Jeff Koons | New Hoover Convertibles, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Doubledecker

NANCY SPECTOR

The year that Jeff Koons premiered his series The New—1980—marked an inflection point in American socio-political history. After a decade marked by civil unrest, anti-war agitation, counter-cultural abandon, and liberation movements, the eighties ushered in the rise of the Conservative Right. An over-correction at best, this new orthodoxy privileged “family values,” small government, lower taxes, and a blatant disregard for the economic inequity it promulgated. This was the era of conspicuous consumption, corporate raiding, big hair, and wide shoulder pads. America’s favorite television soaps were Dynasty (1981-89) and Dallas (1978-1991), both sordid chronicles of trials and tribulations that could only plague the nouveau-riche. And, in cinema, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) famously celebrated greed for its own sake. These were the Reagan years, and Koons was right on time to announce their commencement.

The New exhibition installation, The New Museum, New York, 1980. Art © Jeff Koons

After experimenting with Surrealist-inspired painting during the mid-1970s, the young artist embarked on an initial flirtation with the Readymade via inflatable toy bunnies and flowers placed in combination with mirrored panels—in a strange mashup of Marcel Duchamp, Hasbro, and Robert Smithson’s non-site sculptures. These early aesthetic investigations reveal the artist’s fascination with pop juvenilia, which would be fully manifested years later in his Celebration, Popeye, and Hulk-Elvis series. But for The New, these sculptures sufficed as a conceptual portal into Koons’s wholehearted embrace of mass-produced objects, his “fascination with things” for which Duchamp’s Readymades gave art-historical permission. [1] The commodities that Koons plucked out of their utilitarian roles for this generative series were never-been-used, right-off-the-shelf, top-of-the-line vacuum cleaners: Hoover Convertibles and Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Doubledeckers and Tripledeckers. These industrially produced appliances are encased within exquisitely crafted, clear acrylic cases that ironically seal out the dust and grime they are designed to capture. Their encasement renders these items essentially inoperable. Fluorescent tubes line the bottom of each platform within their respective vitrine, illuminating the vacuum cleaners with a crisp, cold light that enhances the sense of sterility imparted by each sculpture.

Hoover vacuum cleaner magazine advertisement, “Happier With a Hoover,” 1949.

These luminescent showcases were first installed in the ground-floor windows of the New Museum at their former home on Fifth Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan in a solo exhibition titled The New: Jeff Koons from May 29 to June 26, 1980. Three sculptures were accompanied by an oversized black-on-red sign advertising the name of the show in bold graphics, announcing the start of the series and Koons’s intention to focus his work on that indisputable driver of a Capitalist eco-system: the desire for and access to the latest, most up-to-date thing. In Koons’s commodified universe, we are invited to contemplate the preconceived antidote to Capitalism’s calculated obsolescence—the most recent, just off the assembly line, brand-spanking-new item. His placement of the sculptures and accompanying signage in the museum’s large, store-front windows, the quintessential presentation mechanism for consumer goods, doubled the reference to the mercantile dimension of The New. The kaleidoscopic mirroring of display case within display case conjures Walter Benjamin’s epic, unfinished The Arcades Project (1927-1940), in which he used the roofed, street-malls of nineteenth-century Paris, with their glittering shop windows, as a foil for his ruminations on the commodification of desire as a pivot-point to the modern era. Koons understood this historical, socio-economic phenomenon intrinsically; the complex link between an object and the desire it engenders pervades all his production, especially that which he unveiled during the eighties.

Each illuminated vitrine comprising The New—such as New Hoover Convertibles, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Doubledecker (1981-86)—also dialogues with museological display. The encasement of artifacts—precious objects extricated from their original context, stripped of all function in specially designed, climate-controlled casework—is the lingua franca of the encyclopedic or natural history museum installation. It is the structural vocabulary, the literal building blocks of colonialist display, which foregrounds perceived aesthetic value over use value or primary meaning. I don’t believe, however, that Koons was deliberately critiquing consumer culture or institutional methodology in this series. If anything, he was embracing both, but in such a non-inflected way as to allow for such analysis. “A viewer,” he once wrote, “might at first see irony in my work, but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.”[2]

Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-23. Reconstruction by Richard Hamilton 1965-66. Image © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY. Art © 2022 Association Marcel Duchamp and The Estate of Richard Hamilton / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

What Koons did share early on about The New was his correlation between the cleaning devices and the gendered body. “I chose the vacuum cleaner,” he explained, because of its anthropomorphic qualities. It is a breathing machine. It displays both male and female sexuality. It has orifices and phallic attachments.” [3] In his catalogue essay for the Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2014), curator Scott Rothkopf embellishes upon this idea, writing, “As with Duchamp’s urinal, these products have clear anthropomorphic and sexual associations, with pliant trunks, sucking orifices, and bags that inflate and deflate like lungs.”[4] Following this interpretive line of reasoning, I would take things a step further to suggest that the hermetically sealed vitrines constituting The New invoke Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923, the exemplary Bachelor Machine with its endless masturbatory cycles of desire deferred. In this canonical work, the horizontally divided realms of bachelor and bride—male and female—are cloistered from one another, entirely impermeable, yet adjacent and transparent. The Large Glass exudes sexual tension. But, in Koons’s insulating sculptures, the inert vacuum cleaners, robbed of their utility, are like eunuchs, pharaonic sentinels standing watch, their sexuality not so much deferred as extinguished. This might be the price of the extreme hygiene enforced by the work’s presentation: the vacuums are instruments of cleanliness that are, themselves, protected from ever becoming soiled. Anthropomorphic yet asexual, objects of convenience yet impossible to use, these virginal appliances and the structures that house them, connote a sense of purity. “I have always used cleanliness and a form of order,” stated the artist, “to maintain for the viewer a belief in the essence of the eternal, so that the viewer does not feel threatened...” [5] We all know where an obsession with hygiene and order leads when executed on a societal scale, and there has always been a sense of the maniacal in Koons’s fetish for perfection. Yet, here, in The New he was flirting with the notion of “immortallity,” not fascism. He saw the untouched, immutable vacuums as a cipher for eternal life. [6]

Years ago, starting in 1992, when my office was located above the Guggenheim Museum Soho on the corner of Prince Street and Broadway, I used to walk by a memorable sculpture from Koons’s The New series. Every morning I was greeted in the entrance by those upright, icily illuminated vacuum cleaners before getting into the elevator. In addition to the museum offices, the building was occupied by Brant Publications, which included at the time the ever-glam Interview Magazine and industry insider, Art in America, along with an outpost of Rockstar Games. When I encountered the sculpture each day, I didn’t contemplate immortality or mutant sexuality. I didn’t even really think about the Readymade, since that critical idiom had been so successfully mined by artists of the 1980s including Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Sherrie Levine, and Haim Steinbach. Rather, I saw a status symbol, a critically important artwork that embodied the highs and the lows of the decade that had just ended. It made me think that I was working in a location that resonated with relevance; we were a satellite museum start-up and there was, ever-so-conveniently, a privately-owned, incredibly valuable Jeff Koons sculpture just sitting there as lobby decoration. Perhaps never intended as such, The New had become an icon of power, which, I suppose, borders on the immortal or the eternal. The lowly cleaning appliance, when christened by Koons, had come to represent a decade when order, wealth, and “family values” prevailed.

[1] Scott Rothkopf, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014), p. 18.

[2] Jeff Koons and Robert Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook (London: Anthony D’Offay Gallery, 1992), p. 33.

[3] Ibid., p. 44.

[4] Rothkopf, 2014, p. 18.

[5] Koons and Rosenblum, p. 50.

[6] He has written, “In the body of work I called ‘The New,’ I was interested in a psychological state tied to newness and immortality: the gestalt came directly from viewing an inanimate object—a vacuum cleaner—that was in a position to be immortal.” Ibid. p. 48.





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