From Bloomberg

Review by Farah Nayeri

Sept. 11 (Bloomberg) — What’s a blow-up beach toy doing in the Palace of Versailles?

Jeff Koons, one of the world’s priciest living artists, has suspended what looks like a pool plaything — a bright-red lobster — inside the Salon de Mars, an ex-ballroom of the royal palace outside Paris. The aluminum crustacean is one in a menagerie of seemingly inflatable beasts placed in the palace’s core galleries. One work, “Moon” (1995-2000), hangs in the Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

The show (Jeff Koons Versailles, through Dec. 14) had several dozen French pensioners beating their chests outside the palace gates in rebellion at the opening yesterday. Here was Koons, a man who flaunted his groins in the name of art, profaning France’s heritage, they cried; violating an institution that embodied the nation. Some looked ready to storm the palace where kings had resided and topple the man in charge.

That man is Jean-Jacques Aillagon, France’s onetime minister of culture, who later ran billionaire Francois Pinault‘s 18th-century Palazzo Grassi in Venice, holding many a contemporary-art exhibition. Koons’s chromium-and-stainless- steel “Balloon Dog (Magenta)” once floated outside the Palazzo in Venice’s Grand Canal. From the Palazzo to the Palais was just a few letters of the alphabet, so Aillagon made the leap.

Pink Pooch

The 1994-2000 magenta dog opens the Versailles exhibition. The best and biggest of the indoor Koons displays at Versailles, it is a blindingly shiny pink pooch with body parts like bloated sausages. It fills the Salon d’Hercule, which is otherwise adorned with two wall-sized Veronese paintings, including “Christ at Supper With Simon,” gift of the Republic of Venice.

A few rooms later, suspended from a bright red chain, is “Lobster” (2003), hanging slightly lower than a crystal chandelier; another chandelier has been unhooked to make way for it. It has two toy-like handles, and is a bright reddish-orange color unseen at Versailles. On the side walls are portraits of Louis XV and his wife Maria Leczinska, and behind the lobster, a 17th-century oil by Charles Le Brun, chief painter to Louis XIV.

So far, so flashy. Other displays blend in better. The finely finished porcelain “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988), showing the singer and his pet monkey, has a white-and-gold varnish that gels well with the gilded door and ceilings of the Venus Drawing Room — though the open roses strewn at its feet do make it look like a cheap tea set.

The queen’s room, where 19 royal children including the future Louis XV were born, features a Koons bouquet in painted wood, “Large Vase of Flowers” (1991), that looks fine, if a bit shabby, against the floral motif of the wall draperies.

Flower Pots

Where Koons and Versailles pair off best is outside, in the gardens of the Orangerie. The mammoth “Split-Rocker” (2000), made with 90,000 fresh flower pots, looks perfectly at home there. The green of its leaves matches the manicured lawns, a majestic basin sparkling in the background.

Sometimes, as with the Plexiglas window of vacuum cleaners (“New Hoover Convertibles,” 1981-1987) placed in the middle of a room, Koons obstructs a significant work: a portrait of Marie- Antoinette by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun. Powdered and ribboned, the Queen, as if anticipating the intrusion that would occur more than two centuries later, looks nobly the other way.

Koons gives the word “baroque” new meaning; hence his presence here. Just as the builders of Versailles were out to shock and awe the viewer with their overuse of gold, marble, and stucco, Koons’s work is unashamed in its over-the-top-ness. Everyday objects, toys, and icons are inflated to un-lifelike dimensions, turning the quotidian into something expensive and out of the ordinary.

Garish, Misplaced

Still, Versailles has probably not done Koons a favor by inviting him in. His work, placed near that of Veronese or Bernini, doesn’t hold up. In another setting, the glinting sculptures would dazzle and seduce. Here, they look garish and misplaced, the product of quick manufacture, not painstaking artistry. Not for nothing was his stainless-steel bust of Louis XIV placed in a different room than the fabled marble Bernini of the same subject.

France’s older cultural institutions are eager to dust off their image and jump on the contemporary-art bandwagon. That merger should be handled with care. In most other settings, Koons’s works would fly. At Versailles, they seem to have been pushed a palace too far.

To contact the reporter on this story: Farah Nayeri in Paris at farahn@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: September 10, 2008 21:11 EDT

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