Jeff Koons - Contemporary Art Part I New York Monday, November 8, 2010 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Sonnabend Gallery, New York

  • Exhibited

    New York, Sonnabend Gallery, Popeye, November 8 - December 31, 2003; New York, Lever House Art Collection, Jeff Koons, December 24, 2004 - April 30, 2006 (another example exhibited); Bregenz, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Re-Object: Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Merz, February 18 - May 13, 2007 (another example exhibited); Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeff Koons, May 31 - September 21, 2008 (another example exhibited); London, Serpentine Gallery, Jeff Koons Popeye Series, July 2 - September 13, 2009 (another example exhibited)

  • Literature

    J. Saltz, “Breathing Lessons,” Artnet Magazine (originally published in the Village Voice), December 16, 2003 (illustrated); U. Grosenick, ed., ART NOW Vol 2, Cologne, 2005, p. 239, no. 5 (illustrated); G. Politi, “Jeff Koons: an Interview by the Readers of Flash Art, “ Flash Art, no. 240, January - February 2005, p. 89 (illustrated); A. Lindemann, Collecting Contemporary, Cologne, 2006, p. 164; E. Schneider, ed., Re-Object: Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Merz, Germany, 2007, pp. 6 and 126 (illustrated); F. Bonami, ed., “Popeye,” Jeff Koons, New Haven, 2008, p. 100 (illustrated); H. W. Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne  2008, pp. 549 and 551 (illustrated); R. Morata, “Jeff Koons: un Artiste Barock,” Point de Vue, August 28 - September 3, 2008, p. 59 (illustrated); G. Bader, “Jeff Koons: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago,” Artforum, September 2008, pp. 450-451 (illustrated); “Jeff Koons: Mickey-l’Ange Contemporain,” Paris Match, September 3, 2008, p. 81 (illustrated); J. Jones, “Not just the king of kitsch,” The Guardian, London, June 30, 2009, p. 5, (illustrated); M. Glover, “King of comic relief,” The Independent, London, July 1, 2009, p. 14  illustrated); B. Lewis, “Popeye the Eye-Popper,” Evening Standard, London, July 2, 2009, p. 34, (illustrated); C. Vogel, “Koons and a Sailor Man in London,” The NewYork Times, July 2, 2009 (illustrated on website); R. Dorment, “Jeff Koons: Popeye Series at the Serpentine Gallery, review,” The Daily Telegraph, July 6, 2009 (illustrated on website); C. Maume, “Jeff Koons’s Popeye series is fabulously exuberant. Rothko it ain’t,” The Independent, July 14, 2009 (illustrated on website); P. Levy, “The Bearable Lightness of Being Jeff Koons,” The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2009 (illustrated on website); H.W. Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, pp. 535 and 537 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    I think of the inflatables as anthropomorphic, we are ourselves inflatables, we take a breath, we expand, we contract, our last breath in life, our deflation. By contrast these objects have a permanence to them, they maintain a non-divisible sense of life, of continuity. Maybe it’s also almost like learning to swim, that extraordinary experience almost like birthing, the independence of when you can finally swim yourself.  (Jeff Koons quoted in S. Murg, “Jeff Koons: ‘We Are Ourselves Inflatables,’ mediabistro/UnBeige, August 6, 2009)
    The viewer feels their own possibilities and whatever their interests are, they feel more excited to meet their own potential, that’s what I hope the viewer experiences. (Jeff Koons quoted in S. Murg, “Jeff Koons: ‘We Are Ourselves Inflatables,’  mediabistro/UnBeige, August 6, 2009)
    Big, bold, bright and stuck in a ladder? How odd, how charming and how characteristically Koons.
    Jeff Koons presents us with as peculiar a paradox as we could imagine,  never ceasing to amaze with his larger-than-life style and clever eye. At first glance, we are not precisely sure what to make of Caterpillar Ladder—an adorable sculpture that triggers memories of childhood or an oddly jarring contradiction? At second glance, we are still puzzled yet undeniably charmed. 
    Caterpillar Ladder is by far one of the most recognizable pieces from Koons’ Popeye series. He began this series in 2002 and with it revisits one of his favorite subjects: the inflatable. He first began working with these endearing blow-up toys in the 1970s, crediting an early memory of being given a flotation device to strap to his back as a child saying “it was like a life-saving tank, it gave me a great sense of independence. Pool toys are inflatable, just like people. Inflatables really are metaphors for the continuation of life. Anything that is deflated is a symbol of death” (T. Teeman, “From Popeye to puppies: Jeff Koons explains his love of outrageous art,” The Sunday Times, June 13, 2009). As the title of the article belies, Koons’ art is indeed outrageous—it is oversized, exuberant and hopeful. 
    Koons first truly captured our attention and inflatable-adoration in 1986 with what is now considered one of his best known blow-ups, Rabbit, a shiny aluminum beacon to his distinctive brand of art. He first started buying these inflatable toys while visiting his mother in Florida. Koons says: “That’s where I got the lobster and the caterpillars. Then I went online and found the hippopotamus, the turtles and the monkeys” (C. Vogel, “Koons and a Sailor Man in London,” The New York Times, July 2, 2009).  The caterpillar and lobster are the undeniable main characters of the Popeye series.   Caterpillar Ladder, along with the rest of this series, was first exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The series is comprised of paintings and sculptures of cartoon characters and inflatables, named after the eponymous Popeye whose most famous statement, “I Yam what I Yam” is perhaps perfectly applicable to Koons and his position within the art world.
    This series exemplifies to perfection his incredible ability to transform ready-made objects into art. It is exactly this vision that makes Koons such a brilliant artist—he imagines high art from the most implausible sources.  He said, “I find that the work for myself is more and more minimal. I’ve returned to the readymade. I’ve returned to really enjoying thinking about Duchamp. This whole world seems to have opened itself up again to me, the dialogue of art” (H.W. Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 504). A master of appropriation, Koons fully embraces elevating seemingly banal objects to rock star status—although his personal favorite might be anything inflatable—from blown up balloons to blown up children’s flotation devices. 
    The difference between this series and Koons’ prior ones is the industrial elements he adds to the installations. These inflatables do not stand statically alone but rather appear to almost be performing circus acts. The monkeys dangle from the ceiling, round flotation devices swing from the ends of a very Dalí-esque mustache, seals squeeze through a stack of chairs, the turtles cling to a chain metal fence, the lobsters precariously balance on overturned trashcans and our caterpillar either hangs from chains or shimmies through a ladder. What feats our pool toys accomplish.
    This connection to Dalí is unmistakable. He was one of Koons’ early heroes and has endlessly fascinated him. Koons pays homage to him very specifically with both his mustache and lobster pieces. We also see a reference (although perhaps a less obvious one) to the fantastical anthropomorphic characters in Alice in Wonderland. The entire novel plays with logic and toys with the imagination—in much the same way as Koons and Dalí. The latter was fascinated by this fantastical story and did a set of drawings to accompany the chapters of the book. In Chapter Five, Alice meets the famous hookah smoking caterpillar who bestows advice on her when she asks him how she can grow larger (which is of course the main premise in Koons’ work). Dalí draws his caterpillar in both its three inch height and enlarged into a distinctly Koonsian oversized creature. 
    This undeniable surrealist nod is present in each work from the Popeye series. Surrealism, defined as “the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations” (Merriam-Webster) epitomizes Koons’ theatrics within this series. There is an odd, and startling, juxtaposition between the smiling cheerful faces of the adorable creatures and the objects that ensnare them.
    Our merry caterpillar, stuck within the rungs of an industrial ladder, creates a surprising combination that is both sweet, at first glance, and rather morose at second glance. He appears stuck, as if he will never be able to climb out of or to the top of the ladder. Fortunately, he does not appear to be too concerned by this. Koons gives his caterpillar all the bold colors of a butterfly but without its freedom of movement. Generally a representation of growth, development and transformation Koons’ caterpillar is frozen and will eternally remain the same bold, happy, colorful caterpillar, forever blown up to distinctly adult proportions in distinctly industrial materials.
    “He wants his sculpture—which I think has been wrongly interpreted as cynical—to exist in a virginal, ethereal state of suspended animation, a place where the pure stays pure and the transitory lasts forever. Koons’ urge for eternity is echoed in his love of breathing machines (us) and his infatuation with innocence (children). Underneath and within every one of the new ‘Popeye’ sculptures is an old Koons reincarnated in child’s guise.  He’s turning back the clock in more ways than one. Rather than the hardcore imagery of “Made in Heaven,” he’s now interested in the softcore of bikinis and hot pants—sexy things that cover up the things that make seeing sexy.  The painted surfaces of the sculpture cover the steel as the steel encases his breath. In this way, Koons is rediscovering the thing that turned explicit in his work in the early 1990s, then sadly disappeared from it in 1995: the mystery” (J. Saltz, “Breathing Lessons,” Artnet, December 16, 2003).
    Koons’ technical skills are incredible and, in many ways, unbelievable. The perfectly painted aluminum and steel surfaces appear afloat despite the heavy materials from which they are made. As with a true inflatable, they seem weightless. They are bright, shiny and smiling, hiding the raw elements that go into their making. Just as inflatables are considered buoyant lifesaving devices in their original state, here they are immobilized nd rendered obsolete.
    However, his works are, without a doubt, optimistic. Though they certainly refer to some of the great masters of the twentieth century, one does not need extensive art historical knowledge to be able to appreciate Koons’ work and that is exactly what he intends. Koons believe that one’s personal experiences and one’s own history is the only thing necessary to appreciate his art. His pieces can be equally appreciated by children and adults alike, the former rejoicing in the sheer exuberance and playfulness and the latter in the unequivocal nostalgia. Koons’ works have multiple layers of meaning and are full of possibilities. Giorgio DeChirico once said, “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.”


Caterpillar Ladder

Polychromed aluminum, aluminum and plastic.
84 x 44 x 76 in. (213.4 x 111.8 x 193 cm).

This work is from an edition of three plus one artist’s proof.

$5,500,000 - 7,500,000 

Contemporary Art Part I

8 November 2010
New York