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A paradigm of The New series, The New Hoover Celebrity IV from 1981-1986 epitomizes a transformative moment in Koons’ conceptual and artistic practice. Created in the midst of 1980s cultural excess, the present work plays with the popular culture of its era while remaining timeless in its steadfast beauty. Koons embraces the possibilities allowed by his predecessors, Pop Art and Dada, and surpasses the artistic conventions that they imposed on the readymade as art. Unlike the shocking irreverence of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain (1917), Koons’ pristine and stunningly presented appliances evoke awe and desire from their viewers, despite the fact that the appropriated objects are just as functional and quotidian as Duchamp's urinal. “While Duchamp and Warhol removed the readymade from its context and raised it to a different level, Koons chooses never to dissociate it entirely from the reality of which it is a part.” (Francesco Bonami, ed., Jeff Koons, Milan, 2006, p. 9) The New Hoover Celebrity IV lures us to it like an expertly conceived advertisement: we long to possess one of Koons’ gleaming Hoovers and Sheltons. The present work, like so many other seminal installations by Koons, appeals both to our consumerist and aesthetic impulses.
The New Hoover Celebrity IV is an alluring and impactful confluence of beauty and simplicity. The appliances face the viewer straight on – the tall metal spines of the Hoovers rising purposefully from their bases, and the pliable handles of the Sheltons gracefully encircling and embracing their cylindrical bodies. They are lit from below so that they appear to glow, as if with the promise of innovation. Reflecting off the gleaming metal, the scintillating fluorescent lights perfectly serve to reverently showcase Koons’ appliances. At the peak of technological advancement for their time, these devices exist as monuments to both usefulness and design. Securely positioned within the 1980s dual preoccupation with commerce and futuristic technology, at the time of their inception the Hoovers and Sheltons in the present work would have elicited deep feelings of lustful acquisitiveness and fascination in their viewers. They are, by nature, machines designed to work for us – to make our homes cleaner and more enjoyable. Though they are practical household appliances, these new and advanced vacuum cleaners are in fact luxury items. Koons treats them as such by illuminating their beauty and presenting them as the most new, the most desirable and the best models that money can buy.
The present work is not the first example of Koons’ affinity for household appliances. In Toaster 1979, a work from his The Pre-New series, Koons created a hybrid sculpture by affixing a toaster to two cylindrical fluorescent lights. The formal elements of Toaster pay homage to both Donald Judd’s minimalist practice of isolating individual modular objects in space and Dan Flavin’s ubiquitous fluorescent lights. However, “Koons felt that by bolting appliances to light fixtures, as he had been doing, he was interfering with their wholeness, their pristine, ready-made qualities.” (Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 107) This sense of impurity and fracture was rectified by what became the first work in The New series: a single vacuum cleaner displayed in stark isolation.
A monumental conceptual shift had occurred for Koons who believed that by not violating the state of his objects as they emerged from their boxes he was respecting their integrity. Partway through the series Koons made another crucial aesthetic choice: he placed his pristine objects and fluorescent lighting into Plexiglas vitrines. He says, “Once I encased it, that’s when I think it really happened for me. I was starting to make art.” (Ibid, p. 108) By surrounding them in Plexiglas, Koons simultaneously allows his machines to visually become part of the room in which they are displayed and ensures that they are isolated and protected. Sheltered from outside forces and frozen in pristine freshness, the Hoover vacuum cleaners and Shelton wet/dry machines at once promise the viewer the possibility of cleanliness and subsequently thwart that promise. For the machines have never and will never be used. It is in this dichotomy, between the functional and the decorative, that The New Hoover Celebrity IV resides.
The New series was the first to definitively establish Koons as a major artistic force. Only the third formal series of his illustrious career, The New presented themes and concepts that have gone on to transform the way we think and feel about art. The present work, with its elevation of the Hoover and Shelton machines from household appliances to gloriously staged sculptural masterpieces, immediately pre-figures Koons’ Equilibrium series in which he cast an inflatable lifeboat out of bronze and displayed basketballs floating in a tank of water. Out of the Equilibrium series came the Luxury & Degradation series where Koons once again returned to the seductive aspects of advertising, highlighting for his viewer the infinitely alluring power of objects. Koons’ continued reverence for the seemingly banal - a leitmotif of his various series, established in earnest in the present work - is his own masterful blend of art historical reference and pop culture.
The first exhibition dedicated to works from The New series was organized by, fittingly, The New Museum in New York in 1980. In addition to installing his works in the gallery spaces of the museum, Koons suspended three Hoover and Shelton pieces in the street-facing windows, along with a glowing red sign heralding The New. Marcia Tucker, curator and co-founder of the museum, recalls passersby who were variously angry, annoyed, curious, and amused when they discovered that Koons’ display was advertising the exhibition and not promoting a sale of vacuum cleaners. Bathed in a bright white glow as if to make every physical detail apparent, and trapped behind glass, Koons’ machines alluded as much to conventions of museum display as they did to commercial presentation techniques. In the museum context, the Hoovers and Sheltons became relics of a moment in time, preserved for eternity as evidence of a past reality. They were objects divested of their utility, simply existing to represent their own perpetual freshness.
Now, more than thirty years after the present work’s completion, we experience the machines through the lens of nostalgia and view the sculpture as a seminal crescendo in the history of Contemporary Art. Still gleaming and captivating, the Hoovers and Sheltons are no longer new. Instead of lusting after their novelty as we would a digital gadget today, we see evidence of our past behind the Plexiglas. We see the 1980s fascination with robots and the imagined mechanization of a future era. The Hoovers carry with them the promise of innovation and ease. We associate with these objects on a visceral and personal level, as if they were part of us.
Throughout his career, Koons has repeatedly gravitated towards entities that he believes have an anthropomorphic quality. More than their shape or physical appearance, Koons is attracted to things that exhibit life-like behaviors. The vacuum cleaners initially appealed to Koons because they were, in his words, “breathing machines.” (Ibid, p. 109) According to him, these machines take in, release, and filter air as human lungs do. They, like us, exist off of their surrounding environment. As we realize this inherent similarity, we begin to identify with our mechanistic proxies. As he was creating The New series, Koons would rush out to buy the latest model of his chosen appliance before it was out of production. Once he had procured a machine at the height of its relevance and commercial popularity, he would remove its packaging and place it straight into its Plexiglas encasement. As he describes: “The object’s just being new, just displaying its birth.”(Ibid, p. 109) It is here that our personal association with the machines ceases: for the devices in The New Hoover Celebrity IV, the moment they are removed from their packaging is the same moment that they become effectively irrelevant. By not allowing his machines to breathe and live, or to exercise their function as they are supposed to, Koons ensures that they never fully actualize their existence. According to the artist's conception and practice, “If one of these works were to be turned on, it would be destroyed.”(Ibid, p. 112)
Koons' adamant stance that the components of The New works remain perpetually in a state of pre-existence, enduring in their potentiality, is an intentional contrast to human existence. He states: “That’s what I really wanted you to think about, how you can’t be new. To have your own integrity you have to live and you’re not immortal. But here the machine can just have integrity forever by not participating.” (Ibid., p. 109) Koons’ appliances will never die or decay, because they will never live. They simply exist without partaking or contributing and, in so doing, remain immaculate. The flawlessness of our surrogates, as well as the reality that we have to live and cannot be new, forces us to come to terms with our own mortality.
As Rainer Crone says: “[Koons] confronts us with our past as well as our common, everyday banalities.” (Exh. Cat., New York, C&M Arts, Jeff Koons: Highlights from 25 Years, 2004, p. 10) The New Hoover Celebrity IV is rife with connotations and associations, which make our analysis of the piece visually and cognitively complex. At once it provokes feelings of nostalgia and consumerist desire while forcibly reminding us that we are of the corporeal realm, and thus are neither perpetually new nor immortal. Koons has injected the works in The New series with tremendous nuance and the delicate balance between his various themes places this series, and this work, at the moment when Koons' practice matured into the intricately complex aesthetic for which he is recognized as one of the most influential artists of recent decades.
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