Jim Beam - Box Car, executed in in 1986, is a consummate example of Jeff Koons’ formal and ideological interests, marking a decisive evolution from the fluorescently lit readymades that typify his early hoover works, towards the radiant mirrored surfaces that are emblematic of Koons’ oeuvre. Marrying brazen, risqué imagery with the innocent quality of trinkets and toys, Koons’ monumental practice has incited wonder over the scale, seamless finish, and complex social critique that substantiates his extraordinary paintings and sculptures, distinguishing him as a generation-defining artist of the Postmodern period. Representing a key work in his Luxury and Degradation series, the chromed, stainless steel train carriage of Jim Beam - Box Car nods to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp – removing the ornate decanter from its window display and refashioning it as an artwork – whilst inciting the bourgeois, kitsch, decadent surfaces of the height of luxury.
In the Luxury and Degradation series, Koons’ interest in the mobility and transcendent quality of art is symbolised with Machiavellian intellect. Appropriating the billboard and magazine adverts for liquor – including Bacardi rum, Gordon’s gin, Hennessy cognac, Frangelico liqueur – the seductive and aspirational stylising of the ad campaign is internalised by the image as a work of art. What Koons exhibits is the banal, faux-luxury of the original, ‘degraded’ by his removing it from circulation as a tool of capital. The adverts and train carriage decanters of the Luxury and Degradation series invert the Pop ideology of Andy Warhol, presenting the oversized, fetishised version of the original, instead of multiplying and disseminating the image as an attainable piece of celebrity. Jim Beam - Box Car is exemplary of how Koons negotiates taste and social structures, employing the material implications of stainless steel – “the material of the Proletarian” (Ibid.) – maintaining the use function of the carriage as a vessel for Jim Beam Bourbon, and idolising it as an art object. This layered, ingenious philosophy of commerciality, social aspiration, and desire is the cornerstone of Koons’ oeuvre, and in the present work, composed in resplendent chrome, is quintessential in its aestheticising of the everyday object.
The Duchampian tradition of extracting the readymade work of art from the plethora of the mundane is central to Koons’ method of production. But, as Arthur C. Danto writes, “though they contain readymades as components, [the works] are by no means ready-made in their own right. They are deeply imagined works, designed with fantasy and an almost surrealist imagination” (Arthur C. Danto, ‘Banality and Celebration: The art of Jeff Koons’, in: Exh. Cat., Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Jeff Koons: Retrospective, 2004, p. 131). In the present work, Koons establishes a beguiling tension between the cosmetic extravagance of the chrome surface of the fastidiously rendered train carriage, and the conventional contents of the decanter. This compelling dichotomy – between consumerist desire and transcendent artwork – rendered in the iconic chrome of Koons’ later sculptures, lends Jim Beam - Box Car a fantastical quality, and enshrines the core tenets of Koons’ practice in a dramatic, gleaming emblem.
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