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Important Art by Jeff Koons
In Koons' work, the vacuum cleaner is an important recurring symbol. In conversations about it, he has called attention to its anthropomorphic and androgynous qualities, almost as if it were a totemic figure. "It is a breathing machine" he once stated, which "displays both male and female sexuality. It has orifices and phallic attachments." In a series entitled "The New," Koons explores America's fetishization of pristine commodities and their relationship to notions of sexuality, innocence, and cleanliness. Here, four commercial vacuum cleaners housed in a monolithic plexiglass vitrine are lit from below with fluorescent lights. Duchamp's original 'readymades', especially his presentation of a urinal in 1919 as art, are obvious precedents for this work. Whereas Duchamp turned the urinal on its head and signed it (R. Mutt), however, Koons one-ups Duchamp, giving us no visible sign of his involvement in the work. The categorization of New Hoover Convertibles as art transforms the retail display into a shrine to commerce. As "art," it evokes a host of miraculous events depicted by artists, from the raising of Lazurus to the Resurrection of Christ. We are reminded of the ways in which modern life has been transformed by living, "breathing machines." Whether Koons is celebrating or condemning this transformation is an open question. Koons' ability to put his finger on the pulse of such moral ambiguities, without telling the viewer what to think, is perhaps his greatest strength as an artist.
Completed in 1986, Jim Beam: J.B. Turner Train is one of the key works in Koons' Luxury and Degradation Series, in which the artist sought to create "fake luxury" as he put it, "visually intoxicating, disorienting," promising the trappings of success, but actuality offering degradation. Alcohol, the ultimate symbol of this type of threatening luxury, is the substance showcased by this nearly ten-foot long miniature train rendered in polished steel and filled with Jim Beam whiskey. While an uninformed viewer might reasonably assume that the whiskey is replaceable, Koons has claimed that if the contents of this work are ever consumed, it will destroy the work of art.
By insisting that the whiskey was an irreplaceable element of the artwork, Koons was, in effect, presenting his audience with the very definition of a readymade: an everyday object (or in this case a substance) presented as art, but which can only remain art as long as it is useless. Koons' statement also implies that this whiskey is different from other whiskey, leading us quickly into the direction of religious comparisons. The gleaming silver of the train invites associations with the communion vessel, which transforms wine into the blood of Christ. Other works in this exhibition, stainless steel vessels filled with alcohol and accompanied by canvases printed with liquor ads, entice us to drink and forever delay our gratification. They are intended to convey the tension created by luxury, its conflation with leisure and escape, but also its relationship to abuse and degeneracy.
This work is an unaltered reprint of an advertisement for Hennessy cognac. The presentation of this ad in a gallery opens it up to a level of scrutiny unintended by the company. 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 pretty companion. She wears his cardigan and beams at him coquettishly, handing 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.
Koons' inspiration for the series in which this and Jim Beam: J.B. Turner Train (1986) were included 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 work was exhibited alongside Koons' stainless steel trains carrying alcohol and other reprints of liquor ads in his Luxury and Degradation series. This image functions in the tradition of Duchamp's readymades, but with an element of social commentary that is almost entirely dependent upon context. An image means one thing on a billboard in Harlem and another in a high-end gallery, where we are invited to unpack its troubling layers of meaning. Symbols of status, aspiration, and wealth here are carefully designed in such a way as to target the insecurities of a minority community especially vulnerable to alcoholism. While the image reinforces a positive perception of minorities, the words have multiple associations, some of which are decidedly negative. To "lay down the law" means to give instruction in a bossy way, and is often used to describe spouses setting the limits on drinking. The term "civilized" (which emerges both in the caption and Hennessy's slogan 'The Most Civilized Spirit") is also 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. He maintains an ambiguity that would remain part of his allure for sophisticated art audiences.