Earlier this month in Paris, Jeff Koons inaugurated “Bouquet of Tulips.” The piece is forty-one feet tall. Commissioned by the former United States Ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, it was intended as a gift to the city of Paris, in remembrance of the victims of the terrorist attacks that took place there in 2015 and 2016. I don’t know about you, but, if I were creating a monument to the victims of terrorist attacks, a pallid, disembodied hand wouldn’t be my first thought. In “Bouquet of Tulips,” the hand clutches a spray of flowers that are supposed to look as though they were fashioned from balloons. Its squeaky-clean fingernails are the essence of Koons. No labor, all management. The skin is white, of course. The blooms are pink, orange, red, white, yellow, green, and blue. Deli flowers, from us to the French people.
A taut moneyed crowd gathered to celebrate the work’s installation, in a little park behind the Petit-Palais, just off the Champs-Élysées. The fabrication of the sculpture, which cost nearly four million dollars, was funded by a group of French and American benefactors, including Hartley (a former consultant and Obama bundler) and her husband, Ralph Schlosstein (investment management), Kenneth C. Griffin (hedge funds), and Leon Black (private equity). Corporate sponsors included Bloomberg, JPMorgan, Tishman Speyer, and L.V.M.H. Donors made the rounds in the fall sunshine. Their sons were in blazers and braces. Chestnuts hurtled to the ground with alarming velocity, and you thought about the life-insurance policies.
The ceremony began. Speaking at a lectern, Hartley said that “Bouquet of Tulips” was meant to represent the values that America and France hold in common. One value on which the two countries often differ is unfettered free-market capitalism, as embodied by Koons, who recently earned $91.1 million for a balloon dog, and by the donors, several of whom own Koonses, the value of which, no doubt, inflates like a balloon dog when Koons is selected for historic public commissions. “Bouquet of Tulips” had been embattled from its inception, when figures from the height of French culture published a letter in Libération, urging the abandonment of the “opportunistic, even cynical” project. As the controversy continued, the city decided to move the monument from its proposed location, in front of the Palais de Tokyo, to the less prominent site at the Petit-Palais. The suspicion persists that the piece is a joke on the French, a sort of Trojan Hand meant to project American superiority rather than sympathy. Writing in L’Obs, just after the unveiling of the sculpture, the philosopher Yves Michaud likened it to “eleven colored anuses mounted on stems.” If nothing else, Koons will have given the French the gift of a new portmanteau word: “culipes,” or “asstulips.”
Koons shoved his bouquet into the chest of the city with a smile. “Bonjour,” he said, at the dedication ceremony. “I would like to thank everyone for being here today.” Koons was selected, according to the organizers, in his capacity as “one of the greatest artists of our time, a great lover of Paris and France, whose work is steeped in references to French art history.” He is known for speaking about his work in a way that is both generic and grandiose. Even by these standards, his description of “Bouquet of Tulips” as a “symbol of offering, which is represented by the outstretched hand holding a colorful bouquet of inflatable flowers,” seemed as though he had cribbed it from a Wikipedia entry.
In the days leading up to the work’s unveiling, the French press attempted to probe Koons about the sculpture’s meaning. This was a fair instinct: the gift of American good intentions is a suspicious package, historically speaking. “In 2016, Paris was already reeling from the attacks of 2015. Then the context changed radically—in America, with the election of Donald Trump, and in France, which rediscovered its contentious nature. Do you feel like the victim of that context?” Valérie Duponchelle, of Le Figaro, asked, trying to get Koons to engage with the political context of the uproar. Koons replied, “Our project was to show our empathy, to celebrate our common values, and the belief that together we could prove that the friendship between our two countries was stronger than anything, that the union was strong, that freedom united is.” Duponchelle tried again, evoking American imperialism, and Koons said that he’d prefer to stay out of that debate.
Koons has pointed to the Statue of Liberty and Picasso’s “Friendship Bouquet” as inspirations. It is impressive that he and Hartley managed to manifest a major piece of public art from the inchoate need to do something. But, as a gift, “Bouquet of Tulips” seems more attuned to the whims of its givers than to the needs of its recipients. No survivors spoke at the ceremony, and no victim’s name was mentioned.
The lack of clarity about the sculpture’s purpose is matched by the illogic of its symbolism. Koons has explained that the bouquet is incomplete, comprising only eleven flowers, “as if you bought a box of eggs and one was missing.” But flowers aren’t eggs; they don’t come in twelves. And, even if they did, it would seem ungenerous to offer a lacking bunch to people who are grieving. About “Bowl with Eggs,” originally from 1994, Koons said that a missing twelfth egg represented the “the loss of my son,” over whom he’d been fighting a long custody battle. To recycle this gesture in the context of the actual loss of people’s sons seems insensitive, if not outright lazy.
Koons’s admirers place him in a vanguard of challenging art, and to criticize him is to risk philistinism. “His pieces can be obnoxious, offensive; and he’s always trying new stuff . . . that unsettles and invites reassessment,” the critic Roberta Smith wrote this May, in a polemic titled “Stop Hating Jeff Koons.” At the ceremony, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, acknowledging the controversy that had surrounded “Bouquet of Tulips,” placed the piece in a lineage of works that Parisians had rejected before coming to recognize for their genius: the Eiffel Tower (Joris-Karl Huysmans called it “a hole-riddled suppository”), I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre (André Fermigier called it a “cheese dome”), Daniel Buren’s striped columns at the Palais-Royal (a monuments commission called it “too modern and highly intellectual”). She was almost persuasive. We know the docility of our outrage. But what’s provocation when you’re phoning it in? “Bouquet of Tulips” may go down as a great work of monumental art, or as a sixty-six-ton addition to the pile of stuff that materializes in the aftermath of every tragedy.