As soon as he stood on the stage, Christie’s Adrien Meyer, a modern art specialist auctioneer, showed a magnum of Cheval Blanc and asked, ‘Anyone interested at 100 dollars?’ In the historic New York Plaza Hotel ballroom, hands rose in the air, so did the price. One of the main objectives of the annual Trophée des Arts is to raise more than $1.3 million to support the French Institute Alliance Française’s (FIAF) educational and cultural programs.
Once the auction got in full swing, Art dealer Larry Gagosian decided not to let that bottle of luxurious Bordeaux wine pass by and made it clear that, for $8,000, the Cheval Blanc would be his. Sitting at Gagosian’s table was his friend for 30 years, Jeff Koons, one of the two honorees of the evening along with L’Oréal Chairman & CEO Jean-Paul Agon.
“This year’s Trophée des Arts and Pilier d’Or recipients are pioneers and adventurers,” explained FIAF President Marie-Monique Steckel. “There is no doubt that each of them is a leader in beauty and exploration. Jeff Koons has reinvented contemporary art and created a conversation about new forms and ways to express artistic creation; Jean-Paul Agon has spent his career traveling the world for L’Oréal and exploring new expressions of beauty.”
If the bottle of wine set the atmosphere to raise record-breaking funds to support classes, programs and cultural exchange at France’s premier cultural destination in New York City, it was the Jeff Koons’ artworks in the live auction that created an unexpected artistic dialogue.
One of the pieces was a Bernardaud vase (actually one of only two vases that Koons has made along with the Puppy) adapted from the Split Rocker sculpture he created in 2000 at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France, originally made with 90,000 flowers. “Eventually, President Jacques Chirac made me a member of the Legion of Honor through the Split Rocker,” Koons recalled.
The other piece was one of the rare Koons’ lithographs, Monkey Train (Dots). “A very French piece,” Koons told the evening’s guests. “I was inspired by Picabia’s 1920 Portrait of Cezanne, which shows a monkey and its trail. “It is about mortality and sexual tension,” Koons added; “one technology taking over another.”
Gagosian jumped in to emphasize that “Jeff makes very few limited editions,” and the art dealer suggested $15,000 as a starting price. The print eventually sold for $38,000.
Still a bargain for one of the guests who included former Bloomberg and NBC anchor Olivia Walton (who presided over the award ceremony); Elisabeth and Bob Wilmers; Alexandre Vilgrain; Sebastian Lombardo; artists and art dealers Ron Agam, Paula Cooper, Christine Erpf, Siri Kuptamethee, Gary McCraw, the grandson of Picasso’s lithographer, Eric Mourlot, and Richard and Elodie Taittinger; President of the American friends of the Paris Opera and Ballet Olivia Flatto; publishers Martine and Prosper Assouline; designer Anne Fontaine; Lazard Chairman and CEO Kenneth Jacobs; choreographer Jérôme Bel; Bernardaud Executive director Frédéric Bernardaud; author Nathalie Regnault Sann; beauty leader Clémence von Mueffling; L’Oréal North America President Frédéric Rozé; Virginie Morgon and Marc Abelin; New York City real estate developer Harry Macklowe; and French Ambassador to the United Nations François Delattre.
Koons’ “commitment to French culture is absolutely amazing,” Gagosian explained. “His intervention at the (Château) de Versailles in 2008 was one of the most innovative, well thought and spectacular installations of art in a space that I had ever seen.”
French cultural heritage, Koons said in his acceptance speech, has made him a “better artist.”
Koons’ connection to France began as soon as he started to learn about culture. “I remember my first art history teacher bringing up a slide of Manet and talking about Olympia, the black cat and a bouquet of flowers,” Koons said. “I realized how lucky I was to be involved with art because it so effortlessly connected me to all of the human disciplines I could be involved in: philosophy and psychology, aesthetics and physics.”
“Growing up, I needed to have support and a place to learn about art.” So Koons recalled his opportunity as a child to be able to spend time in a modest art center in his neighborhood. That’s “where I made things out of popsicles sticks or I would draw – and that came from their programs.”
To Koons, art is a way to connect people in society and therefore needs to be accessible to everyone, which is one of FIAF’s main priorities.
“When you are able to educate children through the arts, it connects them to all of the humanities; it allows them to accept themselves as human beings; and once you accept yourself, you can go out into the world and you can accept other people. That really is what the journey of art is.”
The first person who congratulated Koons for his Trophée des Arts award during the Gala was the other honoree of the evening, L’Oréal Chairman and CEO Jean-Paul Agon: “Congratulations, Jeff, because ‘You’re Worth it’.”
Like Koons, Agon emphasized the need for “creative cultural ties” and the importance of “cross-cultural dialogue and understanding,” two concepts that he has focused on as the leader of the number one beauty company in the world. Acknowledging “the stellar work,” Steckel and her team at FIAF have done to strengthen the cultural values shared by France and America, Agon added, “Beauty is multicultural, just like art is.”
“Together we celebrate beauty and art, two aspirations that converge on the same idea of expression: expressing who you are, what you want to be and what you want to say – and show it to the world.”
About the Trophée des Arts: Created in 1992, the Trophée des Arts distinguishes an artist who exemplifies FIAF’s mission of French-American friendship and cross-cultural exchange. It has been bestowed upon French and American artists and cultural icons, including: François Cluzet, Alain Ducasse, Jacques Grange, Marc Jacobs, James Ivory, Angélique Kidjo, Philippe de Montebello, Charlie Rose, Robert Wilson, and most recently Françoise Gilot.
About the Pilier d’Or: The Pilier d’Or recognizes a leading business figure, diplomat or philanthropist for outstanding contributions to the French-American community. Former honorees include Pierre Bellon (Sodexo), Thierry Breton (ATOS), Paul Desmarais Jr. (Power Corporation of Canada), Carlos Ghosn (Renault-Nissan Alliance), Fabrice Grinda (internet entrepeneur and investor); Alexandre de Juniac (Air France – KLM), Jean-Bernard Lévy (Vivendi), Christophe de Margerie (TOTAL), and Bernard Poussot (Wyeth).
ABOUT FIAF: The French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) is New York’s premiere French cultural and language center. FIAF’s mission is to create and offer New Yorkers innovative and unique programs in education and the arts that explore the evolving diversity and richness of French cultures. FIAF seeks to generate new ideas and promote cross-cultural dialogue through partnerships and new platforms of expression. www.fiaf.org