In 1929 Popeye made his debut as a bit-part in a long established comic-strip Thimble Theatre in the New York Journal. Created by the Illinois born cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar, the comic first appeared in print in 1919 but was radically transformed with Popeye’s appearance ten years later, propelling the cartoon, and moreover the character, to national fame and popularity. Having originally centered on the adventures of Olive Oyl and her family, Popeye was introduced as a straight-talking, quick-tempered mariner only intended to serve a sea-faring story-line. The new character, however, far outstripped the popularity of the cartoon’s existing premise and in turn sparked a radical transformation that witnessed Popeye’s elevation to main protagonist. The storylines thereafter developed with Popeye at the center apprehending villains and overcoming seemingly hopeless tasks by calling upon the strengthening properties of canned spinach. With his squinting eye, trademark corn-cob pipe, bulging forearms and salty attitude, Popeye became an icon of triumph over adversity - a status made all the more prevalent during the early 1930s owing to a dramatic decline in the social and financial climate. A product of the years between two world wars blighted by social powerlessness and economic hardship, Popeye was a cultural phenomenon. At its height the comic strip was reproduced in over 600 newspapers across the United States, was credited with singlehandedly saving the spinach industry during the depression, and alongside Mickey Mouse became one of the most successful animated cartoon franchises of the Twentieth Century. Reinterpreted for a new century and elevated to the status of high art statuary, Koons’s larger than life cartoon colossus is an opulent and heroic allegory expressed in the instantly accessible vernacular of Pop culture. With the help of a can of spinach Popeye is able to metamorphose from ordinary sailor into a hero with superhuman strength and cunning. As an unlikely champion, he represents a kind of everyman transcendence; in this sense Popeye is the perfect Koonsian hero.
“For me, Popeye is a figure who has his limitations, but there’s this sense of acceptance.” (the artist in conversation with Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist in Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Jeff Koons: Popeye Series, 2009, p. 69) Besides signifying confidence and courage in times of adversity, Popeye embodies the essential metaphor that underlines the very core of Koons’s practice: the acceptance of cultural history and the acceptance of self. Since the early 1980s Koons has worked within the remit of Pop art and its embrace of consumer driven visual culture to eradicate intellectual guilt and critical shame from an appreciation of mass taste. Through a lexicon of immediately recognizable ‘secular archetypes’ sourced from consumer goods, childhood icons and celebrity culture, Koons suspends judgment and employs superficial and kitschy taste to deliver exalted meaning and big concepts. This focus was first fully broached in 1986 with Banality, a body of work comprising the giant sculpture of a kitten dangling from a clothes line, Buster Keaton straddling a diminutive horse as well as Pink Panther and Michael Jackson and Bubbles porcelain statues. Proposing an altered concept of the Duchampian readymade, Koons creates objects based on emblems or ideas drawn from the mass consciousness as the cipher for a new conceptual dialogue. As Koons explains, “In the Banality series I started to focus on my dialogue about people accepting their own histories… I was just trying to say that whatever you respond to is perfect, that your history and your own cultural background are perfect… that it’s ok to give in to what you respond to.” (Jeff Koons, "Dialogues on Self-Acceptance" in Exh. Cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Jeff Koons, 2012, p. 24) Popeye’s very own dictum, “I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam,” is thus intentionally apt yet signals an inherent contradiction essential to Koons’s artistic project: though a champion of acceptance, the will or necessity to overcome and go beyond ultimately prevails. Katy Siegel has argued that this conflict reflects that of American culture in general, “which swings between the poles of ‘I’m, OK, you’re OK’, an almost belligerent insistence on not needing to learn or change, and the desire for self-improvement and social mobility.” (Katy Siegel in Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 260) Triumphantly holding a can of spinach squeezed open by a giant hand and tumescent forearm, Popeye wields the key to his own self-mastery and transformation. For Koons, Popeye represents the essential übermensch and ultimate metaphor for the potential of art: “… Popeye transforms. He eats his spinach and he transforms. And art is the spinach. Art can transform your life.” (the artist in conversation with Pharrell Williams, ARTST TLK, Reserve Channel, 23 November 2013) As first fully articulated in Banality, Koons sees art as a form of ‘self-help’ heavily invested in a very traditional notion of enlightenment: art as a vehicle for a purer sense of being and empowerment.
With Koons’s monumental Popeye, overt virility and inescapable phallic prowess is on display through a masquerade of bulging musculature and exultant posturing. Where Koons portrays Jackson in the guise of a tragi-kistch pietà, Popeye is undoubtedly steeped in classical tropes of heroic masculinity. Indeed, Popeye was framed within this very classical context in the recent exhibition Jeff Koons: The Sculptor at the Frankfurt Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, in which super-reflectivity and radiant color contrasted with the idealism of ancient marble. Evoking the straining biceps of the Hellenic Laӧcoon in the Vatican, possessing a bulk that summons the heavy musculature of the Farnese Hercules, and echoing the exquisitely rounded athletic curves for which the Discophoros of Polykleitos is paradigmatic, Popeye represents the meeting of American Pop and Minimalism with the European figurative tradition. Articulated in mirror polished stainless steel – the fabric of Minimalism and according to the artist, “symbol of the proletariat”– the present work reasserts the classical tradition of public statuary as an ideal projection of the body politic (the artist cited in Norman Rosenthal, "Notes on Jeff Koons" in The Jeff Koons Handbook, New York, 1992, p. 20). During the French Revolution, and most markedly associated with the radical tyranny of the Terror between 1793 and 1794, Jacques-Louis David cast the public seal of the Republic in the guise of Hercules. Symbolic of the glory of the French people, Hercules represented action over reason and the triumph of strength, courage and labor over the throne’s despotism. Intended to reside over the Place de la Concord, David’s unrealized 46 foot colossus combined an expression of democracy with threatening proletarian power. At once half-man and half-god, this mythological figure is the very historical archetype of empowered masculinity conjured by Koons’s Popeye. The prominent tattoo of a tank visible inside Popeye’s left bicep – an adaptation on the typical anchors tattooed on both forearms – affirms an equivalence between Hercules and the bellicose chauvinism of Popeye’s proletarian transcendence.
The concept of the ‘self-made man’ utterly permeates Koons’s practice and finds its supreme articulation in the figure of Popeye. Extolling the virtues of transformation, whether via spinach supplements for Popeye, by means of radioactivity as in the Hulk, or the social mobility afforded by basketball for Dr. Dunkenstein, Koons is consistent in his emphasis of the work involved or physicality inherent to the act of transformation. As explicated by Katy Siegel, “A psychologist might opine that these characters simply allow the ‘real’ self of Clark Kent et al., to emerge. And yet this view doesn’t really make sense in Koons’s universe; all of the figures are distinguished by a physical – rather than psychological – transformation of speed, skill, size, costume, or coloration (the King of Pop turns white just as the Hulk turns green). That is, they seem to change from the outside in, often in response to some material event (downing a can of spinach, exposure to radioactivity), or in pursuit of social reward (cultural or athletic stardom). If at the beginning of his career Koons warned about the dangers of trying to become something one was not, he has increasingly emphasized what one makes of oneself in the world, rather than a natural self.” (Katy Siegel in Op. Cit., p. 510) Suspended in a continual state of becoming, the chameleon form of Popeye evokes a bipartite, and even tripartite, discourse on identity formation. In a signature gesture, Koons invites the viewer to consider their own reflection across an encasement of wonderfully rounded colored mirrors. As such we are not only witness to Popeye’s becoming and transformation but subject to reconsider and overcome our own sense of self. Interpreted this way, there is no better example in Koons’s oeuvre than the figure of the artist. As Arthur C. Danto has outlined, there is no doubt that the heroic Popeye is Koons by proxy in the world he is creating (Arthur C. Danto in Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Jeff Koons: Pop Eye Series, 2009, p. 31). Indeed, beyond possessing a Pop-eye, Koons is in fact Mr. Popeye himself.
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