Martin Gayford

Let’s talk about sex

Plus: for the more antiquated aesthete there are the (all too) soothing and lovely paintings of Alex Katz at the Serpentine Gallery

At one time, Damien Hirst was fond of remarking that art should deal with the Gauguin questions. Namely, ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ Hirst would sum up with a deft shift from post-impressionism to Michael Caine: ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’ The new exhibition of work by the American artist Jeff Koons at Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery might raise the same query in a visitor’s mind.

Among other sights, you are confronted by a number of brand-new vacuum cleaners, mounted over neon lighting tubes; soon afterwards by a shiny blue sculpture, six metres high, representing a monkey made out of twisted balloons. Then there are two highly explicit images of marital relations between Koons and his ex-wife, the Italian-Hungarian porn star and politician La Cicciolina. Another sculpture, just under 4 metres high, skilfully mimics a mound of multicoloured Play-Doh. So, what is all this about?

There is an answer. Indeed, there are at least two. The enemies of Koons would say that all this is a nihilistic recycling of glossy, mass-market junk. The black irony, they would add, is that Koons is among the world’s most expensive artists: a case of grotesque wealth pursuing utter vacuity. On this analysis, as Jonathan Jones put it in the Guardian, Koons is ‘the Donald Trump of art’.

Koons himself, on the other hand, would say that his art is all about ‘transcendence’ and ‘fertility’ (he has a tendency to talk a bit like a self-help manual). First, he told me a few years ago, one has to accept one’s own body and overcome ‘one’s cultural guilt and shame’, then one can ‘expand one’s parameters’. His other theme is what biologists call reproduction. ‘Basically I believe in life,’ he announced, in Walt Whitman mode.

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