Jeff Koons Woos Paris With a Bouquet of Tulips

A sculpture by Jeff Koons – an enormous bouquet of flashy-colored steel tulips – is set to be installed in the gardens of the Petit Palais this fall. The decision was made in the wake of controversy surrounding the sculpture, which is inspired by the Statue of Liberty and was designed by the artist as a “gesture of French-American friendship.”
Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995-1998. © Jeff Koons, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

In the gardens of the Petit Palais, near the Champs-Elysées and a stone’s throw from the Place de la Concorde, the site finally assigned to Jeff Koon’s “gift” to the city of Paris is magical. Designed in homage to the victims of the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015, the New York artist’s Bouquet of Tulips, a 40-foot, 33-ton, polychrome sculpture in steel and aluminum, will be installed on the capital’s historical Cours la Reine this fall. It has taken more than three years to find a place for the flowers “gifted” by Jeff Koons. The artist donated the concept of the sculpture, but the actual production cost an estimated 3.5 million euros and was financed by French and American benefactors!

This episode has a historical precedent. In 1886, it was the Americans’ turn to dig deep and fund Auguste Bartholdi’s base for the Statue of Liberty following a “crowdfunding” campaign. This gift was originally the idea of French senator Edouard Laboulaye in 1865, who saw it as both a gesture of friendship to the United States and a political message for the French. Napoleon III was emperor at the time, and Laboulaye was advocating for the American republican constitution to be adopted in France. The statue was shipped in separate pieces to the U.S. By way of thanks, American philanthropists presented Paris with a smaller replica of the statue, which is now found on the Ile aux Cygnes on the Seine River, and an identical reproduction of the torch located on the Place de l’Alma.

The same drama of gifts and misunderstandings is now being repeated. Former U.S. ambassador Jane Hartley, who was in office in Paris after the 2015 and 2016 attacks, convinced Jeff Koons to give his monumental sculpture to the French capital. The project was supported by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. “This question is as diplomatic as it is artistic,” she said to the Paris Council last year. “Can you imagine the international outcry if the city of Paris told the Americans, ‘We don’t want your gift’?”

Rendering of the Bouquet of Tulips sculpture project. © Jeff Koons
The Statue of Liberty. © Ateliers Gohard

A Bloom of Contention

However, many did speak out. Criticisms included the original choice of site between the Palais de Tokyo and the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art, the cost of the piece, its artistic value, and even Jeff Koons himself, who is one of the world’s top-selling artist. A petition entitled “No to Jeff Koons’ Bouquet in Paris” was even launched. Some intellectuals and artists such as Christian Boltanski signed it in protest of a “poisoned chalice” that in no way honored the victims of the attacks. According to its detractors, the bouquet of tulips is nothing more than a provocation and a way of promoting an ultra-wealthy star of the contemporary art scene. The work will ultimately be financed by private funds, including the Fund for Paris, and a large number of donators. Public money will only be used for its upkeep.

The bouquet’s installation may well herald the end of an old argument between friends. However, the context of the quarrel still remains – a love-hate relationship between France and the artist, who symbolizes the supremacy of Anglo-American art taunting the dying star the French capital has become. The “love” is illustrated by the 650,000 visitors who attended the contemporary art superstar’s blockbuster exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in 2015. As for the “hate,” many have major misgivings about the decision. The city, a living museum, is certainly stuck in the past but is also open to new talents. After all, the School of Paris owes its reputation to foreign artists, from Brancusi to Picasso, who came to the capital looking for inspiration in the interwar period. But when choosing such a sensitive memorial, should the city have picked an artist who represents such a radically new aesthetic and resolutely speculative form of art?

As the favorite artist of billionaires such as American entrepreneur Eli Broad and leading French collector François Pinault, many wonder if Jeff Koons really is a genius with a talent for subverting the criteria we traditionally use in aesthetic judgements. The all-American figure embodies a clear break. His glorification of daily objects using premium materials and XXL formats reflects our consumer society in which, as Andy Warhol said, museums have become department stores and department stores have become museums. The French still claim they can tell the difference.

Tulips and Ballon Dog. © Jeff Koons

Art Pompier

Jeff Koons is repeatedly criticized for not having any real concept in his creations. The French have a penchant for paintings and sculptures that express messages, and bemoan the artist for his lack of deconstruction and his objects’ immediacy. The members of Jeff Koons’ fan club, who are legion, counter that this is exactly what makes this new art pompier such a work of genius. The simple, pure transformation of entirely ordinary and typically American things such as vacuum cleaners, gazing balls, plastic-looking poodles (although actually made with polished steel) has made his pieces icons of consumer culture in the same way as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. A culture whose images, colors, and advertising codes blanket the psychological landscape of the West. Jeff Koons holds a mirror up to our society. His art is joyous, and each piece is perfectly executed. No wonder Americans adore him.

Another more cutting comment is that Jeff Koons embodies purely speculative, financial art. Before being dethroned by British artist David Hockney, whose painting Pool with Two Figures was auctioned last year for a dizzying 90.3 million dollars at Christie’s, Jeff Koons held the record for the most expensive work sold by a living artist when his Balloon Dog went for 58.4million dollars. Critics claimed this stratospheric sum was no reflection of the artistic value of his productions. But the sale forged Jeff Koons’ international reputation and led to a host of spinoffs. The results can be seen in museum boutiques and lines of luxury products, such as the Louis Vuitton bags inspired by Classical masters including Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, and Van Gogh.

Can art be contemporary, fun, a social marker, and a source of profit, as it is in the United States? Or is it linked to culture and inseparable from its intrinsic value, as in France, where the French take great pride in hating money? Behind this latest squabble between the Old World and the New Guard, a leadership battle is raging. Jeff Koons is not as popular with billionaires as he once was, and his career has taken a hit. He has even made job cuts at his workshop and factory. Will he be able to resist changing fashions and the volatility of taste? Time is the best judge, and hindsight will tell if America was right to make him a champion, and if France was right to protest his title.

Article published in the May 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.