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Exhibition Never the twain shall meet?

LYNNE WALSH faces the ‘brilliant or bonkers’ conundrum of a simultaneous exhibition of work by Jeff Koons and Cy Twombly

Primal Gestures: Jeff Koons & Cy Twombly
Bastian Gallery


THE concept behind the juxtaposition of these two artists is either brilliant or bonkers.

The small but beautifully formed Bastian Gallery in London’s Mayfair is renowned for clever use of its space, and this show certainly supports that reputation.

Whether Jeff Koons, contrarian and devoted acolyte of capitalism, has anything in common with the work of the thoughtful and intuitive Cy Twombly is a moot point.

This exhibition takes its name from Primal Swish, Koons’s gigantic and garish painting, its centrepiece a rose, amid a series of swirls. The whole thing was edited and layered via Photoshop, then painted on canvas. It’s falsity brought into being.

It also brought to mind Twombly’s opinion, in an interview: “I hate roses. Don’t you? It’s all right if you can hide them in a cutting garden, but I think a rose garden is the height of ick.”

There is plenty more “ick,” care of Koons, not least Balloon Venus, the neon pink figure created with a booze company, to hold a bottle of its pink fizz. It’s considered a homage to the ancient fertility figure, the Venus of Willendorf.

Here its eyeball-assaulting bling sits in front of Twombly’s Untitled set of six lithographs. These, dismissed by some as mere scribbles when they appeared on the scene in 1971, do owe something to calligraphy. It seems important to follow each line, to try and find its purpose.

Twombly had been a cryptologist during his stint in the US Army, and there’s a powerful lure in these pieces. There’s a very pleasing exchange, entertaining our human instinct to search for meaning.

Back to the bling. Koons’s Diamond (Red) seems to be a giant red and gold ring. It’s been replicated many times, per the artist’s habit of recreating these highly saleable items. The latest iteration was last year, when he and a Limoges porcelain business turned out 599 smaller versions.

Koons said this limited edition was meaningful, in that the art did not sit only in a museum or collector’s home. They also sold for £15,700 each.

In conversation with the gallery’s sales director, Ross Thomas, I make no secret of my general loathing of Koons. It’s hard not to agree with the late, great critic Robert Hughes, who said: “He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.”

Still, there’s food for thought, and the opportunity to see a couple of Koons’s representations of sacral paintings, including Gazing Ball (Perugino Madonna and Child with Four Saints). This reproduces The Madonna in Glory with Saints, created by Italian Renaissance painter Pietro Perugino between 1500 and 1501.

The “gazing ball” here is a highly polished blue disk, effecting a mirror. Koons says he’s interested in the fact that every work of art needs a viewer, to react to it. It’s hard not to think of this conceit as ideal for our selfie-serving culture.

Thomas makes the very fair point that this is a chance to see works which might not otherwise be available in a London gallery.

The tiny space perfectly accommodates Twombly’s Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher, lithographs which seem to bear simple inscriptions – “Homer” on one, “Sappho” on another. It takes only a small step of the imagination to see these scrawled on cave walls, or stone tablets.

Whether it is brilliant or bonkers, we were still talking about this little show an hour later. It may even have taken the edge off my loathing of Koons – maybe.

Ends December 4 2021,


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