Monument to the King of Pop

June 25, 2009

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

Michael Jackson’s sudden death just about knocked me out of my seat when the news started hitting the web today. As with nearly everyone else in the entire world, Jackson has been a pop culture presence in my life since I was a kid. I can’t say I’ve been a big fan of his music since the Thriller days, but Michael was such a singular entity that liking his music has always been but a fragment of what it means to engage with his globe-conquering celebrity.

Within minutes of the news breaking my rss reader immediately became clogged with bloggers offering up their favorite mp3s and videos. It’s a natural inclination, sure. But perhaps because I’m here at the museum, I felt the urge to pay tribute in another way: I left my office, ascended the BCAM escalator, and went to Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

Suddenly the sculpture took on a whole new meaning. I felt like I was standing before a gravestone. I wished I had flowers I could set down. A handful of others were in the gallery passing by the sculpture and I stopped them—“hey, did you hear?” I asked. They hadn’t, so I broke the news, which seemed to make them linger next the artwork in a way they weren’t about to otherwise.

Koons’s sculpture has all of a sudden become a kind of monument. It’s still a funny work of art, but as of today, a little less funny. Michael, outfitted in a suit of gold, reclines on a bed of golden flowers holding his golden monkey. It encapsulates everything I feel about the star—it’s garish, ridiculous, frankly a little creepy and hilarious, and fun. If Michael were only an artist—if his music were his only legacy—then Koons’s sculpture wouldn’t resonate anew. But Michael was so much more: a global phenomenon, possibly the first modern tabloid trainwreck, and untouchable pop culture royalty. What king doesn’t have his monument in gold? I stood in front of Koons’s sculpture for five or ten minutes, considering Jackson’s legacy in a way that simply playing an album can’t really evoke.

Scott Tennent

(P.S. One more oddity—this is the second time today that art at LACMA has been linked with a celebrity death.)