Progression of Art
New Hoover Convertibles
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.
Vacuum cleaners, plexiglass and fluorescent lights - The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Hennessy, The Civilized Way To Lay Down the Law
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.
Oil inks on canvas - Private Collection
Michael Jackson and Bubbles
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.
Porcelain - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
Made in Heaven
Made in Heaven, a series of large-scale photographs and sculptures depicting Koons in a variety of sexually explicit poses with the Italian porn star, Ilona Staller, remains the artist's most polarizing and controversial series. The exhibition, which premiered in 1991 at the Sonnabend Gallery, included this billboard, announcing a feature film Koons intended to produce with La Cicciolina (Staller's stage name), a scheme that was never realized. Koons and Staller, who met during the project, married in 1991 and divorced three years later, sparking a lengthy custody battle over their son, Ludwig.
Even critics who had thus far liked Koons' work sought to distance themselves from this series, which elicited virtually universal condemnation. Koons' heterosexual, condom-less images seemed tasteless at the height of the AIDS epidemic and Made in Heaven came in the wake of censorship of Robert Maplethorpe's work, seeming to mock the concerned art establishment. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times opened his review with the scathing reflection: "Just when it looked as if the 80's were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade." Other critics were not much more generous.
While other artists, from Carolee Schneeman to Vito Acconci, had featured themselves in sexually explicit acts, and the poses in Koons' work quoted well-known old master paintings, the general view was that Koons, by showcasing himself as a porn star (and Staller, who really was a porn star) in these images, had overstepped the boundaries of good taste. This, of course, was precisely the point, breaking new ground in blurring the line between erotic imagery and pornography. Continuing a line of reasoning that begins much earlier in his work, Made in Heaven raises the question, if a poster and a vacuum cleaner can constitute art, why not pornographic imagery?
Lithograph Billboard - Private Collection
Balloon Flower (Red)
Koons' most famous works to date are his towering sculptures inspired by balloon animals. This one stands over ten feet tall and weighs in excess of a ton. Its shiny exterior, according to the artist, is intended to "manipulate and seduce". Unlike the cheap rubber it imitates, the surface of Balloon Flower evokes the shininess of precious metals. Since this really is metal, its immaculate, reflective surface and perfectly concealed joints invite us to marvel in the absolute symmetry and perfection of the objects. Up close, however, the overall composition fades, and the viewer is confronted by his or her own distorted, imperfect image. Koons is often compared to British artist Anish Kapoor and it possible to see the resemblance between Koons' balloon sculptures and Kapoor's mirrored work, most notably Cloud Gate (2006), a large public sculpture in Millennium Park, Chicago.
Koons once remarked that he believed Balloon Dog (part of the same Celebration series) to be "a very optimistic piece, it's a balloon that a clown would maybe twist for you at a birthday party. But at the same time it's a Trojan Horse. There are other things here that are inside: maybe the sexuality of the piece." The work recalls the unbridled optimism and wonder of childhood, while functioning simultaneously as a reminder of this naive state of development, replaced in adulthood by covetousness for luxury and beauty. The idea that commerce is the new religion is, in many ways, the key to Koons' oeuvre.
Mirror polished stainless steel with transparent color coating - Photo from the small park in front of 7 World Trade Center in New York City
One of the largest and most complex sculptures in Koons' Celebration series, Play-Doh appears to be formed from giant, haphazardly arranged scraps of the famous modelling substance. However, it is actually constructed from twenty-seven interlocking pieces of aluminum. Requiring significant engineering, the sections are held together by gravity alone and in Koons' search for perfection each piece is painted in its entirety even though only parts are visible to the viewer. For generations of adults, the mere sight of Play-Doh is nostalgic, conjuring the scent and tactile appeal of it. Many of us make our first sculptures out of Play-Doh, so there is a humorous, self-referential element in this work by one of the world's most famous sculptors, returning to square one. Only here, the Play-Doh has been monumentalised. The mound dwarfs the viewer and serves as a visceral memorial to childhood. This is particularly poignant as Koons states that the work was inspired by his son who, as a toddler, presented his father with a similar mound of Play-Doh, "He was so proud. I looked at it, and I thought this is really what I try to do every day as an artist, to make objects that you can't make any judgements about. That it's perfect, that you just experience acceptance."
Clear parallels can be drawn between Play-Doh and the work of Mike Kelley, particularly his pieces that include large assemblages of childhood toys such as More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin (1987) and Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991-99). In the latter, Kelley utilizes amorphous spheres of plush toys to satirize the dogma associated with Abstract Expressionism. In many ways, Koons is doing the same thing, this sculpture appears to fall into the expressionist canon, but although it has the appearance of spontaneity, it is actually minutely designed and engineered. Furthermore, it presents the tensions generated by the modern artist who is a designer rather creator. The piece appears to have been shaped by human hands, bearing the imprints of giant fingers, but has actually been created via a fabrication process undertaken by staff without the physical involvement of the artist.
The Celebration series focuses on parties, holidays and other similar annual landmarks and in doing so Koons highlights the passage of time. Many of the pieces reference these celebrations through the trappings of childhood and through this Koons draws attention to the cycle of birth, growth, and sex and emphasizes the human drive to procreate. The artist has indirectly referenced this process in Play-Doh, stating that, "If you take Play-Doh apart...they're organic shapes that all stack on top of each other...so that these surfaces are meeting on the inside and you never see that...the public doesn't see it but I think that you feel it and it has kind of a Freudian quality to it. I really thought that Play-Doh captures the twentieth century and you have this aspect of Freud with this mound of Play-Doh and the way the organic shapes are on top of each other."
First unveiled at Koons' 2014 Retrospective Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Play-Doh was the culmination of two decades of planning and execution. From this showing it garnered almost universal admiration, with Roberta Smith describing it in the New York Times as "a new, almost certain masterpiece whose sculptural enlargement of a rainbow pile of radiant chunks captures exactly the matte textures of the real thing, but also evokes paint, dessert and psychedelic poop".
Polychromed aluminum - Bill Bell Collection
Hulk (Organ) is one of a number of similar works from the Hulk Elvis series in which Koons pairs sculptures of the cartoon character, The Incredible Hulk with incongruous props such as children's toys, a replica of the Liberty Bell and a wheelbarrow filled with live flowers. As such, the pieces play with concepts of gender, combining the testosterone-fueled Hulk with more conventionally feminine symbols. In doing so, Koons attempts to balance the traditional masculinity of the Hulk with a more neutral depiction of gender.
The sculptures closely mimic the appearance of vinyl inflatables, but are actually constructed from polychromed bronze, creating a sense of visual trickery and playfulness and contrasting an appearance of weightlessness with the actual solidity of the works. Inflatables are a reoccurring theme in Koons' work and this can be traced back to his Inflatables series (1978-79) where he presented a selection of cheap, store-bought inflatable flowers (and a rabbit) surrounded by mirrors which reflected the objects, distorting and multiplying their appearance and challenging the viewer to determine what was real. The Hulk Elvis series can be seen as a direct development of this early work as Koons continues to challenge notions of perception, presenting something that is in opposition to what it seems.
In Hulk Organ, keys, pipes, and buttons protrude from the Hulk's body creating a fully working and very powerful organ, albeit one that intentionally has some keys missing and does not produce a perfect pitch. This combination of precision and exuberance, seen in both the sculpture itself and in the organ, reflects the combination of rationality and chaos seen in the character of the Hulk, but also references the Asian traditional of guardian gods, who can be both welcoming and violent. As Koons explains, "Hulk Elvis represents for me both Western and Eastern culture, a sense of a guardian, a protector, that at the same time is capable of bringing the house down".
Polychromed bronze, mixed media - The Broad
Seated Ballerina forms Part of Koons' Antiquity series, which fuses imagery and techniques from ancient and modern art. Koons envisioned the piece to be a contemporary interpretation of the mythical Roman Goddess, Venus. A common trope in ancient and classical art, Koons notes that, "You could be looking at a Venus of Willendorf or some of the oldest Venuses. It is really about beauty and even a sense of contemplation, a sense of ease." The dancer's pose is reminiscent of a traditional depiction of Venus, rooting the figure in historical precedent, but it is also visibly contemporary, merging past and present. Koons comparison of this sculpture, which seems to depict a teenage girl, with the Roman goddess of sex and fertility, however, drew some criticism for the sexualization of young women.
Based on a small porcelain figurine by the Ukrainian artist, Oksana Zhnikrup, who produced a range of similar designs for factory production in the Soviet Union, Koons has scaled the image up to create a larger-than-life rendering in futuristic color-coated steel. In doing so, he revisits questions about art, industrial production and mass market appeal, a discussion that is particularly applicable to his own practice, in which multiple copies of the same work are created by industrial processes (this sculpture is one of four produced).
The reflective surface of the piece allows the viewer to see themselves in the sculpture. As Koons notes, "in a reflective surface, your existence is being affirmed. When you move, your abstracted reflection changes. The experience is dependent upon you; it lets you know that art is happening inside of you." Placing the viewer at the center of the artwork in this manner features in a number of Koons's most significant works including his Celebration series as well as elsewhere in the Antiquity series. Most notable on this front, however, are his Gazing Ball paintings and sculptures (2012-15) in which he had assistants meticulously copy Old Master paintings and classical sculptures. On or in front of these were placed blue shiny spheres which reflected the viewer and their surroundings and inserted them into the artwork. As Koons explains this demonstrates both "the vastness of the universe and at the same time the intimacy of right here, right now".
Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating - Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA)