(Allan Schwartzman, "The Yippie-Yuppie Artist", Manhattan, Inc., December 1987, p.131)
Enshrined within an immaculate vitrine and illuminated by the soft glow of fluorescent bulbs, the sleek forms of New Hoover Celebrity IV, New Hoover Convertible, New Shelton 5 Gallon Wet/Dry, New Shelton 10 Gallon Wet/Dry Doubledecker from 1981-1986 serve as arresting tribute to the radical, fascinating, and utterly unparalleled artistic practice of Jeff Koons. At the forefront of the Twentieth Century’s creative vanguard, Koons is the unrivaled successor to the Pop revolution of the 1960s; interpreting and intertwining ordinary objects and instantly recognizable popular imagery, Koons’s thought-provoking, multifaceted, and frequently controversial oeuvre voices an unprecedented exploration of mainstream consumerist culture. Executed at the apex of the conspicuous consumption and cultural excess of the 1980s, the present work exemplifies the wry blend of commercial, popular, and high culture aesthetics which runs throughout Koons’s celebrated output; while the gleaming display of untouched vacuum cleaners evokes the well-lit window of a department store, Koons simultaneously elevates their elegant forms to the realm of sculpture, transforming the quotidian objects into artistic totems exalted and immortalized behind glass. Amongst the most ingeniously subversive works of the last century, the present work brilliantly exposes the competing consumerist and aesthetic impulses of its viewers: standing before it, irresistibly seduced by the very commercial artifice which we mean to critique, we cannot help but long to possess one of Koons’s gleaming Hoovers and Sheltons.
A fitting heir to the illustrious ready-made and Pop legacies of such figures as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, Koons builds upon the self-imposed artistic conventions of these earlier artists to offer incisive commentary upon contemporary culture. While Duchamp relied upon the conceptual and academic context inherent to a museum or gallery to transform his ready-mades into art, the brilliance of the present work requires nothing more than the admiring gaze of the viewer to achieve the radical critique Koons intends. The artist explains, “Coming out of a Duchampian background, I am concerned with the object and with transformation…I transform the content of a chosen object by putting it in a specific context. I control the new content through the support mechanisms. I use billboard ads, the juxtaposition of the object with the other objects, as well as the actual process of transformation I put the object through. This recodifies the object so that it gives off the kind of information I would like people to view.” (The artist cited in “Interview with McCollum and Koons,” Flash Art, December 1986/January 1987, n.p.) While Koons’s daring commentary upon the contemporary obsession with newness engages with the aesthetic and conceptual strategies devised by the Pop Art movements – most notably, the work of Andy Warhol - the present work moves beyond the pseudo-advertisements of Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans to present the viewer with the object of our desire itself; if Warhol was an artist who essentially commodified celebrity – in the guise of a famous face, an iconic symbol, a familiar can of soup – then Koons celebrates the celebrity of commodity itself. The artist wryly describes, “I don’t seek to make consumer icons, but to decode why and how consumer objects are glorified…The more people seek these things, the more they are lost in the seductive glitter, and reflectivity of everything that is luxury. It moves from an abstraction of sexuality to the dizzying heights of pure abstraction.” (The artist cited in “Interview with McCollum and Koons,” Flash Art, December 1986/January 1987, n.p.)
Conceived in 1981 and ultimately executed in 1986, the present work exemplifies the central conceptual tenets of Koons’s celebrated series The New, the body of work that definitively established the artist as figure of radical artistic change. Only the third formal series of his career, The New presented themes and concepts that have gone on to transform the way we think and feel about art. Fittingly, the first exhibition dedicated to The New series – and the first solo presentation of Koons work – was organized by The New Museum of New York in 1980; in that show, Koons suspended three Hoover and Shelton pieces in the museum’s street-facing windows, lit by a glowing red sign heralding “The New.” Describing the formal brilliance of the installation, Mario Codognato recalls: “The ambiguity between the rather circumscribed museum context and the exposition directly onto the street, as if a shop aiming at a wider, less expert public, is overcome by the carefully balanced and reciprocal translation of one context into the other.” (Exh. Cat., Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Jeff Koons, June – September 2003, p. 28)
Arranged in two precise rows, the dignified metal spines and graceful curves of the present work achieve a startling and timeless beauty. Securely positioned within the 1980s dual preoccupation with commerce and futuristic technology, these machines – at the forefront of domestic technology for their time – exist as monuments to modern industrial design. Yet sealed behind glass, protected from the very dirt and grime they are intended to remove, these vacuum cleaners become icons of virginal purity, rather than the utilitarian items they are designed to be. Describing the series, Allan Schwartzman notes, "The irony [with the 'Hoovers'] was twofold: these virginal, never-to-be-used machines for removing filth were concerned with our consumerist obsession with new products, with youth, with suburban purification." (Allan Schwartzman, "The Yippie-Yuppie Artist", Manhattan, Inc., December 1987, p. 131) The poetry of the present work lies in its ultimate and ideal sense of newness: once the vacuum is used, the purity and virginity of the piece is lost and the conceptual artwork is gone; Koons confirms, “If one of these works were to be turned on, it would be destroyed.” (Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 112) By transforming these machines into futile, purely ornamental objects, doomed to outdated obsoletion, Koons redirects the glaring spotlight of his display upon the admiring gaze of the viewer, illuminating the futility and innate artifice of the apparent “newness” which has seduced us.
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