Jeff Koons cited in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Jeff Koons: Retrospective, 1992, p. 65.
Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine, executed in 1986, is emblematic of the artist’s landmark Luxury and Degradation series. Revolving around the seductive yet simultaneously destructive nature of the alcohol industry and the perils of luxury, this body of work appropriated slick advertisements for Bacardi Rum, Gordon’s Gin, Martell Cognac and Hennessy Whisky, making them into paintings and installing them alongside gleaming chrome sculptures of associated drinking paraphernalia. Of the latter, Koons cast an ice-bucket, a Baccarat Crystal set, a Travel Bar and a Fisherman Golfer cocktail shaker in reflective stainless-steel; the centrepiece of the series, however, is the Jim Beam Turner Train. Based on a ceramic locomotive-shaped decanter produced by Jim Beam in the 1970s, Koons’s sculpture took the object’s already valuable status as a collector’s item and ramped it up a few notches. Containing the same ingredient – like the ceramic original, each carriage contains a fifth of bourbon that is sealed and tax-stamped – Koons’s high-art mirror-sheen sculpture, though infinitely more valuable, retains, to quote the artist, “the soul of the piece, which is the liquor inside” (Jeff Koons cited in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Jeff Koons: Retrospective, 1992, p. 65). This body of work made its debut in 1986 as Koons’s second solo exhibition. At both the International With Monument Gallery in New York and Daniel Weinberg Gallery in Los Angeles, the Jim Beam train was installed pride of place at the centre of each show. Indeed, while the full set of seven carriages undoubtedly encapsulates the heart of this series, it is the train’s Engine, presented here, which drives the point of Koons’s artistic inquiry home. Although outwardly seductive, heroic, pioneering, trail-blazing and evocative of America’s gleaming railroad history, when you strip away the mythologizing and notice the work’s phony luxury, you get to the core of the matter: Koons’s stainless-steel container of cheap liquor is a metaphor for the seductive false promise of the American dream.
By choosing a range of different advertisements and objects as source material for this series, Koons looked to present a cross-section of America’s socio-economic climate. When travelling from Harlem to Grand Central, Koons had noticed how the liquor advertisements changed; the demarcation of different economic classes and their targeted advertising appeared to stratify the geography of New York as measured by income. In a similar vein, Koons made sculptures from objects that spoke to the widest possible social remit: “The sculptures represented a range of economic levels. Within these levels there were different temptations – luxury in different strengths. Eventually degradation would set in, and your economic and political power could be taken away from you. So it was a warning: Don't be a fool, keep your eyes open" (Jeff Koons cited in: Katy Siegel, ‘80s Then: Jeff Koons talks to Katy Siegel’, Artforum, No. 7, March 2003, p. 253). With this body of work, Koons commented on the perils of being manipulated and seduced by commerce and capitalism. By casting a wide gamut of objects in stainless-steel, varying from the lowest to the highest manifestation of luxury – from a bucket through to a Baccarat Crystal set – Koons offers a democratising antidote that simultaneously participates in the economics of luxury, and criticises it.
Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine, and the wider Luxury and Degradation corpus significantly marked the first appearance of stainless-steel in Koons’s oeuvre. Considered “the material of the Proletarian”, for Koons, stainless-steel is the perfect material: an ersatz precious metal that is readily available and universally affordable (Jeff Koons cited in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, op. cit., p. 65). It is practical and cheap and yet can be finished to a reflective high-sheen that hints at luxury; this is stuff that Modern America was built on. Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine and the suite of stainless-steel Luxury and Degradation sculptures represent the very foundation that has established the most significant works of Koons’s career. Shortly after the present sculpture was made, Koons created perhaps his most iconic work: Rabbit. Belonging to the second series of 1986, Statuary, Koons’s Brancusi-esque stainless-steel cast of an inflatable rabbit sits next to a similarly mirror-sheened bust of Louis XIV: democratised by Koons’s proletarian metal, all facets of culture are thus created equal. Going back to Koons’s stainless steel debut, however, the overriding message of Luxury and Degradation is somewhat darker in tone. By appropriating the arena of mass marketed spirits, Koons’s Jim Beam decanter and its sister works deliver a powerful message, one that is perhaps the most biting and satirical of the artist’s career to date. A world of facile sophistication and faux luxury is an easy sell when pitted against the harsh reality of excessive drinking. In essence, what Koons is saying is: beware of false promises.
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