Going by Adam Davidson’s logic in his recent New York Times Magazine article—the art market is “a proxy for the fate of the superrich themselves”—fans of the 1 percent will be thrilled to hear that sales were full speed ahead at least week’s Art Basel fair, despite Greece and Spain and myriad other global economic woes. One afternoon, an artist turned up outside the convention center with an unsanctioned artwork—a giant mousetrap poised to snap on a bunch of giant euros—and was swiftly removed by a bunch of guards, Masque of the Red Death-ishly.
When dealers and collectors weren’t buzzing around inside the convention center, they were at dinners and parties of various kinds, and while there was an outrageously elaborate one on the fair’s first night co-hosted by New York’s Barbara Gladstone and the two women who run the London and Berlin gallery Sprüth Magers—on the terrace of the stately building that fronted a riding school in the countryside outside of Basel, before the 200 guests headed down a long, tree-lined allée to another building, where table after table was laden with piles of peonies, a woman stood gazing out at the manicured garden complete with ancient statues and observed, in a scene that if not for her comment would have been straight out of Last Year at Marienbad, “Why should I have to work so hard to understand all that political art at Documenta,” or something to that effect—people seemed to spend a lot of time out at the Beyeler Foundation. And here’s where things get especially interesting for you, New Yorkers: the Beyeler Foundation currently has a pretty substantial, Hugo Boss-sponsored exhibition of the work of Jeff Koons, whose museum-filling retrospective in 2014 will be the swan song (pun very much intended … read on) for the Whitney in its Breuer building, before it decamps to its new, $720 million, Renzo Piano-designed digs in the Meatpacking district.
Even the purest of art purists must have difficulty getting through a Koons show without visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. Here’s a quick accounting of the Beyeler display: that giant blue balloon flower plopped down in the pond out back? It sold at Christie’s two years ago for $16.9 million. A magenta one sold four years ago at Christie’s for $25.8 million! The mammoth gold hanging heart? A red one sold for $23 million at Sotheby’s in 2007. The porcelain pinup girl shouldering a pink panther doll? One made $16.9 million at Sotheby’s last May. The naked porcelain boy and girl from the same year? $9 million at Sotheby’s in 2008. Those Hoover convertible vacuum cleaners? $11.8 million at Christies, also in 2008. Michael Jackson and “Bubbles”? $5.6 million at Sotheby’s a decade ago. The Bear and Policeman? $2.9 million at Phillips in 2004. That painting of a piece of birthday cake? $3 million at Sotheby’s in 2005. That’s $114.9 million, and we’re only halfway through the show.
But let’s close down the cash register and hear what Mr. Koons has to say for his art. There he was at the Beyeler on Thursday afternoon, speaking with the show’s curator,
Theodora Vischer on the terrace to a packed house that included Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, who’s helming the Whitney show.
Here are some of the things he talked about. He talked about the “sense of family structure and community that you can pick up in the grouping” of his vacuum cleaners. “The triple-decker in the center is like a papa bear, mama bear, baby bear.” He talked about art’s “ability to empower us, but you have to have self-acceptance first” and how art can “disempower by making people feel insecure” and “not worthy,” and how, with the “Banality” series, he was “trying to tell the viewer that they are perfect.” He said that “the art happens inside them” and “whatever moves you is wonderful and equal to anything else … whether it’s in a high cultural institution or a gift shop.” He talked about “the removal of anxiety” and how his porcelain Popple doll from “Banality” was “almost like in the Garden of Eden some little figure would come out and make a little noise and then go run behind a tree or something” and “the removal of judgments” and how “children don’t have judgments” and “can love the color blue just for the blueness of that sky.” He talked about the “Celebration” series being “based on a cyclical year,” and how the four posts on his giant diamond piece (not at the Beyeler but, n.b. from this writer, one sold at Christie’s five years ago for $11.8 million) are “symbols of male energy” and the diamond represents the “moment of creation.” He said human history is “our genes and DNA” and “the only narrative I really trust is the biological narrative.”
I’d read Mr. Koons quoted on this biological narrative stuff before, but, standing out there in the Beyeler’s bucolic backyard, where the setting—birds chirping, late afternoon sun slanting down through tall trees onto the lily pads on the pond—conspired with his soothing voice, it hit home in a new way. Aha, biology. Consider Hanging Heart, which might as well, by that logic, be Hanging Brain, rivers of oxytocin gushing through it, convincing its owner that she’s “in love.” But let’s say it is a heart. Well, then, biologically speaking, it’s, you know, a heart. And in that case Hanging Heart isn’t what you thought it was, a rom com set in a candy shop. It’s a torture porn horror flick set in a meatlocker on the outskirts of Bucharest.
The highlight of his talk came when Mr. Koons got around to the monumental magenta aluminum balloon animal swan. Completed last year, it’s his newest piece in the Beyeler show, so new that no one has yet attached (publicly) a price tag to it (but one suspects, with his main dealer, Larry Gagosian, in Basel, it has likely sold). “You come upon it and it’s phallic, it’s a totem,” Mr. Koons said. “You go to the side and all of a sudden, sexually, it starts to have this harmony, where the testicles at the base of it start to become the breasts of the swan.”
Would the belief that the biological narrative is the only valid narrative seem indicative of a profoundly conservative Weltaschauung? Totally. Does that lessen my appreciation of Mr. Koons’ art? Not in the least. In fact, his swan is all the more impressive now that I know the ways in which it taps into my base animal nature. To get from his talk to his book signing, people had to walk through the gallery containing the swan. I hung around in there for a bit, watching people gaze at it, and had one of the deeper, and pretty much universally applicable, insights of my trip to Art Basel: everyone here is thinking about breasts and testicles.
But let’s back up. During the talk’s Q&A session, a man in the front row began his question by saying, “I feel like I’ve just been to my shrink, I feel fantastic.” I’d listened to Mr. Koons speak on a number of previous occasions and been lulled into a sort of nodding-along, highly suggestible state, but it had never before occurred to me that the
cadences of his voice are remark-ably similar to those of a professional hypnotist. In Basel, I was able to make this observation with a certain degree of authority, having a few days earlier, at 3 a.m., been driven by jet lag-induced insomnia to listen to an iPhone recording of myself being hypnotized by a professional hypnotherapist. Listening to yourself being hypnotized in order to rehypnotize yourself into falling sleep is, yes, pretty weird and meta, but this seems a good enough place as any to say that it, in fact, works.
If Mr. Koons is, however inadvertently, a kind of hypnotist, he’ll fit right in at the Whitney, which included in one of its biennials an audio tape of a séance meant to summon the soul of Joseph Cornell. Not that it’s the same thing, but it’s close. Anyhow, it’s worth noting in the Basel context that, whatever they are, Mr. Koons’s powers of persuasion are nothing compared to those of the Russian philanthropist Dasha Zhukova, who, the previous evening at the Beyeler, at a dinner she co-hosted with Bryan Lourd, Tina Brown (who didn’t make it) and Credit Suisse, had gotten 200 art world A-listers to sit through a rigorously intellectual onstage discussion between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas—by the Political Situation vs. Gross Domestic Product Growth PowerPoint graph, there was audible fidgeting—before settling down to crawfish on a bed of artichokes, steak with truffled potatoes and spring vegetables, and socializing, aka, for many of them, doing business.
I’d intended to buttonhole Mr. Koons at his talk’s afterparty and ask him if there was anything to the hypnotism-vocal cadences thing, if anyone else had ever noticed it, but I got distracted by Pamela Anderson, who, along with the other swells, had headed for the even more bucolic hills on the other side of the Beyeler, where everyone commenced sipping from flutes of champagne near a fence beyond which a cow nursed a calf and, every few seconds, in an action amplified by a cowbell, gave it a swift kick.