From a lush bed of verdant green leaves, bright wildflowers spring forth, animating Jeff Koons’s Wall Relief with Bird (1991). Emanating vibrant hues of red, pink, white and yellow, these wondrous flowers appear to take on a life beyond their polychromed wood material; their petals reach outward and seemingly bloom before our eyes. At the centre of the relief, the viewer observes an idyll of nature: a happy hummingbird flutters about the large white blossom, sipping its nectar. Indeed, to see a hummingbird – one of the animal kingdom’s most nimble and brightly coloured members – is joyous, and in this instance the bird’s presence effortlessly completes Koons’s utopian image. Here, the natural world is an idealised paradise, and in turn, life and abundance are clearly celebrated. Koons further explains, “In Wall Relief with Bird there is a bird pollinating these large flowers. The imagery to me is about penetration. It’s also about fertility and pollination, and the eternal” (Jeff Koons cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Regarding Warhol, 2012, p. 197). As such, Wall Relief with Bird is underscored by an omnipresent sense of sexuality. These seductive flowers are more than just brightly decorated and lively sculptures – they welcome pollination, opening outward from the wall to entice the viewer to move closer; they embody what author Daniel Pinchbeck describes as “an uncanny aliveness” (Daniel Pinchbeck in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jeff Koons Andy Warhol Flowers, 2001, p. 6).
Though Wall Relief with Bird stands on its own as an impressive and engaging work of art, it is all the more desirable for its inclusion in Koons’s famed body of work, Made in Heaven (1989-1991). This large, overtly sexual and often unapologetically graphic series grew from a simple seed when the Whitney Museum of American Art invited Koons to create a billboard for the 1989 media and contemporary art themed exhibition, Image World. Focusing on the pornography industry, Koons enlisted the international porn star Ilona Staller, as his readymade, and the resulting billboard (a steamy movie advertisement featuring the duo) served as the inspiration for what became a prolific creative endeavour. Unveiled in its entirety at Sonnabend Gallery in 1991, Made in Heaven juxtaposed explicit sexual images of Koons and Staller – male orgasm, oral penetration and genitalia close-ups, to name but a few – with cheerful, brightly coloured neo-kitsch statues of puppies and flowers. Three Puppies, Yorkshire Terriers and Large Vase of Flowers were, like Wall Relief with Bird, crucial and friendly counterpoints to the X-rated escapades detailed throughout the rest of the exhibition. The overall effect was, needless to say, shocking, and exhibition attendance skyrocketed.
Furthermore, with the Made in Heaven series, Koons successfully blurred the lines between art, life and media – and he did so to an extent far beyond that of any of his predecessors. His real-life romance with Staller, most notably, was highly publicised as it grew from an artist-muse relationship to an eventual marriage. When they married in Budapest, the nuptial ceremony was covered by news media globally in more than one thousand articles. Curator Scott Rothkopf succinctly reiterates this point by writing of Koons, “He responded to and helped shape the zeitgeist by abrading the distinction between the content of his work and the media spectacle it inspired” (Scott Rothkopt in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Pop Life, 2009, p. 44).
Meanwhile, the zeitgeist of the '90s was also deeply defined by the transgressive agendas of Koons’s contemporaries in the face of political conservatism. Robert Mapplethorpe, for one, provoked outrage in the early part of the decade when he exhibited the homoerotic photographs of X Portfolio; Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) likewise met scandal when it was shown in 1989. Yet whereas Mapplethorpe’s and Serrano’s art faced censorship as a result of its taboo content, Koons’s Pop culture aesthetic differentiated his work despite its controversial nature. Art historian Katy Siegel explains, “The props, colors, and sentiments of Made in Heaven all speak of the middle class. The images were not rendered in voguish grainy video or artsy snapshots, but rather in high production-value craft media like glass and carved wood, as well as oil (inks) on canvas. And they were accompanied by super-saccharine sculptures of floral arrangements and dogs, looking as if they had wandered in from a Disney movie” (Katy Siegel cited in: Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 310).
Wall Relief with Bird is no doubt one such sculpture. Not purely Edenic, but in actuality skewed by mass media, commercialism and artificiality, this relief ultimately displays what curator Mark Rosenthal calls, “a kind of unnatural glitz” (Mark Rosenthal in: op. cit., p. 135). Like Andy Warhol’s flower paintings before (which Rosenthal considers to “have a kind of false exquisiteness in comparison to any flowers from life”), Koons’s floral relief similarly conveys a sort of synthetic lushness (Ibid.). This falsity, it can be argued, has also infiltrated our cultural reception of sex. Koons’s decision to contrast cartoonish pets, birds and flowers with images of raw sexuality therefore functions as commentary on our naïve relationship to sex – this is a dramatic clash of fantasy and reality. Curator John Caldwell clarifies, “Sex, probably more than any other element in our culture, exists for us today as an amalgam of what we know from experience and what we know from the image world of television, advertising and the movies” (John Cladwell in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Jeff Koons, 1992, p. 140).
Of course, Koons’s romantic portrayal of sexuality and love is not entirely a contemporary phenomenon. On the contrary, it is informed by rich artistic traditions rooted in the Baroque, Rococo and Romantic periods. The atmospheric green, white and pink palette of Wall Relief with Bird specifically calls to mind the blissful gardens of Fragonard’s lovers, as much as Rachel Ruysch’s Still-Life with Flowers (circa 1700, Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm). Its evocation of the Rococo masterpieces is so powerful that it comes as no surprise Koons began to employ genuine living flowers in his work (notably the critically acclaimed and monumental Puppy of 1992) directly after creating Wall Relief with Bird.
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