Art Basel Miami Beach is more of an adult playground than it is a week of art fairs. Five days of art as a means for cutthroat commerce, lavish partying, and heavy corporate sponsorship descend upon Miami and Miami Beach, creating a spectacle that easily distracts from the appreciation and patronage of the art itself. Nate Freeman of the New York Times wrote about the fair week "squeezing art out of the picture," and some brands (we won't name names) have done just that. However, there was one particular victory in a sea of branding fails during this year's ABMB, and it was sitting just across from the Convention Center in the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, in the form of Jeff Koons' BMW M3 Art Car, which made its official North American debut.
As a union of BMW's esteemed Art Car tradition (including cars by David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Frank Stella, and Jenny Holzer), and Jeff Koons' legendary career, the car boldly sat in a glass case in the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens. Created in 2010, it's a colorful, vinyl-wrapped M3, inspired by images of race cars, speed, and explosions, with a 4.0-liter V8 engine that can reach 65 miles per hour in only 3.4 seconds.
The January before it was shown to the public, Bono presciently wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times claiming that Koons was one of a few visionaries who could reinvigorate automotive design and bring back its sex appeal. In addition to sexiness, the car Koons revealed to the world on June 1, 2010 (from which he donated his commission fee to the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children) is a statement of power, velocity, and vibrance—all elements that embody Koons' 30-plus-year career, and certainly his activity this past year, leading up to a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in June 2014 (for the last exhibition at the institution's 945 Madison Avenue location).
Beyond the Art Car's important presence at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2013 will be remembered as a year of increased accessibility to Koons and his art in mass culture. He has been assertively engaging himself and his work with the public in ways he hasn't in the last 15-20 years. After concurrent, blockbuster exhibitions at Gagosian and David Zwirner galleries in May, he teamed up with Dom Pérignon to create a Balloon Venus sculpture for their 2003 Rosé, which he celebrated with a launch in New York, where he was spotted explaining the piece to Carmelo Anthony. Gagosian Gallery filled their booth with work only by Koons at Frieze London in October, he created a larger-than-life sculpture of Lady Gaga for her ARTPOP album cover (also lending her four sculptures for the main artRave event she threw in New York on 11/11), and he is part of a 30-minute ARTST TLK video with Pharrell Williams called "Affirmation Abstraction Acceptance" that came out two weeks ago. Let's not forget that Jay Z also name-dropped Koons on Magna Carta Holy Grail's art world explosion of a song, "Picasso Baby," whose video just got nominated for a Grammy. Jay raps, “Jeff Koons balloons, I just wanna blow up.”
Jeff Koons has become a magnet for the most famous, influential artists in music, and it continued during Art Basel Miami Beach. Supposedly, he had time last Thursday to teach "art lessons" to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's daughter North West (or at least mingle with her parents, which seems more likely), shown in an image Kim Instagrammed (and cleverly captioned) at the Delano Hotel lobby. All of this has happened in the context of Koons himself joining Instagram and Twitter, solidifying his gestures to engage with the greater public in a way that he only did this overtly in the '80s and early '90s. Just when people really started to notice his momentum this year, he set the new "World Auction Record for a Living Artist," with the sale of Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold for an astronomical $58,405,000 at Christie's on November 19, 2013.
So why is Koons opening up, surrounding himself with music's biggest stars (and their children), and championing his commercial collaborations now? The appearance of the M3 Art Car, and the opening event for it, seem to embody his comeback of sorts, and his reason for doing it in such a big way—to assert his relevance, claim his place in history, beyond just art history, and foreshadow the biggest historicizing event of his career so far: his retrospective at The Whitney. He told guests at the Botanical Gardens, “I always enjoyed the Art Cars—Warhol’s Car, Roy Lichtenstein’s car, Stella’s, Calder’s—all the cars have always been fantastic...I wanted to also be involved in this dialogue of designing an Art Car. Today I’m proud that this car is there alongside their work, too.”
Koons' awareness of how art history operates has given him an advantage throughout his career, and the exceptions he's made to do commercial, pop collaborations with BMW, Dom Pérignon, and Lady Gaga this year are calculated—uniting and elevating him with the work of other iconic artists and the creative histories of these brands. In the case of Gaga, he is purposely engaging with and exposing himself to her younger generation of art-conscious fans. In the case of being in one of very few photographs of North West, he is seen as the artist Kim Kardashian and Kanye West would have teach their child how to make art. Every move, from debuting his Art Car at the Pompidou Center in 2010, where Roy Lichtenstein's 1977 car was first revealed, to admitting his intention to be a part of BMW's lineage of visual art's greats, is precise, important, and ultimately a sign that the next few months leading up to his retrospective will be filled with these types of defining moments.
When asked about what "chromosome" he has contributed to art history in T magazine earlier this year, Koons replied,
It’s more an aspect of affecting consciousness in a way, rather than any specific physical traits. I am really very interested in the exercising of freedom. The freedom of an artist to absolutely experience enlightenment and total consciousness. Absolute freedom. That is the desire. How close we allow ourselves to participate in freedom, that’s another matter.
Koons has at least partially achieved this freedom, as he admitted to the interviewer during his next answer about exhibiting at Gagosian and David Zwirner galleries simultaneously in May. The presentation of his BMW Art Car during Art Basel Miami Beach was a very strong display of his freedom, existing directly across the street from multiple booths that were guaranteed to sell his work (Gagosian, Dominique Levy, and Carolina Nitsch, among them). His Dom Pérignon balloon dog sculptures were also scattered about Miami, including at Mr. Chow and the Colette "Art Drive Thru" pop-up, further cementing his power, freedom, and ubiquity at art's most watched, attended, and discussed event of the year.
At a private press conference, BMW's Head of Cultural Engagement, Thomas Girst, talked about how Andy Warhol completed his Art Car in 20 minutes, using his fingers and a paint brush to haphazardly paint the M1. Now, it's the most valuable Art Car in their collection, and it appropriately sat in the Collector's Lounge of the main fair this year. Unlike Warhol, Koons chose a vinyl wrap for his M3 to ensure that it would be as aerodynamic as possible for the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Koons leaves no chance or possibility of failure in his art. There is only precision and dynamism engineered to captivate the viewer—the type of precision that echoes the color-by-numbers system he created in the '90s for his assistants to create canvases and sculptures to look like they were made "by a single hand."
The fair is over, Koons' works will enter the hands of their collectors, and the car and Balloon Venus sculptures have disappeared from their brief Miami takeover, but Jeff Koons will continue to chase and show his artistic freedom. The forms this freedom will take in 2014, leading up to his highly anticipated retrospective, are likely more important and spectacular than we can possibly predict. In the meantime, we'll be watching his Twitter, and anticipating which celebrity child he's seen giving art lessons to next.