Andy Warhol may be the artist most commonly cited as Jeff Koons’s conceptual forefather, but ‘Appearance Stripped Bare: Desire and the Object in the Work of Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons, Even’, an exhibition of more than 80 works spanning three floors of the Museo Jumex, makes a compelling case for pairing Koons with Duchamp. On the one hand, as major international museums move to redress historical inequality of representation, an exhibition of this scale featuring two canonized, straight, white male artists feels neither particularly urgent nor responsive to the zeitgeist. On the other hand, the exhibition’s curator, New Museum Director Massimiliano Gioni, seemed intent on largely side-stepping the present, as he emphasized repeatedly throughout the press conference (and noted in the exhibition catalogue) that Koons and Duchamp bookend the 20th century. Such an historical approach not only skirts the issue of digital technology, social media and ‘selfie culture’ (especially relevant given how contemporary audiences tend to interact with Koons’s work), but also conveniently elides contemporary polemics. Trotting out Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy as a queer icon, for instance, isn’t enough to make an exhibition radically inclusive.
And yet, the exhibition is a welcome one for Mexico City, where neither artist had yet been the subject of a retrospective. A solo presentation of Koons – the original plan before Gioni was brought on – might have been a more obvious fit for this venue founded by the mega-collector Eugenio López Alonso, the sole heir to the Jumex fruit juice fortune and owner of at least one Koons work on display. But it is Duchamp whom Gioni links most closely to Mexico, borrowing the show’s hypertrophied title from a book devoted to Duchamp, written by the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz in 1973.
The connections between both artists are so rife they seem almost too obvious, from the artists’ mutual embrace of the readymade, to their provocative engagement with erotic subjects, fetishization of commodity culture and exploration of the ‘cult of the self’. These themes are fleshed out in an elegant hang that includes a full set of the 1964 edition of Duchamp’s iconic readymades alongside Koons’s plexiglass-encased vacuum cleaners, New Hoover Convertibles Green, Green, Red, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, New Shelton Wet/Dry 5 Gallon Displaced Tripledecker (1981–87). The effect is dazzling. A light-filled atrium gallery features Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1961, after the 1935–41 original) in a prominent circular vitrine at the centre of the room. The making of the portable miniature monograph – featuring 68 reproductions of the artist’s own works – preoccupied Duchamp; it was a tender act of preservation on the eve of exile, an attempt to distil the contents of an artistic life into mobile form. Four Koons sculptures form a sparse perimeter, but the most thematically resonant is his Liberty Bell (2006–2014), a perfect replica, in bronze, wood and iron, of what might be the most iconic symbol of the American Revolution. While many of Koons’s works toy with scale – enlarging or shrinking the original source material – his Liberty Bell is an obsessively faithful copy. In Liberty Bell’s company, Duchamp’s miniaturized oeuvre assumes a more symbolic mien, gesturing toward the independence that characterized the US, his adoptive country, where he fled the tyranny of Nazi Europe in 1942.
The Boîte-en-valise, however, at its intimate scale, signals what might be the greatest challenge to the exhibition: a question of visibility, both literal and figurative. Duchamp’s small works must vie for attention with Koons’s towering sculptures: the very first thing one sees in approaching the museum is Koons’s 45-foot-high inflatable nylon Seated Ballerina (2017), installed in the outdoor entrance plaza. There is no avoiding this seductive, unnerving creature, looming against the Soumaya Museum’s silver-tiled tsunami. Some visitors will also arrive equipped with knowledge of the record-breaking auction results for Koons’s Rabbit (1986), which sold for a sensational USD $91,075,000 the very week the exhibition opened (produced in an edition of three, the work features here, too, as compelling bait). All this bluster makes Koons the undisputed headliner, though the exhibition includes a very generous number of works by Duchamp, many of them rare and infrequently exhibited. These risk being reduced to historical context, a kind of intellectual varnish for Koons’s sometimes vapid-seeming work. But Koons doesn’t need it; the public certainly doesn’t either. Among the museum’s consumer products created for the occasion were cans of Jumex juice printed with an image of Rabbit, and emblazoned with ‘KOONS’. In smaller font: ‘Sin Pulpa,’ literally ‘Without Pulp,’ but figuratively, perhaps, a winking pun for the artist’s lack of substance. Duchamp, I suspect, would have loved that.
‘Appearance Stripped Bare’ runs at Museo Jumex, Mexico City, through 29 September 2019.
Main image: ‘Appearance Stripped Bare: Desire and the Object in the Work of Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons, Even’, 2019, exhibition view. Photograph: Moritz Bernoully