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Important Art by Jeff Koons
This installation forms part of Koons' first series of artworks, The New, which he started creating in 1979 when he was still an unknown artist and working as a Wall Street commodities broker. He debuted some of the series in 1980, garnering his first public attention, but continued to work on it throughout the 1980s. The series presented vacuum cleaners in clear display cases and here, two upright Hoovers are housed in a tall plexiglass case, lit from below with fluorescent lights. In this presentation, Koons celebrates the commercial and the mundane, seeking to spark joy and wonder in the re-examination of everyday objects. Duchamp's original readymades, especially his exhibition of a urinal (Fountain, 1919), are obvious precedents for the work and Koons himself cites Duchamp as a significant influence.
Through the categorization of vacuum cleaners as art Koons explores America's fetishization of pristine commodities and their relationship to notions of gender and cleanliness. A glorification of domestic consumption was particularly prevalent in the post-war homes of the 1950s and 60s, where families were encouraged to adopt traditional gender roles, invest in labor-saving devices and display their status through the objects that they owned. Koons grew up in this atmosphere and the continued influence of his mother and the suburban ideal can be seen in this work. Parallels can also be drawn between domestic expressions of status in the 1950s and the burgeoning materialism of the 1980s in which the work was created.
The vacuum cleaner is an important recurring symbol for Koons and in conversations about it, he has also called attention to its sexual symbolism, as it "displays both male and female sexuality. It has orifices and phallic attachments." Consequently, these brand-new machines can be seen to represent preserved virgins, unused and unsullied by dirt. This reference to religious notions of purity is reinforced by the reverence and veneration with which they are presented.
This is one of the key works in Koons' Luxury and Degradation series, in which the artist sought to present images that promised the trappings of success, but also had the potential to result in degradation. Alcohol, the ultimate symbol of this type of lifestyle is represented here. Koons' inspiration for the series came to him while riding the subway in New York, during which time he surveyed "the whole spectrum of advertising" from "the lowest economic base to the highest level", and observed "how the level of visual abstraction [was] changing. The more money came into play, the more abstract. It was like they were using abstraction to debase you..."
The piece can be seen as descendent of Andy Warhol's consumer-focused work, where he appropriated and reproduced marketing graphics, most famously Campbell's soup cans. It also shows parallels with the work of Richard Prince, who re-photographed iconic advertising images. Here, however, Koons goes a step further, presenting a completely unaltered reprint of an advertisement for Hennessy cognac and in doing so he opens it up to a level of scrutiny unintended by the company. An image means one thing on a billboard and another in a gallery, where we are invited to unpack its troubling layers of meaning.
In the advertisement, an elegant African-American couple relaxes in a well-furnished apartment. The clock reads just after 2am, and the man looks up from his law books, removing his glasses and smiling at his partner who hands him a glass of Hennessy as a reminder that it is time to come to bed. "Hennessy, The civilized way to lay down the law", a caption, typical of the advertising industry's multi-layered symbolism, accompanies the image. While the advertisement presents a positive image of a minority couple as educated and aspirational the words have multiple associations, some of which are decidedly negative. The term "civilized" (which emerges both in the caption and Hennessy's slogan "The Most Civilized Spirit"), for instance, is loaded, reminding us of the bigoted assumption that people of non-European descent are less civilized. These positive and negative associations swirl around the image, reinforced by the text. While Koons' intention is clearly to give us a direct glimpse of the manipulative psychology of advertising, he makes no effort to intervene or correct the messages at the heart of this work, maintaining an aloof ambiguity.
Michael Jackson and Bubbles is an expression of Koons' abiding interest in flouting the conventions of good taste. It forms part of his Banality series, where he created giant porcelain sculptures which alluded to cheap, collectible figurines. As many of the sculptures were based on other original artworks, this led to a number of copyright lawsuits, all of which Koons lost. This ornate, slightly larger-than-life-sized sculpture, on the other hand, is based on a press photograph of the pop star and his pet monkey. Whilst it projects a garish charm, there is no clear message here and certainly no irony of the type we might expect from an artist such as Claes Oldenburg. Despite its kitsch appearance, Koons is asking the viewer to regard Michael Jackson and Bubbles as a sincere and significant artwork.
The impeccable craftsmanship, large scale, triangular arrangement (reminiscent of Michelangelo's Pieta) and significant use of gold in the piece references Medieval and Early Modern religious statues. As Koons noted, "I wanted to create him in a very god-like icon manner. But I always liked the radicality of Michael Jackson; that he would do absolutely anything that was necessary to be able to communicate with people". Thus, Koons compares religious zeal with modern celebrity worship and reminds us of the sacrifices that individuals make to maintain their celebrity status - a statement that has proved prescient in light of Jackson's untimely death. It is possible to see very similar themes in Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962). Created soon after her death, the all gold canvas and screen-printed image memorializes Munroe's celebrity status in a reverent manner whilst revealing the price of fame.