Progression of Art
New Hoover Convertibles Green, Blue; New Hoover Convertibles Green, Blue; Double Decker
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.
Vacuum cleaners, plexiglass and fluorescent lights - The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Jim Beam: J.B. Turner Train
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.
Stainless Steel, Bourbon - Private Collection
Hennessy, The Civilized Way To Lay Down the Law
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.
Oil inks on canvas - Private Collection
Michael Jackson and Bubbles
Michael Jackson and Bubbles is perhaps the ultimate expression of Koons' abiding interest in flouting the conventions of good taste. Unlike his re-presentation of advertisements for Cognac, there is no obvious moralizing message here, nor is there any irony, of the type we might expect from an artist like Claes Oldenburg. This ornate, slightly larger-than-life-sized porcelain sculpture is based on a photograph of the pop star and his pet monkey, Bubbles. Its garish charm is a brazen assault on the refined sensibilities of the art world insider. On the other hand, gilt is a material associated with Christian iconography since the middle ages. In keeping with Koons' approach to similarly banal forms like the vacuum cleaner, it reconstructs Jackson as a religious icon, evokes celebrity worship in pop culture, and reminds us of the sacrifices individuals had to make to maintain their celebrity status - a statement that proved prescient in light of Jackson's untimely death. The impeccable craftsmanship - commensurate with that of a Renaissance masterpiece - and imposing scale of this sculpture underscore the lack of humorous intent. Koons is, in effect, asking us to regard Michael Jackson and Bubbles as a sincere and significant artwork.
Porcelain - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
Made in Heaven
Made in Heaven, a series of large-scale photographs depicting Koons in a variety of sexually explicit poses with his Italian porn star lover, soon-to-be-wife Ilona Staller, remains the artist's most polarizing and controversial series. The exhibition, which premiered in 1991 at Sonnabend Gallery, included this billboard, announcing a feature film Koons intended to produce with "La Cicciolina" (Staller's stage name) - a project that was never realized.
Even critics who had so far liked his work sought to distance themselves from this body of work, which elicited virtually universal condemnation. 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 his wife, 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 the towering sculptures inspired by balloon animals. This one stands over ten feet tall and weighs in excess of a ton. Its sumptuous skin, according to the artist, is intended to "manipulate and seduce," like the Baroque decor of Christian cathedrals. Like the cheap, shiny rubber it is meant to imitate, the surface of Balloon Flower evokes the eternal appeal of precious metal. 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 once remarked that he believed work like the quite similar Balloon Dog 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 memento mori 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. Building on Duchamp and Warhol, he harnesses religious iconography (especially Catholic) borrowed from the history of Western art.
Mirror polished stainless steel with transparent color coating - Photo from the small park in front of 7 World Trade Center in New York City.
Rendering of Play-Doh
For generations of adults, from the baby boomers to millennials, the mere sight of Play-Doh is nostalgic, conjuring the scent and tactile appeal of this strange, yet calming synthetic substance. First unveiled at Koons' 2014 Retrospective Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Rendering of Play-Doh is the culmination of two decades of planning and execution. Most of us (artists and non-artists alike) 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. The apparent informality of work, however, is deceptive. What looks like Play-Doh scraps haphazardly lumped together was carefully constructed from polyethylene and ultimately assembled from twenty-seven interlocking pieces of painted aluminum. Like Balloon Dog, it is nearly ten feet tall and transforms an ephemeral, disposable childhood theme into a monument, poised to withstand the test of time.
Polychromed aluminum - Bill Bell Collection