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  • Video

    JEFF KOONS 'Buster Keaton', 1988

    Koons tries to project this vision of himself, and of the artist, as a straight man to the jokes that he may or may not be pulling on us. Epitomizing Jeff Koons’ ability to seamlessly incorporate a classically inspired form and craftsmanship with a mad cap Pop sensibility, 'Buster Keaton', this life-sized monument to the most prominent star of the silent film era, perfectly captures Keaton’s comedic genius. Hinting at self-portraiture, 'Buster Keaton' is a telling portrait of Koons as a young artist, one who refused to look backwards, choosing instead to forge a new direction for art. Zach Miner, head of the Contemporary Art evening sale in New York, presents Jeff Koons' 'Buster Keaton' from 1988.

  • Provenance

    Galerie Max Hetzler, Cologne
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    Cologne, Galerie Max Hetzler, Banality, November, 1988 (current example exhibited)
    New York, Sonnabend Gallery, Banality, November, 1988 (another example exhibited)
    Chicago, Donald Young Gallery, Banality, December, 1988 (another example exhibited)
    Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art, The Carnegie International,November 5, 1988 – January 22, 1989 (current example exhibited)
    Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation, May 7 – August 13, 1989 (current example exhibited)
    Trento, Museum di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, American Art of the Eighties, December 1991 - March 1992 (another example exhibited)
    Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Let's Entertain Life's Guilty Pleasures, February 12 – April 30, 2000, then traveled to Portland Art Museum (July 7 –September 17, 2000), Paris, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou (November 15 – December 18, 2000), Wolfsburg, Germany Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg (March 16–July 15, 2001), Mexico City, Museo Rufino Tamayo (June 6 – August 8, 2001), Miami Art Museum, (September 14 – November 18, 2001) (another example exhibited)
    Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Jeff Koons, June 9 - September 15, 2003 (another example exhibited)
    New York, C&M Arts, Jeff Koons: Highlights of Twenty-Five Years, April 7 – June 5, 2004 (another example exhibited)
    Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Jeff Koons: Retrospective, September 4 – December 12, 2004 (another example exhibited)
    Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeff Koons, May 31 – September 21, 2008 (another example exhibited)
    New York, Haunch of Venison, Your history is not our history, March 5 - May 1, 2010 (another example exhibited)
    Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Ileana Sonnabend An Italian Portrait, May 29 - October 2, 2011 (another example exhibited)
    Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Jeff Koons. May 13 - October 2, 2012, p.91 (another example exhibited)
    Frankfurt, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Jeff Koons. The Sculptor, June 20 - September 23, 2012 (another example exhibited)

  • Literature

    R. Mahoney, "Miracle on W. Broadway,"New York Press, New York, November 9, 1988, p.15
    K. Levin, "The Evil of Banality,"Village Voice, December 20, 1988, p. 115
    "Collaborations, Martin Kippenberger-Jeff Koons,"Parkett, no.19, p. 32 (illustrated)
    A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne: Taschen, 1992, pp. 119 and 121, no. 21 (illustrated)
    G. Belli, J. Saltz, American Art of the Eighties, Milan: Electa,1991, p. 60 (illustrated)
    J. Koons, The Jeff Koons Handbook, London: Thames and Hudson Limited and Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 1992, p. 159 (illustrated)
    K. Jacobson, ed., Let's Entertain Life's Guilty Pleasures, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2000, p. 246, no. 41 (illustrated)
    M. Codognato and E. Geuna, Jeff Koons: Napoli, Museo archeologico nazionale, Naples: Electa, 2003, p. 71 (illustrated)
    M. Spiegler, "How Many Buster Keatons Does it Take to Fill an Art Gallery,"ArtNews, September 2004, p. 121 (illustrated)
    M. Woltmann, ed., Jeff Koons: Retrospective, Oslo: Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 89 (illustrated)
    Jeff Koons: Highlights of Twenty-Five Years, New York: C&M Arts, 2004, no. 5, n.p. (illustrated)
    H. W. Holzwarth,Jeff Koons, Cologne: Taschen, 2007, pp. 273-275 (illustrated)
    H. Bourdeaux-Martin, "Profile-Dominique Levy,"Whitewall, Winter 2008, p. 42 (illustrated)
    F. Bonami, ed., Jeff Koons, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, p. 64 (illustrated)
    M. Nakamura, "USA: Jeff Koons,” art actuel,no. 57, July/August 2008, p. 72, (illustrated)
    G. Bader,"Jeff Koons: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago,”Artforum, September 2008, p. 450, (Chicago installation illustrated)
    J. Tully, "The Reporter: Uneasy Street, ”Art & Auction, January 2009, p. 28, (illustrated)
    M. Sollins, ed., art: 21, Dalton, Massachusetts, 2009, p. 101, (Chicago Museum ofContemporary Art installation illustrated)
    H.W. Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Hong Kong: Taschen, 2009, pp. 270-271(illustrated)
    Your history is not our history, exh. cat.,Haunch of Venison, New York, 2010, p. 4 and 45 (illustrated)
    Ileana Sonnabend An Italian Portrait, exh. cat., Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 2011, p. 33 (illustrated)
    Jeff Koons , exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2012, p. 91 (illustrated)
    L. Tansini,"Basel; Jeff Koons- Beyeler Foundation,"Sculpture, April 2013, p.77 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “I can’t just choose any object or any theme to work with.” - from an interview with Klaus Ottmann, 1986

    Jeff Koons’s celebrity is a curious development in contemporary art. At once embracing his stardom and acknowledging its blatant satirical elements, Koons has cultivated an image that is as much a staple of the art world as any of his individual projects. But in order to provide the crucial hints at the relationship between the artist and his work, we explore the progression of his many series, the defining structure of his sculptural output since the early 1980s. As a young artist, Koons championed the readymade, first introduced by Duchamp at the turn of the twentieth century. He then turned his attention to the marketing phenomena of alcohol, at once ingenious and malicious in manipulating consumers through spectacle and ego-stroking. Yet even with that series, coined Luxury and Degradation, Koons continued to use readymade sculpture as his constructive basis. Banality, Koons’s landmark (and arguably most celebrated) series, however, signaled a major turning point in Koons career. With the original sculpture of Buster Keaton, 1988, Koons presents an unprecedented object, one rife with permutations of self-portraiture and spiritual enigma.

    Prior to his creation of the Banality series, Koons’s figural inspirations were more formulaic than self-determined. As a child, he had been obsessed with Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists; indeed, it is not difficult to pinpoint their explicit influence upon his early work, especially in terms of specific imagery, namely the multiplicitous pieces of domesticity that categorize early pieces such as The New and The Pre-New, both 1980. But after working with readymades for the better part of a decade, Koons felt his work demanded a new angle of personality, where his personal symbology and that of culture-at-large was the main player.

    As Koons stated in 2009, “In the Banality work, I started to be really specific about what my interests were. Everything here is a metaphor for the viewer’s cultural guilt and shame. Art can be a horrible discriminator. It can be used either to be uplifting and to give self-empowerment, or to debase people and disempower them. And on the tightrope in between, there is one’s cultural history. These images are aspects from my own, but everybody’s cultural history is perfect, it can’t be anything other than what it is—it is absolute perfection. Banality was the embracement of that.” (H.W. Holzwarth, Koons, Los Angeles, 2009, p. 252) The Banality series, comprised of wood carvings, porcelain and mirrored works, premiered in 1988 in a tripartite exhibition at the Max Hetzler Gallery in New York. Koons employed a renowned studio of craftsmen skilled in reliquary composition for the construction of the sculptures, a testament to the importance of their creation.

    Before us, the statue of Buster Keaton, 1988, conveys a sense of uncanny verisimilitude. Approaching the exact build of Keaton himself, Koons’s sculpture stands sixty-six inches at the shoulder, a life-size tribute to the most prominent actor/director of the silent film era. As his basis for the sculpture, Koons employed a publicity still of Keaton from his 1923 film, Our Hospitality, one of Keaton’s most popular films during his most popular era. Following a young man off to claim his fortune amidst a family feud reminiscent of the Hatfields and McCoys, the still image from which Koons draws his inspiration finds its protagonist at the start of his journey, ready to head south. The publicity still features not only Keaton in character atop a comically diminutive horse, but also his face raised to the horizon with a look of courage and pride, hand firmly shielding away the sunlight. This stone-faced dryness was Keaton’s signature pose, open to any and all comic mishap that might befall him.

    We can make a number of guesses as to why Koons chose to use Keaton as a figure. First and foremost, we cannot ignore the similarities between the two artists, which ground the portrayal of Buster Keaton in the familiar pantheon of self-portraiture. While Koons gained notoriety within a community clinging to the formal aspects of the past and unwilling to give its approval to an artist so deeply immersed in the realm of the conceptual, we discover find an analogous story in Keaton’s entry into the film business. Keaton’s early specialty as a “gag” artist—namely, one who created and performed physical comedy bits for motion pictures—echoes sixty years later at the onset of Koons career, where his early readymades drew similar derision from critics, who denigrated his own bag of “gags.” Yet this derision was woefully misplaced, as both Keaton and Koons have come to represent some of the most groundbreaking work imaginable in their respective fields, sharing aspects of humor and joy all in an effort to make their art more recognizable and successful.

    Indeed, the faces worn by both artists further emphasize their kindred artistic pursuits. Throughout its various phases, up to and including the present lot, Koons’s work with sculpture favors the suspension of artist’s hand, opting instead for an objective presentation, disallowing the presence of the distracting opinions of the artists into his work. The viewer is faced with an object eminently recognizable yet entirely foreign, unimpeded by pedantic sentiment. In this way, Keaton’s infamous filmic character—eyes wide, mouth flat, face broad and neutral to a cold and uncaring world dead set on humiliating him—presents a stylistic form of acting unequalled since. In effect, Keaton’s absurdist adventures, which often leave his clothes tattered and his objectives shattered, leave no imprint upon his expression, allowing the audience to concentrate only on cinematic action and not on the unfortunate human drama that befalls him. Koons and Keaton subtract the elements necessary to make their own art reach its intellectual potential within the observer.

    The film still that Koons chooses to immortalize his historical counterpart showcases Keaton’s classic mask perfectly. Koons, however, manipulates several aspects of the image to create an altogether different portrayal of Keaton in his sculpture. Upon a wooden platform, which serves to emphasize the artificiality of the piece, Koons’s carved wooden statue features three figures: Keaton, his miniscule mount and the curious addition of a bird atop his shoulder. The horse features the most fully realized proportions and colorings of the three figures. With a rich chocolate mane featuring white highlights at its nose and hooves, the horse seems resigned to the inanity of its rider, simply passing by the minutes until Keaton realizes his obvious mistake in selecting so inferior a breed. The coloration the horse and platform are enormously similar, to the extent that their chromatic unity seems to meld them together, a mere pedestal to showcase the circus up top.

    Keaton himself differs from his publicity still in several telling aspects, which coincide with Koons’s employment of Italian reliquary masters. As opposed to the still, in which the face of Keaton below his classic pork pie hat displays a look of naïve valor and confidence, here we find a somewhat defeated hero, eyebrows centrally peaked to betray a sorrowful gaze forward. In addition, Keaton’s posture is slumped slightly, in direct opposition to his cinematic photograph. This combination of both expression and bearing leads us to believe that he is only halfheartedly heading into the great beyond, wary from something unknown and untold. Koons’s choice of coloring is in keeping with the rest of his figures from the Banality series; whether the unreal golden glimmer of Michael Jackson and Bubbles or the blazing brightness of Pink Panther, Koons sculptures feature no delusions of hyperreal grandeur, insisting instead upon colors that betray their sculptural nature. Here, Keaton’s matte tanned skin contrasts sharply with his dark brown hair, yet highlighting the texture as the color sits upon ridges of the carved wooden surface. In addition, Keaton’s enormous salmon bowtie differs drastically from the disheveled garment in the publicity still.

    The final and most fascinating point of difference between the film still and the sculpture is Koons’s addition of a cartoon companion upon Keaton’s shoulder. The tiny bird is marvelous anachronism, its graphical features dating from decades after the production of Keaton’s film. Eyes wide with surprise and anticipation, the orange spitfire is straight out of an animator’s notebook, its wings appearing to be mid-flap as it anticipates its journey southward. The bird provides a glaring counterpoint to the heaviness of Keaton’s countenance, highlighting the dichotomous expressions of each rider.

    Buster Keaton, 1988 is not merely a tribute to the cinematic master nor perhaps a simple joke on his film persona. Keaton’s near-life size portrayal in the statue, in cooperation with his downcast, almost forlorn look of world-weariness, conjure far more haunting visual allusions than Our Hospitality. Koons, through employing workers skilled in religious craftsmanship, has inverted the nature of corpus and crucifix. Instead of the corpus’ dependence upon the cross for elevation, we find Keaton’s bow tie, sanitized into a perfect crucifix, dependent upon its attachment to the corpus. In doing so, Koons has inverted the relationship between the flesh and the cross: no longer is the body dependent upon the soul to be saved, but the soul is dependent upon the body.

    Having begun to explore the range of sentiments achievable in figurative sculpture in his Statuary series, it seems appropriate that Koons would find a way to be simultaneously kitschy and profound in his casual display of spectacle and ingenious symbolism. Yet, in direct opposition to its name, the aim of Banality was not a conciliatory one. Rather, Koons took strides in order to guarantee its controversy. The ad for his show in Artforum, in which he appears as a teacher giving a lesson in “Exploit[ing] the Masses,” showcased his direct rivalry with the academically grounded Artforum: “The artists wanted to confront Artforum, the most didactic of the magazines, identified at the time with theoretical writing and social-critical positions, and its readers, whom he perceived as hostile, with the assertion that he, not they, represented the future of art.”(K. Siegel, “Banality”, Koons, Ed. H.W. Holzwarth, Los Angeles, 2009, p. 254) In addition, Koons eschewed the praise of art community in favor of his freedom to work within it as an uninhibited artist, one who chooses not to draw his inspiration from the dictates of academicians or critics. With Buster Keaton, 1988, Koons nonchalantly proved that he could create a piece of art that was at fascinating to engage with both visually and intellectually.

    And, of course, Koons demonstrates his dominance as a humorous provocateur. The bird accompanying Keaton on his shoulder has a distinct referent in Christian iconography. Koons laid out the different aspects of his sculpture in 2009, amidst the different sculptures in his series: “Buster Keaton was Christ. I wanted to have the spiritual authoritarian figures there, in the Garden of Eden, so that people wouldn’t feel afraid to just give in to the banality. The little animated bird on his shoulder is like the Holy Spirit, and there’s a miniature pony instead of a donkey but this is like Christ.”(H.W. Holzwarth, Koons, Los Angeles, 2009, p. 271)

    Though it seems as if the bird is a slight crack at Keaton’s seriousness, it is Koons who is deadly serious in his use of cartoonish sculpture. As the Holy Spirit, going forth with Keaton’s Christ figure into a new dawn and new horizon, the cartoon bird serves to renew the fatigue of Keaton’s protagonist with its song, raising the Christ figure from his depressive indulgences. In turn, we can see the future of Keaton’s fabulous adventure unfolding: he will, of course, be subjected to a number of earthly tortures for our delight (and, in a religious sense, for our forgiveness), but he will eventually prove a successful protagonist in his bid for love within the world of his film.

    As we recall the similarities between the two men, it would be negligent not to investigate the holistic implications of such a statue. Koons’s fascinating manipulation of Keaton’s physicality and original film still lends a marvelous twist to the possibilities inherent in self-portraiture. Koons first fuses both religious figure and artist by assimilating holy properties and sculptural elements into Keaton’s figure. Then, by establishing Keaton as a direct reference to himself, Koons manages to add a third layer into his seemingly comic piece: he indirectly posits himself as a redemptive figure, creating and recreating. Keaton, in this respect, is the spiritual mediator and communicator between two realms, bridging the gap between two distant versions of the artist.

    With every sculpture in the Banality series, Koons manages to put forth a test for his observer. Through his titles and stunning visuals, he tests the ability of the viewer to peer more deeply into his work. However, once the observer chooses this path, Koons unleashes a wealth of pop culture imagery and religious reference, a veritable museum of art history that does not discriminate based on medium. In the piece that bears the eponymous name of the series, Ushering in Banality, 1988, Koons tricks us into thinking that we are only witnessing a scene of absurdity as two cherubic (and one very naughty) children lead flank a pig, the comedy inherent enough to engage us as we examine the piece. Elsewhere, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, tempts us to simply gaze upon it for its golden dazzle. But in each, the mythological references are fierce, either in Michael Jackson’s Byzantine coloring or the biblically-fraught Banality. Koons’s trial of the observer test continues today, where works appear simple as flowers but smell deep as the earth itself.

    Buster Keaton, seated upon a tiny horse, with a cartoon bird at his shoulder, would not seem an obvious choice for universal cultural iconography. But as he has stated, Koons was interested in his own cultural history concerning the sculptures that make up Banality. The result is not a random image drawn from the annals of cinematic history then blown up to life size, but rather an enormously personal sculpture crafted from the imagery that Jeff Koons has deemed culturally important to him. “Important,” in this sense, is perhaps a wild understatement. Self-portraiture, one of the rarest artistic approaches in Koons canon, has come in the form of an allied artistic adventurer, one whose initial gifts were critically discarded as “gags,” but have come to represent the visual advances of a generation.

    Koons was interviewed by Klaus Ottmann on his Statuary series in 1986: “To me, integrity means unaltered. When I’m working with an object I always have to give the greatest consideration not to alter the object physically or even psychologically. I try to reveal a certain aspect of the object’s personality. To give you an example: if you place a shy person in a large crowd, his shyness will be revealed and enhanced. I work with the object in a very similar manner. I’m placing the object in a context or material that will enhance a specific personality trait within the object. The soul of the object must be maintained to have confidence in the arena.”(“Interview with Jeff Koons”, Journal of Contemporary Art, October 1986)

    Here, speaking two years before he crafted Buster Keaton, 1988, Koons touches upon two concepts in his way of working that underscore his aims in the present lot. The first is his method of contrasting a piece with its environment, or presenting an object in an arena that will emphasize its personality. In drawing the inspiration for Buster Keaton from a production still, Koons’s project in giving three-dimensional life to his subject is one we can never have, even while experiencing the joy of Keaton’s many films: Koons manages to give us Keaton the entertainer in his most humble form. As the observer paces around Koons’s work, Keaton cannot turn his masterpiece of a mask towards us if he wishes it, humanizing the screen legend for us by tearing away our cinematic fantasy.

    But more fascinatingly, we can see the rapidly evolving concept of integrity in Koons’s work. While he testifies in 1986 (during his production of the Luxury and Degradation series) that integrity is the intentional perfect reproduction of an object, presenting it in its unadultered form, here we find Koons shifting an object from two-dimensional to three-dimensional existence: the addition of the comic bird aboard Keaton’s shoulder, the embodiment of the holy spirit, is in clear violation of his earlier definition of integrity. Yet Koons has found a way to modify the physical nature of his subject matter without destroying what he labels the “personality”. In Keaton alone, we find the combination of tragedy and comedy, all concretized by the knowledge that he was, in fact, a brilliant and groundbreaking filmmaker. The addition of the bird is Koons’s recognition of the viewer’s relationship to legendary actor, intensifying it with an object that shares the same visual power; sprightly and colorful, yet historically religious and significant, the bird represents Koons’s progressive state of mind as an artist in the midst of great creative leaps forward. It is a perfect example of why Koons has to come down to us as one of the greatest artists of the late twentieth century.

    In his entire process of creation—choosing an inherently comic image, filling it to the brim with religious undertones by way of construction and manipulation, then enhancing it with the addition of a pointed anachronism—Koons makes Buster Keaton anything but banal. The sculpture is a fascinating look into the methods of Koons as a creator, one who pulls from his own individual network of imagery, apart from society’s pre-approved pantheon of symbolism. Whether from a viewpoint of self-portraiture or not, Buster Keaton, 1988 is a telling portrait of Koons as a young artist who refused to look backwards, choosing instead to follow the tune of the spirit inside him.

5

Buster Keaton

1988
polychromed wood
66 x 48 x 27 in. (167.6 x 121.9 x 68.6 cm.)
This work is numbered and dated "1/3 '88" on the underside. This work is number 1 from an edition of 3 plus one artist's proof.

Estimate
$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for $4,421,000

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Evening Sale
[email protected]
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York 11 November 2013 7PM