THE HISTORY OF NOW: THE COLLECTION OF DAVID TEIGER SOLD TO BENEFIT TEIGER FOUNDATION FOR THE SUPPORT OF CONTEMPORARY ART
A burly anthropomorphized bear leers down at his companion, a comparatively diminutive policeman. Dressed irreverently in a candy-striped t-shirt accented by a large yellow bow tie, the bear initially suggests playfulness, warmth, and a familiar amusement as if from a cartoon; however, the bear’s lascivious consideration of the typically adorned British policeman indicates a more sinister relationship between these two figures. Furthermore, the bear looms over the policeman, his left paw wrapped tenderly yet authoritatively around his companion’s shoulder, and the right grabbing at his whistle, and quite literally drawing the man into his embrace. By contrast, the policeman gazes wonderingly up at the bear, his left hand tucked behind his back in a deferential pose, his right demurely pressed to his middle. Here, Koons has reversed the power structure of these two figures, endowing the comical cartoon-like bear with authority over his counterpart who exemplifies power and the law. Despite what at first appears to be a friendly exchange between these two, there is an underlying tenor that suggests a more illicit liaison, an unexpected and hilarious transgression that nevertheless forces the viewer to confront his or her own base desires and fears.
In 1988, Jeff Koons unveiled a series of twenty new sculptures in three concurrent shows at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, Galerie Max Hetzler in Cologne, and Donald Young Gallery in Chicago. Each exhibition featured the complete body of twenty works from Banality, all of which had been executed in an edition of three, making the simultaneous shows possible. Although Banality provoked controversy, Koons maintains that his modus operandi was never guided by provocation; rather, acceptance is imperative to Koons. His vocabulary is characterized by profound affirmation, buoying viewers of his work to embrace their past and accept an iconography of optimism irrespective of socially accepted criteria of good taste: “I was using banality to communicate that the things we have in our history are perfect. No matter what they are they’re perfect. They can’t be anything else but perfect. It’s our past and it’s our being, the things that we respond to, and they’re perfect. And I used it to remove judgment and to remove the type of hierarchy that exists. I don’t like to use the word ‘kitsch,’ because kitsch is automatically making a judgment about something. I always saw banality as a little freer than that.” (The artist cited in Norman Rosenthal, Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, London, 2014, p. 140) Arguing for the appreciation of mass-appeal imagery, Koons traffics in the arbitrary distinctions between high and low art, positioning his sculptures in the uncharted territory between the predetermined polar categories. Growing up in the small town of York, Pennsylvania, Koons’s father ran Henry J. Koons Decorators, through which Koons came to understand how the middle-class endow material goods and décor with their deepest and most personal aspirations. Koons invokes a challenging poetics of class, revealing the emotional investments crystallized in objects; these objects and the desires that they provoke inevitably vary by class, presenting a stimulating comment on the nature of objecthood and material culture in America.
At the time of its execution, the Banality series as a whole was Koons’s most elaborate feat of artistic production; encompassing such iconic works as Bear and Policeman, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, and Pink Panther, among others, this unique and limited group of objects enabled Koons to provoke a fundamental shift in the relationship between art and life and incite a variety of reactions from his viewers: “Banality was about communicating to the bourgeois class. I wanted to remove their guilt and shame about the banality that motivates them and which they respond to…to embrace their own history so that they can move on and actually create a new upper class instead of having culture debase them.” (The artist in Angelika Muthesius, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 28) To create the present work, Koons commissioned professional craftsmen to first carve wood and later meticulously paint the carving to achieve a naturalistic likeness, a method that was originally developed by artists in medieval Europe. Every incision, marking, and precisely painted wooden detail that adorns the present work is indicative of the astoundingly high standards of perfection that have defined Koons’s oeuvre, from his first virginal Hoover sculptures to the more recent flawless stainless steel surfaces of the iconic Celebration sculptures including Balloon Dog, Moon, or Tulips.
Exhibiting Koons’s natural predilection for the ornate extravagance of the Baroque, Bear and Policeman possesses a purposefully distinct eighteenth century Bavarian charm and feel, which may be found in the exaggeration of the motif, seductive surface, bright palette, and exaggerated expressions of the subjects’ faces. Koons’s interest in the Rococo – the style that exalted the ornate and lavish – is palpable in the artist’s response to this period’s popularization of figurines among the petite bourgeoisie, feeding their own aspirations and desires for status in a way that prefigured the contemporary culture of conspicuous consumption. Witty, intellectual and candid in its presentation, Koons’s depiction of the everyday masks a narrative that operates on numerous levels, confronting the viewer with reflections on social aesthetics while never losing sight of the primacy of the object’s visual appeal. The result is a sculpture which is more authentic in feel than any ornament that he might have found, a hyperbole of the banal which resuscitates the conceptual genius of Duchamp and rephrases it in a new authentic voice.
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