I’ll tell you straight out, this is a classic cover. When you’re listing the 100 best covers of the 21st century, this will be right up there. Typographically it’s an AA+, visually it’s AAA.
Jeff Koons is one of the best artists around: a funny guy who is seriously good. Here he has given us a game of spot-the-art-historical reference. This is Gaga as Venus. Specifically Botticelli’s version in his Birth of Venus (1486), in whose shell she sits and flowing golden locks she echoes.
But she’s taken a few stops along the art historical way. Koons has done to Botticelli’s Venus, what Edouard Manet – the father of modern art – did to Titian’s Venus in his painting Olympia (1863). That is to bring her bang up to date. Manet did it by turning Venus into a hooker; Koons has done it by transforming her into a pop star. In both cases they have done away with the wistful gaze into the middle distance favoured by the renaissance artists, and instead have their modern versions challenging the viewer by staring directly into his eyes. These are not women to be messed with.
He is also making a nod to Andy Warhol, the high priest of Pop Art (with Gaga being the high priestess of Art Pop?). Warhol toyed with art historical references when recasting a pop culture princess as a venerated goddess in Marilyn Diptych (1962), made shorty after Marilyn Monroe died. A Diptych was an ancient hinged tablet or painting that could be used as an altar piece in front of which people would pray. The left side represented the living, the right side the dead. Warhol alluded to this by presenting Marilyn in colour on the left side and in black and white on the right. Now look at the background of the Koons cover of ‘Artpop’.
Koons has not left out art references from this century in his post-modern mash up. Gaga’s legs-akimbo pose is taken from Tracey Emin’s I’ve Got It All (2000), in which we see the YBA – legs wide apart – shovelling money into her groin (I’ll leave you to work out the rhyming slang). But Gaga doesn’t have money between her legs; she has a Jeff Koons sculpture, or is it an Anish Kapoor sphere? Either way, it reflects money metaphorically and an image literally: a surrealist mind-game worthy of Dali himself, who happens to be one of Koons’s great heroes.
His shtick is to play with our perceptions of fine art and pop culture: to make the low high and the high low. His Michael Jackson sculpture is one example, as are the pornographic portraits of him and his then wife La Cicciolina, the Italian politician and porn star, making out. The images are gross or amusing depending on your sensibilities at first, and then become darker and more sinister the more you think about them. Koons’s art asks questions about values, taste, capitalism, reality and beauty. They are designed to appeal to our eyes and mess with our soul. His new album cover for Lady Gaga fits that bill.
Will Gompertz is Arts Editor of the BBC. Previously he was director of Tate for seven years. He is the author of What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye