Glenn Halvorson
ex1993jk_ins EXE Jeff Koons July 11 - september, 1993 Gallery 2 location: disc 165.ex_b

Jeff Koons | Popples


Jeff Koons believes “that taste is really unimportant,” a conviction he demonstrates throughout his work, but nowhere as emphatically as in the Banality series (1988-89).[1] Since the very beginning of his career, with his early play on the Readymade—from encased vacuum cleaners and floating basketballs to cast stainless steel luxury items—Koons pushed the limit on acceptable content. This was especially acute during the 1980s in an artworld dominated by heroic, neo-expressionist painting and, on the more conceptual side, critical photographic work derived from appropriative strategies. Granted, he inherited a fixation on low cultural objects from his Pop Art predecessors. But Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strip imagery look positively highbrow when compared to the provocations Koons unleashed on his public in three coordinated exhibitions at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, the Donald Young Gallery in Chicago, and Galerie Max Hetzler in Cologne in 1988. Food packaging and cartoons are things we usually encounter in everyday life; they are consumable and ephemeral. Presented in an art context, they rarely offend (even if purloined from the mass media). Conversely, the sculptures comprising Koons’s Banality series, oversized three-dimensional renderings of assorted collectibles, tchotchkes, plush toys, and greeting card designs, strike where it hurts for any self-respecting art connoisseur who prides themself on knowing the difference between the avant-garde and kitsch.

Jeff Koons standing in front of works from his Banality series at Sonnabend Gallery, New York, 1986. Image © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos. Art © Jeff Koons

The Banality sculptures are, for the most part, startling amalgamations of objects you would likely encounter in a funky estate sale, objects that someone placed lovingly on a shelf or mantelpiece to then collect dust over a lifetime of neglect, or every forlorn stuffed animal buried at the bottom of a toy bin in the bedroom of a child who is now attending college. There is something out of place and out of time about these items, in addition to their being wildly out of scale. Koons used as his source materials porcelain Capodimonte statuettes, replete with rococo flourishes, folkloric Hummel figurines, celebrity photographs, Hallmark card imagery, and the aforementioned plush toys that are far more cloying than cute.[2] But above all else, the artist brought his imagination to the table in a way that was unprecedented in his oeuvre. Just before beginning Banality, Koons felt freed from his original adherence to the Readymade, from the found object or its perfectly crafted facsimile, when he had to cope with a failure in the casting of his stainless-steel sculpture Kiepenkerl (1987), which was to have been a faithful replica of a bronze statue in Münster (1896/1953) depicting a kind of traveling saleman or itinerant peddler. When Koons realized the extent of the damage to the piece, he directed his “craftsmen [to] work and bend and not maintain the integrity of the original model,” creating, instead, a subjective version of the popular folk figure.[3] Seeing the potential in utilizing such poetic license, the artist felt “liberated to go on to ‘Banality’ and to use the public as my ready-made instead of any object.”[4

Jeff Koons, Pink Panther, 1988.
Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.
Art © Jeff Koons

To achieve the fantastical statuary that comprises Banality Koons engaged traditional craftsmen—German wood carvers and Italian ceramists—to produce contemporary art in, perhaps, the least contemporary of materials: polychromed wood and gilded porcelain.[5] Each overgrown figurine or cuddly toy, while based in some far away reality, has been made even odder by Koons’s aesthetic choices. His porcelain rendition, for instance, of a publicity photograph of Michael Jackson with his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, impacts most memorably because the pop legend is depicted as Caucasian—his extensive cosmetic surgery and skin lightening taken to their illogical conclusion. Low-wattage, erotic undertones pervade the series, sometimes erupting into overt titillation as in the case of Pink Panther, featuring a semi-nude pin-up modeled on the notoriously buxom actress, Jayne Mansfield holding a stuffed, life-size version of the cartoon character, which Koons described as a tool for masturbation. [6] His Woman in a Tub, a truncated figure of a startled, female bather, enacts a crude joke involving a submerged scuba diver whose snorkel peeks above the water line, leaving the rest to the (raunchy) imagination. When not coyly lewd, Koons’s Banality sculptures disturb via their saccharine veneer, their attempt to be adorable; Popples (1988)is a quintessential example of this contradictory state. Tacky in appearance, this odd, imaginary creature could easily have been won in a bottle toss at the state fair. Unrelated to any correlate in the animal kingdom, Popples could have been derived from a bear but its elongated ears—one pink, the other blue—suggest otherwise. A head of blonde hair/fur and doleful blue eyes sit atop a plump, white, upright body adorned with pink cheeks, a blue nose and belly dot, and pink hearts on outstretched paws. It is offering a big hug, though its melancholy frown suggests conflicting emotions. As Scott Rothkopf has astutely observed, “It’s creepy and unbecoming to want to be liked so much.”[7] The sculpture’s porcelain form, though taut and ultimately breakable, appears pliant, almost sagging, as if its stuffing needs a bit of fluffing up. Such is the miracle of Koons’s exacting demands of his medium along with his uncanny ability to create a sense of schadenfreude with the friendliest of imagery.

Koons apparently never considered the Banality series to be critical or ironic; rather he claimed to understand it as a generous gift to viewers who secretly cherished such souvenirs of childhood and their grandparents’ tchotchke-filled homes. “Everybody,” he claimed, “grew up around this material. I try not to use it in a cynical manner. I use it to penetrate mass consciousness—to communicate to people.”[8] Koons created work to tempt and then forgive his audience for their transgressions of bad taste. He confronted them with unabashed examples of kitsch, that sinful debasement of high culture found in myriad popular artistic forms, described by conservative critic Clement Greenberg as “chromotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc. etc.”[9] Anyone schooled in twentieth-century art history learns of Greenberg’s disdain for what he called “ersatz culture” as an panacea for the uneducated masses craving some form of diversion. “Kitsch,” he explained, “is vicarious experience and faked sensations,” a substitute for the more cerebral forms of abstraction being created and consumed by an upper class of artists, intellectuals, and their audience.[10] Koons’s Banality series offers a complex narrative that involves a kind of bait and switch for the viewer who is at first seduced by odd but familiar forms only to discover that they are more polemical, and more demanding at their core. They dare us to like them and then punish us when we do, despite Koons’s promises of delight and feigned innocence. This is why the sculptures, now more than three decades old, still retain their incredible shock value.

[1] Jeff Koons and Robert Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook (London: Anthony D’Offay Gallery, 1992), p. 31

[2] See Scott Rothkopf’s excellent essay, “No Limits,” in Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014), p. 21.

[3] Koons and Rosenblum, p. 86.

[4] Ibid, p. 86.

[5] Rothkopf, p. 22.

[6] Koons and Rosenblum, p. 104.

[7] Rothkopf, p. 22.

[8] Koons and Rosenblum, p. 98.

[9] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), p. 9.

[10] Ibid, p. 10.

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