All Mixed Up

koons 3 getty All Mixed UpThere’s a fashion in the art world these days for shows that mix the old with the new,  a vogue for hanging contemporary art in Venetian palazzos or Old Masters in modern spaces like the Menil Collection in Houston or the Schaulager in Basel.

Nowhere has this practice been as visible, and as controversial, as at the Palace of Versailles. The historic French landmark hosted a major Jeff Koons exhibition in 2008 and is now presenting a Takashi Murakami show; both have been met with reproach and contempt. Caving into protesters and public pressure earlier this month, palace president Jean-Jacques Aillagon announced that contemporary art would no longer be installed in the palace’s most historic rooms.

I took a trip to Paris to see the Murakami show, the show that prompted 12,000 protestors to sign a petition opposed to exhibiting contemporary art in Versailles. Initially having dismissed them as anti-art lunatics, I began to doubt myself, and asked the simple questions: Why put contemporary art next to historic works in historic places at all? Are people doing this just to make contemporary art look fancy and expensive–just a ploy by dealers and collectors to pump up the value? Is there a legitimate reason for doing this?

Unlike the protesting Versailles zealots, I was a huge fan of Koons at Versailles. Viewing Bourgeois Bust, Ushering in Banality and, of course, the great aluminum cast of Koons’ Louis the IV in the hallowed halls of Versailles is one of the most memorable shows I have ever seen, nothing less than fantastic. I had been to Versailles as a child, and I had been as an adult, and the only next time I would likely have gone would be to take my children on a perfunctory visit when they are old enough.

Truth be told, no matter how great a historic site is, or how great a museum of classics, few of us return over and over again; we usually seek out something new to see. So the purpose of these shows is not to promote contemporary art, but rather to breathe life into historic places, give us an excuse to revisit them and a context to explore new works with the old.

Was it appropriate in the summer of 2009 to hang a suite of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs in the Accademia galleries of Florence, home to the world’s greatest Michelangelos? Though I wasn’t a fan of the show, I didn’t want to criticize it, because at least someone was trying to bring back Michelangelo into some discussion and rethinking. I’m not a Mapplethorpe fan, but the show made things interesting. It was a unlikely juxtaposition–save for the artists’ shared homoerotic focus, perhaps, photography and sculpture make for a poor pairing. Nonetheless, I’d rather see a museum experiment than just let the old masterpieces collect school tours and dust.

Such “mixtape” shows don’t always work as planned. The most recent commercial example of the vogue is at Sotheby’s, where an exhibition inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy has been an opportunity to combine contemporary art with some Old Master paintings arranged around the overbroad theme of Heaven and Hell. (The danger of such shows comes when it looks like the contemporary artworks are carrying the Old Masters on their back, or vice versa.) Here, the mixing of different periods and mediums makes good sense for Sotheby’s private sales department–which is, openly, the point of the show.  At least there are no mixed messages.

My visit to Versailles, however, did not leave me feeling the same way. Ironically, I agree with the 12,000 anti-art petition signers, but for a totally different reason. When Mr. Murakami really broke out on the international art scene after the Fondation Cartier show in 2002, I was one of his biggest fans in the world. I followed him all over, buying up every painting that I could. What other artist had ever crossed over from Japan and crashed the insular Western art world? Though he was dismissed as cartoonish for years, eventually the world caught on that his visions were actually apocalyptic post-Hiroshima fantasies, and that his Shinto-derived nationalism was actually a subtle critique of Western culture and Western art values.

None of this was brought to Versailles, unfortunately; the Murakami who showed up was an artist who had hundreds of studio assistants in several studios spread out from L.A. to Tokyo, and all the expenses and animation projects appeared to be a major monkey on his back. In the entire show, only two good sculptures stood out: the monumental Mr Pointy in the Hercules salon, and the huge Golden Oval Buddha in the garden. All the other stuff just looked stale and worse, against the beautiful backdrop of the palace.

I got a bit of an explanation from the press release. Of the 22 works in the show, 11 were “specially commissioned” pieces. I suppose this is the new euphemism for “available for sale,” and that’s what really bothered me. Mr. Murakami was given the wonderful opportunity to show some of his masterpieces in this fantastic dream setting of Versailles, but instead he chose to install new and shiny works and use the place as a fancy showroom. What a poor and shortsighted decision, just at the time that his market is in a lull.  This was the perfect time to give collectors new enthusiasm and energy, but instead he showed us mediocre and unoriginal modest-size sculptures that are packed, crated, gilded and ready to ship.

I don’t blame Versailles for kicking out contemporary art if this is what happens. Although Mr. Aillagon insists that his shows of contemporary art will continue outside the main rooms of the Palace (though not in its most famous spaces, such as the Hall of Mirrors and the King and Queen’s apartments), and though I am thankful for that and intend to go back, I hope that next time he will ensure that the whole place doesn’t stink of commerce. I have to believe Damien Hirst would have done a much better job (imagine the shark in the Hall of Mirrors), as long as the curator made sure it didn’t turn into a selling show–something that artist,  too, is known for.

In 2012, we are promised Maurizio Cattelan at Versailles. His dark and comic works will be amazing, and I expect he is too smart to let himself fall into the trap of facile overproduction and greedy selling strategies. I love to see contemporary art in historic contexts, and I hope we can see more of it: Just imagine John Currin at the Frick, or Richard Prince at the Morgan Library, or why not Carl Andre?

It is the responsibility of the curators to make sure the quality is high enough, and that the works don’t all have price tags. When the show is done right, the historic purity buffs look like backward, culture-fearing philistines, and the public gets to see great art.

editorial@observer.com