Inside Jeff Koons’ controversial collaboration with Louis Vuitton
The American artist revisits the great masters with this new collection
There is no getting enough of the provocative genius that is Jeff Koons. The American artist recently accepted Louis Vuitton’s invitation to create a collection of handbags and accessories that pays homage to the great painters of the past. Reproductions of works by Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh and Jean-Honoré Fragonard cover each handbag, along with the respective artists’ names in metallic gold letters. This skilled craftsmanship in leather, together with another artistic masterstroke by Koons, is more reminiscent of Warhol than ever.
Koons has always appropriated images as an artist. This time, however, he seems to have pushed this fantasy of reappropriation to its peak. Imagine Koons entering The Louvre in his regular banker’s garb, taking the Mona Lisa off the wall without a sound, then passing by the museum shop, before walking down the street with a cult piece of art in his arms, transformed into a handbag adorned with the name of its creator, da Vinci, in golden block letters. Imagine, yet again, that he carried out the same exercise in other museums with a Van Gogh, a Titian and a Fragonard. And so you get Masters, the astounding collection of handbags he has designed for Louis Vuitton, for which Swedish actress Alicia Vikander—Hollywood’s newest darling and star of the upcoming Tomb Raider—is the brand ambassador.
More than just a collection of luxury accessories, Masters is an idealised miniature museum for an artist who always allows himself all sorts of eccentricities. Koons has often started by appropriating icons in both popular culture and art history, before transforming them into works of art for their time. Masters is no exception.
Each bag contains a piece of our digital society and its sea of images, exploring the deification of classical painting, the concept of museums as new temples of consumption, the growth in the power of the sophisticated in a global luxury market where copying is inevitable, and the stimulation of desire, which is crucial.
But to really grasp the sense of Masters, you need to go back to the Gazing Ball series—started in 2013 with sculptures, and followed by paintings—in which Koons literally took copies of masterpieces and went to a new level by placing on them a large reflective sphere of blue glass, forcing us to look back at ourselves. We see that same hypnotic steel blue in his eyes during our exclusive tête-à-tête at his Chelsea Studio in New York, a few days before the launch of this shocking collection, which stayed under wraps till the last moment.
In the white hangar, we see a few 3D images on the screens belonging to a slew of young assistant artists (we’re talking about 100 people, in total, in his workshop), gathered around Koons. In the middle of the silent room, he explains the origin of the project, “When Delphine Arnault (director at Louis Vuitton, and contemporary art collector) asked me to come up with a collection of handbags, I thought it would be an excellent occasion to share my passion for the masters with the public.”
This isn’t the first time Louis Vuitton has worked with the contemporary art world. Koons is preceded by the likes of Stephen Sprouse, Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama. Neither is he new to the mysteries of marketing, having already collaborated with LVMH in 2003 for the release of a special Dom Pérignon vintage. The work, Balloon Venus, was a contemporary reinterpretation of the famous limestone Venus Of Willendorf statuette that was unearthed in Austria in 1908.
Additionally, Swedish retailer H&M—the sponsor of his retrospective at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 2014—launched a limited-edition range of bags with his famous Balloon Dog artwork.
However, this collaboration with Louis Vuitton goes far beyond these previous instances. First, Masters is a regular collection with more than 20 handbag models, and as many smaller pieces and accessories. Second, this meeting between the American neo-pop artist and the brand behind the monogram is that of two experts who are obsessed with perfection.
Koons, in his quest for excellence, works with the best in bronze casting and marble work. With the Louis Vuitton workshops, he seems to have found a counterpart that meets his standards. “A lot of work was done in order to get the colours close to those in the original works,” he says. “We share the same sense of care when it comes to the production of these bags. This is essential in order to be able to convey a sense of humanism, and talk about the relevance of culture.”
Photograph: Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot
As is often the case with Koons, looks can be deceiving.
We would have been wrong to go by our first impression of Masters: aesthetic bling, as the artist says so himself. With these handbags, it’s a bit as if Fragonard’s 18th-century Rococo parachuted into the Kardashian household. And not just any Fragonard: an erotic work—a favourite as per Koons, who has made sex one of his preferred themes, and who happens to own a work by the artist—that contains young girls frolicking around in bed with their bottoms in the air, with their little dog by their side.
The more conservative buyers will fall back on Van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Cypresses. “Something for every taste is needed.” His bags are a collage saturated with names, signs and symbols; like computer screens replete with ads and messages. You can find the LV monogram, Koons’s own signature, the respective artist’s name (done “street style”), and Bunny—the rabbit that represents Koons.
For the American, the rightful successor to Duchamp and Warhol, it’s about bringing these works of art into our era: of making the past and present coexist. All these symbols are evidence of the “here and now”, which make the experience associated with them, according to Koons, “metaphysical”. He doesn’t mince words, “This collection doesn’t simply speak of art, but of connectedness. We can become different through our artistic encounters. This is how we go beyond. I experienced this with Manet when I studied art; my professor was explaining Manet’s Olympia to us—especially the symbolism of the colour and the subversive nature of the scene. This totally changed the way I looked at things, and my relationship with art.”
On the inside of each handbag, Koons has printed a short piece of text, which summarises the life of each artist, the history of the artwork reproduced, and some lines on himself.
In Trump’s America, and even beyond, the journey of these relics takes on a new meaning through the strength of a brand like Louis Vuitton. “Koons feels responsible as an artist,” suggests Jérôme de Noirmont, who was his manager for a long time in Paris. “He is witness to what culture can bring to society; culture being a necessary element that brings people together.”
De Noirmont is also the producer of Bouquet De Tulips, which Koons offered to Paris in memory of the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks. The sculpture, towering at more than 11 metres, will grace the Parisian sidewalk between the Palais de Tokyo and the Museum of Modern Art. This is another way for Koons to remain connected with his (mainly French) idols. The bouquet, he says, is a reference to flowers by Monet, Fragonard and Boucher—or perhaps even Gauguin or Matisse, whose works Koons recently viewed at the Shchukin Collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton: an exhibit that was a thundering success for the luxury house, which no longer needs to justify its position as a “patron of the arts”.