Jeff Koons unveils new project - painting handbags for LV

A close up photo of Louis Vuitton bag created by US artist Jeff Koons at the launch party at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, on April 11, 2017.
A close up photo of Louis Vuitton bag created by US artist Jeff Koons at the launch party at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, on April 11, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - "They touch on the metaphysical: the right here right now and its connection to the past and the future. They're about shine, the basics of philosophy, passion, what it means to be a human, what it means to be an animal, the idea of transcendence." That was Jeff Koons, genius or charlatan, depending on whom you talk to - an artist known for elevating children's toys and vacuum cleaners to the stature of the Greek gods, sitting in the office area of his 35,000-square-foot studio meditating on his latest project: a multifaceted series he has been working on under conditions of the utmost secrecy for well over a year, entitled Masters.

Now, on the verge of the unveiling, Koons was sparkling of eye, beatific of mien and bountiful of reference. "Working on this, I felt a sense of my own potential, and the sharing of that with a large community," he said happily.

What was this wormhole to the eternal?

Another enormous public sculpture, like Split Rocker, the 37-foot-high flower-covered rocking horse bust that had pride of place in Rockefeller Center in 2014? A museum retrospective, like the career-defining show at the Whitney the same year?

Broaden your minds, people! A new line of handbags.

Also scarves, key chains and small leather goods, including wallets and laptop sleeves - 51 pieces in all - done in collaboration with French luxury house Louis Vuitton. Although Koons has flirted with fashion before, working on one-off collections with Stella McCartney and H&M, this is the first time he has created an original design for a brand, as opposed to simply plunking a reproduction of his work onto a product or remaking a sculpture as a necklace.

Inspired by Koons' Gazing Ball series of paintings from 2015, which featured exacting reproductions of various masterworks (Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, Monet's Water Lilies, Klimt's The Kiss) with blue reflective spheres normally used as lawn ornaments affixed on top and refracting the viewer, the collection comprises five of the most famous paintings in history, including the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh's Wheat Field With Cypresses and Rubens' The Tiger Hunt, all of which have been reproduced in high-definition detail on some of Vuitton's most classic leather bags.

In place of a gazing ball, each bag has been adorned with highly reflective gold or silver letters spelling the artist's name on the outside like a giant piece of hip-hop jewelry. The bottom edge features Koons' initials - or logo - in one corner and Vuitton's logo on the other. The leather loop around the handle that normally secretes a lock or an identification tag has been recut to resemble the Koons balloon bunny.

"It's a ménage à trois!" said Michael Burke, the chief executive of Vuitton.

That makes the collection sound kind of kinky, but at first glance, despite the buildup, it looks like nothing so much as a bunch of souvenir bags from a museum shop, all remade as luxury accessories. Which in turn tends to elicit the reaction (not uncommon at first sight of Koons' work): "You've got to be kidding." Though, of course, they are not. At all.

Larry Gagosian, one of Koons' gallerists, thinks the Vuitton collaboration makes perfect sense in the arc of his career. "Jeff is one of the few artists who can step into that water without screwing up his day job," he said. "It's not the kind of thing Mark Rothko would do, but arguably Andy Warhol paved the way for this, and Jeff has been inspired by the example of Warhol to a degree.

"Some people will probably think it's too commercial, that serious artists shouldn't make handbags. But I also think a lot of people will really dig them. They are extremely marketable."

Burke added: "People are going to think, 'How dare they?' But that's good, because then you have to think, 'Why do I think that?'"

The issue here is not exactly a mystery. On one hand, Vuitton is exploiting art for its own gain. On the other, an artist is selling out. In the middle, consumers are being introduced to great art as if it is disposable.

In part to counter this, Vuitton and Koons have added a subnarrative to the project that spins it as an effort to address the falling profile of classical art - a civic service, if you will. Inside each bag, for example, is a little description of the artist, like a hidden history lesson for the Twitter generation.

And they have the support of the museums. They didn't need them - the art is all in the public domain - but they wanted the best quality photographs to work from, which meant using high-resolution shots that the institutions keep for their records. Jean-Luc Martinez, the director of the Louvre, was on board very quickly. "I totally agree with this project," he said.

None of his peers refused. "They immediately got that for classical art to compete with contemporary art, you need to get it on the street," Burke said. "They all said, 'We want these artists to be better known.'" At recent auctions contemporary art sold better than old masters.

Gagosian said, "The more people who look at great art, the better for our culture."

The collection finally met the public in Paris on Tuesday evening at a starry dinner at the Louvre. Koons was there. (He has become a convert to Louis Vuitton suiting, at least for formal occasions. For working, he tends to navy Theory shirts, navy Joe's Jeans and sneakers; he seems to have a thing about blue.) So were Catherine Deneuve and Michelle Williams. Alicia Vikander wasn't, though she will be the face of the collaboration.

"She has a Mona Lisa-ish quality, no?" Burke asked.

The bags won't be sold online. They will be offered only in certain Vuitton stores and a special pop-up store opening in New York this month. Burke is preparing himself for some fallout. He is also preparing for a possible second line.

"Well, there are over 40 artists in the Gazing Ball series," he said. "There's lots of opportunity there." Koons said, "I can't wait to see the bags in the real world," adding that he would probably start to carry the Rubens Keepall, a duffel-like bag, instead of the basic black shoulder bag he now uses. He said he was excited "to find out what people will choose, and what clothes they will wear with the bags, what type of presentation of themselves they will display". The whole experience, he noted, "made me want to make more things that are accessible to people". It's a good line. The question is: Will anyone buy it?