back to them. “What we are celebrating tonight is the vitality of the art world in Los Angeles,” he began, connecting to his own local exhibition history from 1983, at LACE, through Daniel Weinberg, Margo Leavin, Luhring Augustine, and Hetzler galleries to Gagosian and the 2015 opening of the Broad. “Marcel Duchamp has Philadelphia,” he said again. “I have Los Angeles.”

Left: Artist Dan Colen. Right: Artist April Street and curator Philipp Kaiser.

If that line went over well the first time, it touched a nerve in the tent. The audience roared its approval. “This is the most concentrated area of my work anywhere in the world. If you want to see it, come to Los Angeles.”

John Legend came to the stage, and many women rushed it, hearts a-throb. The singer played right to them. “I hear he’s going to bring on a surprise guest,” said one. “I’m holding out for Beyoncé,” said her friend. Sorry, ladies. Legend’s guest was . . . Miguel!

Meanwhile, the LA art scene had reached a rolling boil, particularly in its museums. LACMA’s self-generated Picasso and Rivera exhibition was pure rock ’em, sock ’em bliss side by side with its imported Dwan Gallery and Moholy-Nagy shows. The Hammer’s Jimmie Durham show is probably his best ever, anywhere. And the Carl Andre retrospective on view that evening at the Geffen could not have suited that space better, especially paired with an affecting, politically minded group exhibition organized by Helen Molesworth that shattered, and enlightened, the American dream embodied by Koons with works by Arthur Jafa, Catherine Opie, and Sterling Ruby.

The next afternoon, Theaster Gates arrived from Chicago to close “Non-fiction,” a collaboration with MoCA at the late Noah Davis’s Underground Museum, with a performance by the Black Monks of Mississippi. The show, dedicated to victims of racist violence, featured work by David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Deana Lawson, Kara Walker, and Henry Taylor, among others. Los Angeles belongs to them too.

Left: Artist Mark Grotjahn. Right: Artists Ana Prvački and Sam Durant.

Left: Curator Paul Schimmel and artist Mary Weatherford. Right: Calvin Klein Senior VP of Public Relations Emily Pero and artist Christian Rosa

Left: Artist Doug Aitken. Right: Art consultant Allan Schwartzman and architect Kulapat Yantrasast.

Left: Artist James Besora. Right: Collector Eva Chow and model/actress Asia Chow.

Left: Restaurateur and artist Michael Chow. Right: Stylist and author George Kotsiopoulos, arts patron Bill McMorrow, and collector Maria Arena Bell.

Left: Collector Mike Ovitz. Right: Talent agent David Gersh and collector Alan Hergott.

Left: Artist Lisa Eisner. Right: Artist Genevieve Gaignard.

Left: Artists Bobby Jesus, Frances Stark, Melanie Schiff, and Sterling Ruby. Right: Artists Ramona Trent and Anthony Pearson.

Left: Collector Christen Wilson. Right: Collector Eugenio López Alonso.

Left: Collector Dallas Price-Van Breda. Right: Collector Bill Bell.

Left: Collector Gilena Simons and MCA Santa Barbara development director Frederick Janka. Right: Collector Eugene Sadovoy and Ana Prvački.

Left: Collector Maria Arena Bell and artist Justine Koons. Right: Hirshhorn Museum director Melissa Chiu.

Left: Dealer Deborah McLeod, artist Alex Israel, and dealer Rebecca Sternthal. Right: Dealer Lisa Overduin with artist Paul Sietsma and LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne.

Left: Dealer Kristine Bell. Right: China Chow.