In his first series of works, Jeff Koons’s artistic intention was to develop Marcel Duchamp’s notion of the readymade. Themes such as sexuality and immortality recur throughout his career, as well as notions of class-related aesthetic appreciation, or taste, approached through his appropriation of “kitsch” objects.
In many ways, the thrust of Koons’s art is the reconsideration of aesthetic values, finding artistic value in the commonplace.
With his series dating from the late 1980s entitled “Banality,” including the work Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), Koons moved away from the appropriation of readymade objects to the more general borrowing of decorative styles. He created figurative objects in the manner of German populist woodcuts, for example, or Italian baroque/rococo ceramics. In doing so, he sanctioned a certain “kitsch” taste that has never been considered acceptable by the art world, delving into the cultural closet of the “lower” classes, and by concentrating on the conceptual, decorative, and abstract aspects of these recognized but denigrated artistic styles, giving them new content and form. Sculptures with heavily blown-up proportions, carved and cast by skilled craftsmen, serve as vehicles for a renewed notion of art and aesthetics.
The works from “Banality” represent a line from Duchamp’s ready-mades and Andy Warhol’s silkscreen image transfers, but through the appropriation of such subject matter as fairytales, Buster Keaton, the Pink Panther or Michael Jackson. Their chief originality and achievement lies in the way in which Koons creates a new kind of artistic language, extracted from “mass consciousness.” His creative act blends aesthetics and strategy. The former is based on his sincere conviction that such populist references have true artistic potential, and that the notion of art is so open and flexible that it can be manipulated or changed according to the artist’s intention. The latter is founded on the fact that, being already accepted as aesthetic signs by an important section of society, the works will be recognized on several different social levels simultaneously. (We should keep in mind that the art world has expanded in the past forty years– since the emergence of Pop art – and references to popular culture have become increasingly significant in creating the consensus on art.) Just as Warhol proposed real news images and iconic pictures as art, Koons appropriates the aesthetics and the social and cultural conventions of the masses. He “penetrates mass consciousness” and proposes a populist notion of beauty as art. “Where I differ,” he says “is that Warhol believed you could penetrate the mass through distribution and I continue to believe you penetrate the mass with ideas.” One could add that Koons’s creative act is also – and not least – a political act, aimed at re-evaluating the cultural references of a class that for too long has been regarded as a cultural outsider.
From the beginning, Koons’s art has essentially played with different forms of assemblage. In the 1990s, with series such as “Celebration,” “Easyfun,” “Easyfun-Ethereal,” and “Popeye,” he adopted the well-established artistic language of the collage, initially making large-scale paintings composed of a few objects/signs: close-up views of a cracked egg, a pink bow or a plate set, for example. These are then developed into an overwhelming complexity, where fragments of images metamorphose over the surface of the canvas, and different spaces and times are represented simultaneously without hierarchy, beginning or end. The spectator enters paintings that are crowded with fragments of these objects/signs in which there is no longer any unity of time, linearity or monovision. Instead, we are swept up in the multi-semantics of these paintings, which flow imperceptibly from one meaning to another, and from one time and place to another. The reading of the work is defined by the kind of semiotic value that one attributes to each image fragment, and how one relates them to each other. These paintings interlock with Koons’s sculptures from the same period, copies of plastic beach toys, but cast in heavy aluminum and painted, and in some cases combined with readymade objects.
Again and again in Koons’s work, the spectator is confronted by reflections on social aesthetics, self-acceptance, willpower, sexuality, immortality, and death. But there is one notion in particular that recurs like a leitmotiv across the whole of his output: the notion of pleasure – both aesthetic and personal. This is manifested in pleasure in the object, the quest for perfection, and the quality of the material. If we consider his different bodies of work – including the almost fetishized readymade objects in “The New,” the highly decorative works in “Banality,” the sexualized imagery in “Made in Heaven” (1989), with its rejection of the notion of guilt and shame, and his last series “Popeye” (begun 2003) featuring beach toys, which evoke children’s joy – we see that all are more or less images of pleasure. In his insistence on this theme, Koons is highlighting the need to reject all ideas of blame and culpability, which consciously or unconsciously determine our actions, and to break away from social and cultural taboos and intellectual oppression.
(Photo: Chris Fanning)