Palace Intrigue


Left: Jeff Koons's New Hoover Convertibles Green, Green, Red, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, New Shelton Wet/Dry 5-Gallon, Displaced Tripledecker, 1981–87, installed at the Château de Versailles. (Photo: Jeff Koons, Laurentt Lecat/Éditions Xavier Barral) Right: Versailles president Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Jeff Koons, collector François Pinault, Jacques Chirac, and French minister of culture Christine Albanel. (Except where noted, all photos: Nicolas Trembley)

The other morning, a French TV talk show featured a spot on the Jeff Koons Versailles controversy. (Even in sophisticated France, few popular TV shows address contemporary art—except perhaps to criticize it.) “You either like it or you don’t,” one of the women said. “But you have to be impressed by the fact that the king of kitsch, the one who’s put vacuum cleaners behind glass and who married the ex–porn star Cicciolina, is showing at the château!” Rarely has an exhibition in France aroused so much public debate or such wide media coverage.

To summarize, the complaints are as follows. Reactionaries such as Édouard de Royère, one of the site’s key patrons, argue that “contemporary art fosters distraction and destruction of the perfect whole.” Others criticize the conflicts of interest, suggesting that Jean-Jacques Aillagon, ex-director of the Palazzo Grassi and now president of the Versailles foundation, is out to promote the collection of his former boss, François Pinault. The rest just want to know what all the fuss is about.

I reached Versailles Wednesday afternoon on the regional RER train. (I was probably the only one of the 150 invitees to have taken it, since, unlike the others, I don’t have a private chauffeur.) The atmosphere was unspoiled by the controversy, and except for a smallish group of protesters organized by the National Union of Writers of France, who picketed that morning, none of the announced demonstrations were actually held.

Left: Curator Laurent Le Bon. Right: Dealer Larry Gagosian (on right).

In the Royal Court, where one of Koons’s “Balloon Flowers” has the place of honor, the guests were greeted by Monsieur Aillagon, director Pierre Arizzoli-Clémentel, exhibition cocurator Laurent Le Bon (Elena Geuna was busy giving birth in Italy), and Koons and his wife, Justine.

The guest list comprised the crème de la crème: Jacques Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, whose presence set off a flurry of feverish flashes from accredited photographers; Christine Albanel, minister of culture and former president of the Versailles foundation; and major international contemporary art VIPs. It’s impossible to name them all, but it should go without saying that the big sponsors and art lenders were present, including, among others, Pinault, Dakis Joannou, Eli Broad, and Edgar de Picciotto. “This looks like a bar mitzvah,” said the lady next to me. I felt like I was at a simple reunion for a family of very nice millionaires.

Eventually, we made our way into the deserted château to view the piano nobile. This is Koons’s first institutional solo exhibition in France—in fact, he had never even been to Versailles before he was invited to exhibit there. (His only other exhibition in the country was eleven years ago at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont.) The château show comprises seventeen sculptures (none of them new) installed individually outside and in the different rooms that make up the royal apartment of the king, the apartment of the queen, and the recently renovated Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), in which was placed the glimmering Moon (Light Blue). We had seen images in the press kit, but the real-life juxtaposition of Koons and Versailles was simply incredible. As the guests filed in one behind the other, they oohed and aahed, laughing and exclaiming. Some preferred the pieces that seemed to melt into the decor such as Large Vase of Flowers or the bust Louis XIV. “That one was made to be here!” a woman said. Others were more partial to the culture shock of Chainlink Fence, for example. “The public’s not going to like those inflatable plastic beach rings on the fence,” Colombe Pringle, editor of Point de Vue, the weekly people’s almanac, whispered to me.

Left: Collectors Viktor Pinchuk and Elena Leonidivna Franchuk. (Photo: Luc Castel) Right: Artists Pierre and Gilles.

Some iconic pieces like Rabbit (exhibited in the Salon de l’Abondance) are, undoubtedly for insurance reasons, presented behind glass, recalling the works in the “New Hoover” series, one of which is the artist’s only piece in France’s national collections. As one guest noted, the transparent showcases reinforce the works’ precious, glossy aspect and provide a kind of “vintage” quality to the château.

Even the plaques, placed right on the floor, impress. Each one contains the work’s title and provenance. Collections named included the François Pinault Foundation (six works), Michael & B. Z. Schwartz Collection (one), Dakis Joannou Collection (two), Astrup Fearnley Collection (one), Wolfsburg Kunstmuseum (one), Peter Brant (one), and the Ludwig Collection (one). The more discreet lenders were simply listed as “Private Collection,” but when Ukrainian collector Viktor Pinchuk and his wife were deliberately photographed in front of one work, we thought it was probably a good bet it belonged to them.

Next, our group, composed of Larry Gagosian, Simon de Pury, Jeffrey Deitch, Stella McCartney, and others, was invited outside to the gardens where, in the midst of a splendid sunset, we admired Koons’s forty-foot-tall topiary Split-Rocker, plopped in the flowerbed of the Orangerie gardens. The Château’s head gardener had installed the work himself, and he seemed quite pleased with the result.

Left: Collector Monique Barbier-Müller. Right: Amy Cappellazzo, Christie's international cohead of postwar and contemporary art, and Lauren Taschen.

Next, three Disneyesque electric trains arrived to take us to the Grand Trianon. For the ride, I was seated next to Le Bon, who confided that the installation hadn’t been easy, since all the preparations had to be done when the museum was closed to the public. In addition, all the works had to be closely examined by a technical team to determine their precise size, mass, and the like. The construction of the wall holding Moon had been especially complex. Obviously, one couldn’t just drive nails into the walls of the château.

The immense table of comestibles set up in the Cotelle Gallery of the Trianon impressed and enchanted everyone—except for the vegetarians, who were offered nothing in lieu of the pâté de foie gras. Before the glazed nougat was served, Monsieur Aillagon raised his glass for a toast and then gave the floor to Koons. Visibly moved, Koons said that this was without a doubt the most important exhibition of his career, and he dedicated it to his mother, who had made the trip to be with him. The evening finished with a brief but exquisite display of fireworks over one of Lenôtre’s fountains. Xavier Veilhan—one of the only artists present and the next to be featured at Versailles—turned to me and said, “I definitely have my work cut out for me.” Around midnight, as the night was wearing down, minibuses arrived to pick up the guests and take them to their cars at the other end of the château. Unfortunately for me, there were no more trains at this late hour.

Left: Artist Xavier Veilhan and collector Eli Broad. Right: Designer Stella McCartney and Alasdhair Willis.