Divine Intervention

Sarah Thornton on Jeff Koons at the Schirn Kunsthalle and Liebieghaus

Left: Vinzenz Brinkmann, head of the Department of Antiquities at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung. Right: Artist Jeff Koons with Justine Koons and family. (Except where noted, all photos: Sarah Thornton)

JEFF KOONS IS FROWNING with his fingers on his forehead. The lighting on Metallic Venus, a glossy stainless steel beauty who lifts her dress to reveal her childbearing hips, is distressing him. Weary worry pervades the faces of the staff of Frankfurt’s Liebieghaus, a gem of a museum containing a concise history of sculpture from ancient Egypt to the rococo period. It’s the last day of a two-and-a-half-week install. Vinzenz Brinkmann, the classical scholar who has curated this retrospective, explains to me that Koons has an astonishing appetite for precise modifications. “He is very kind to us but he is strict toward his own vision,” he says. “Nothing is neglectable.”

Justine Koons, Jeff’s wife and mother of five of his seven kids, is in the next room. Pregnant with her sixth and his eighth child (a boy, due in August), she walks past Balloon Venus, another new sculpture, giving it a cursory glance. Inspired by the Venus of Willendorf, one of the earliest known representations of a woman, this fertility goddess looks like a “Celebration” sculpture but it is actually the first work in his new “Antiquity” series. The sight of an expectant spouse between two Venuses evokes one of Koons’s many mantras: “The only true narrative is the biological narrative.”

As I meander through the Liebieghaus permanent collection into which forty-three Koons sculptures have been inserted, I am struck by the entertaining juxtapositions. Koons’s famous Michael Jackson and Bubbles sits in front of a row of Egyptian mummies. A new polychrome stainless steel Popeye presides like a beefy messiah over painted wood statues of weedy saints. A one-ball Total Equilibrium Tank is positioned in the spiritual center of a chapel-like early medieval room. Gary McCraw, Koons’s long-standing studio manager, is topping up the tank with a saltwater mixture that makes the basketball float just so. I’m reminded of a scene in which technicians working for Damien Hirst (a key lender to this show) fill tanks with formaldehyde, except that McCraw doesn’t sport a gas mask.

Left: Dealer Almine Rech with curator Joachim Pissaro. Right: Koons head of sculpture John von Schmid with Koons studio manager Gary McCraw.

The next morning, I head over to the Schirn Kunsthalle, which is showing forty-five Koons paintings. Together the two exhibitions—titled “The Sculptor” and “The Painter”—form the largest showing of Koons’s work to date. The American master is, in fact, an honorary local. He owns a house here and visits regularly because over 50 percent of his sculptural production is made nearby at Arnold AG, a top-of-the-line fabricator whose website announces, “Please let us inspire you with our Passion... for metal!”

The Schirn’s vast white hall is a cacophony of Koonses. With the exception of six canvases from “Made in Heaven,” which enjoy their own “adult” room, paintings from different series are mixed together such that only connoisseurs are likely to catch the conversations between them. As journalists, photographers, and TV crews start to trickle in, one critic proclaims, “The paintings hold up better by themselves than together.”

A PR woman escorts me into a nondescript side room for my interview with the artist. Koons has a notorious habit of offering favourite adages and anecdotes that effectively evade the questions he’s being asked. I politely draw his attention to this tendency in the hope that he’ll avoid it. When I ask whether it is possible to be an aesthetic radical and a political conservative, he replies that he has always been attracted to the concept of the avant-garde and that he likes “the idea that we can create our own reality.” He then offers an uncharacteristically direct answer: “I don’t think I am a conservative. As an artist, I believe in the sense of communal responsibility.” I suggest that his advocacy of cultural acceptance could be seen as an incitement to accept the status quo. “When I am talking about acceptance,” he replies, “it is about the acceptance of everything.” Including left-leaning Democrats and Marxist art historians, I assume. Koons seems willing to go on but the PR pops her head around the door. Time up.

Left: Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf. Right: Ulrike and Matthias von der Recke.

Outside in the main exhibition hall, the press pack has swelled to 150 people. A herd of burly photographers charge into position to shoot Koons in front of three different paintings. Dressed in a dapper gray suit, the artist goes through a succession of poses—hands in pockets, finger to chin contemplating the work, a series of squats, and then a position with his arms outstretched as if he were a kid pretending to be an airplane.

After that, six TV crews set up in a row in front of Antiquity 3, a complex new painting of a gorgeous girl riding an inflatable dolphin which also features three Neoclassical marble nudes and a giant felt-marker drawing of a sailboat that doubles as a vagina. It looks better than it sounds. My empathy for Koons surges as I eavesdrop on his TV interviewers who repeat the same questions: Are you a sculptor or a painter? What is the secret of your success? What do you think of Frankfurt? He answers each one with a courteous smile, even giving different answers to the same questions.

Finally comes the press conference, which is conducted almost entirely in German. As I listen to the music of the foreign language, one sentence from my interview with Koons floats back to me: “I like the idea that we can create our own reality.” It seems to me that Koons has . . . although not without some help. The museum people and catalogue contributors on the podium appear to pay increasingly hyperbolic homage to this “künstler,” culminating in Joachim Pissarro’s assertion (in English) that the “superhuman exacting demand” of Koons’s production ties him to “the divine.” I do hope that he means to invoke a randy Greek god who cavorts with mortals.

Left: Merrill Lynch's Peter Kollmann and Max Hollein, director of the Schirn Kunsthalle. Right: Jeff Koons with Metallic Venus. (Photo: Schirn Kunsthalle)

Left: Bernard Picasso and artist Alex Israel. Right: Dalí collection director Charles Henri Hine.

Left: Fondation Beyeler director Samuel Keller. Right: Auctioneer Simon de Pury.

Left: Writer Jeff Fraiman. Right: Collectors Gail Neeson and Stefan Edlis.

Left: Gloria Koons and Antonio Hommen. Right: Städel Museum curator Martin Engler.

Left: Collector Friedrich von Metzler. Right: Curator Matthias Ulrich and project manager Heike Höcherl.

Left: Gagosian Gallery's Stefan Ratibor. Right: Dealers Rebecca Sternthal and Jerome de Noirmont.