“I use the Baroque to show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal. The church uses the Baroque to manipulate and seduce, but in return it does give the public a spiritual experience. My work deals in the vocabulary of the Baroque.”
An art-world provocateur, Jeff Koons has been no stranger to controversy during his four-decade career, infamous for his ‘pagan monuments to mass-culture triviality’ as much as his flirtation with large-scale spectacle in a multi-media age.i However, unlike other artists with works that are controversial, Koons insists that the shock and sensation provoked by some of his more infamous pieces are not intentional, his aims being more closely aligned to notions of acceptance and affirmation. No body of work speaks more clearly to these tensions than his Made in Heaven series, which moves between hardcore pornographic imagery and kitsch, encompassing sculptural depictions of flowers, pet dogs, and cherubs with more sexually explicit works of the artist and his then wife, the adult film star Ilona Staller.
Brash and unapologetic, Made in Heaven was first announced in 1989 with the appearance of a giant billboard at various sites across New York, styled like a promotional still from a feature film featuring a nude Koons draped across his prone wife as painterly waves crash suggestively behind them. Installed as part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Image World exhibition, the billboard’s blend of kitsch aesthetics and eroticism set the tone for the series to come, which created an immediate sensation following its inaugural presentation at La Biennale di Venezia in 1990 and in Koons’ hotly anticipated solo show at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York the following year.
Following on from the critical and commercial success of his previous exhibition, Banality, this period was absolutely crucial for the artist in both personal and professional terms, the Made in Heaven series allowing him to refine the conceptual and aesthetic directions that his work would go on to take. As Alison M. Gingeras has memorably put it, ‘born through porn’, it was in the ‘process of making Made in Heaven from 1989 to 1992 [that] Jeff Koons became Jeff Koons.’ii While Koons had previously worked with self-portraiture in his series The New and Banality, his practice was primarily rooted in the tradition of using readymade objects and images in his work - a concept that at times stoked controversy in the Banality series and elsewhere.
Like Banality, the Made in Heaven pieces were ‘about communicating to the bourgeois class’, employing kitsch as a means of reflecting their own guilt and shame back to them and to challenge the puritanical policing of high and low culture. For Banality, this strategy was aimed more directly at the relationships between class consciousness and visual culture, designed to ‘remove their guilt and shame about the banality that motivates them and which they respond to. […] to embrace their own history so that they can move on and actually create a new upper class instead of having culture debase them.’iii In turning this lens to look at our relationship to sexuality, Made in Heaven presented a moving and affirming vision of love as mode of redemption.
Despite its graphic content, Koons has always been emphatic and consistent on the point that the Made in Heaven series came from a pure place of love and personal acceptance, and a genuine belief that through celebrating the love that he experienced with Ilona he could share this transcendent feeling with his viewers and successfully deliver the bourgeoise from their debilitating guilt and shame. In their immaculate innocence, the pair of polychromed putti brought together in Cherubs are the perfect encapsulation of Koons’ aspirations for the series. Blending the sensual with the spiritual, they adopt the iconography of religious statuary and blend it with the fleshy pastel palette of Rococo artists Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher to become kitsch avatars for the couple themselves, having transcended from the material world to more spiritual realms.
Return to Eden
“It's an objective state, in which one lives and enters the eternal, and I believe that's what I showed people.”
In discussions of these works and their explicit celebration of physical love, Koons frequently invokes Quattrocento artist Masaccio’s fresco panel depicting the expulsion of Adam and Even from the Garden of Eden held in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. Punished for their newly found awareness of their own bodies and sexuality, the couple are banished from paradise. Wracked with guilt and shame, Adam hides his face in his hands while Eve claws at her body as she tries to cover her nudity, wailing in desperation at the sky.
Rosy-cheeked and ringed with flowers, the two Cherubs are freed from any such self-doubt and loathing, their amorous play returning them instead to blissful innocence. The tone of this has much to do with Koons’ casting of Ilona as a vessel of virginal purity, her liberating attitude to sex, pleasure, and the body so utterly free from guilt and shame that she transcends such limitations. Returned to their own garden of earthly delights, Cherub promises a similar salvation for us, delivering ‘us all from puritanical moralising and repressive politics on a path to self-acceptance.’iv
Unlike gold, bronze, or even marble, wood is a highly democratic material, readily available and relatively easy to carve. As a sculptural material, it has particular associations with religious iconography, adorning church interiors from carved altarpieces, decorative pews, and humble sculptural adornments including images of the crucified Christ, scenes from the Bible, and of course the full-cheeked cherubs watching over the congregation from vaulted ceilings. It was during an extended period in Munich that Koons became especially attuned to the art of the Baroque and the Counter-Reformation, particularly moved by the interior of the Church of St. Peters, decorated with its own golden-winged cherubs.
More than the earnest simplicity of the wooden polychromed sculptures that he found in abundance in Germany, something about the democratic nature of the medium itself appealed to Koons. As the artist has described: ‘‘I enjoyed the Counter-Reformation work because of its ambitions in relation to the viewer […] When a person went into church it did not matter how poor they were, they felt economically secure with all the gold and silver. Just for that moment their economic needs were met.’v Within these contexts, Koons Cherubs speaks profoundly to Koons’ broader artistic project, and his desire to return to what he describes as a more ‘objective’ art, a moment where ‘art was really at the service of the masses. To try to meet the needs of the masses.’vi
Jeff Koons, Made in Heaven, Stedelijk Musuem, Amsterdam, 1994
One of the most infamous artists working today, Jeff Koons’ work explores ideas around contemporary commodity culture and celebrity, his adoption of a popular everyday objects has sparked numerous debates about the limits of good taste.
The present work belongs to his iconic Made in Heaven series, which the artist worked on between 1989 and 1992, and was a symbol of the eternal and spirituality.
Works from the series are held in major institutions including The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Tate Collection in London, and The Art Institute of Chicago, amongst others.
i Carl Swanson, ‘Jeff Koons is the Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol: So What’s the Art World Got Against Him?’, Vulture, 5 Mayb 2015, online.
ii Alison M. Gingeras, ‘Born Through Porn: How Jeff Koons Became Jeff Koons’, in Jeff Koons: Made in Heaven, Paintings (exh. cat.), New York, 2010, p. 14.
iii Jeff Koons, Anthony Haden-Guest, ‘Interview: Jeff Koons’, in Jeff Koons, Köln, 1992, p.28.
iv Alison M. Gingeras, ‘Born Through Porn: How Jeff Koons Became Jeff Koons’, in Jeff Koons: Made in Heaven, Paintings (exh. cat.), New York, 2010, p. 26.
v Jeff Koons, quoted in Elena Geuna, Jeff Koons, New York, 2013
vi Jeff Koons, quoted in Alison M. Gingeras, ‘Born Through Porn: How Jeff Koons Became Jeff Koons’, in Jeff Koons: Made in Heaven, Paintings (exh. cat.), New York, 2010, p. 14.
Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London Wolfgang Joop Collection, Berlin Christie’s, New York, 15 November 2006, lot 80 Private Collection, Europe Christie’s, New York, 8 May 2012, lot 52 Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
New York, Sonnabend Gallery, Made In Heaven, 23 November – 21 December 1991 Lausanne, Galerie Lehmann, Made In Heaven, 5 March – 7 May 1992 Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Aarhus, Kunstmuseum; Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, Jeff Koons, 28 November 1992 - 18 April 1993, pp. 64, 99 (another example exhibited and illustrated) Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Aarhus, Kunstmuseum; Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, Jeff Koons - Retrospektiv, 28 November 1992 - 18 April 1993, no. 64, pp. 82, 114 (another example exhibited and illustrated) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Jeff Koons, 10 December 1992 - 3 October 1993, no. 55, pl. 60, pp. 118, 132 (another example exhibited and illustrated) New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jeff Koons | Andy Warhol: Flowers, 11 November – 21 December 2002, pp. 8, 36 (another example exhibited and illustrated, p. 37; installation view illustrated, pp. 5, 29) Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Artist Rooms: Jeff Koons, 19 March - 3 July 2011 São Paulo, Bienal Pavilion, In the Name of the Artists – American Contemporary Art from the Astrup Fearnley Collection, 30 September - 4 December 2011 Frankfurt, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Jeff Koons: The Sculptor, 20 June - 23 September 2012, pp. 154, 190 (another example exhibited and illustrated; installation view illustrated, p. 70) São Paulo, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil; Rio de Janeiro, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil; Belo Horizonte, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Visões na Coleção Ludwig, 25 January - 20 October 2014, pp. 108, 199 (another example exhibited and illustrated, p. 109) Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, The Tour. Ludwig Museum - Collection of the Russian Museum at MAMM, 19 February - 9 May 2018 (another example exhibited) Doha, AJ Riwaq Gallery, Jeff Koons: Lost in America, 21 November 2021 - 31 March 2022, pp. 96, 251 (illustrated, p. 97)
Jeff Koons and Robert Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, pp. 128-129, 161 (illustrated) Angelika Muthesius, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, pp. 159, 169 (illustrated) Carter Ratcliff, Rhonda Lieberman and Jo Anna Isaak, ‘Jeff Koons: Not for Repro’, Artforum, vol. 30, no. 6, February 1992 (illustrated, p. 83) Brooks Adams, ‘Jeff Koons at Sonnabend’, Review. Art in America, March 1992, p. 118 Peter Flessig, ‘Kitschy, Kitschy Koons’, City Limits. London, 12-19 March 1992, p. 17 Tyson Underwood, ‘The Koons Show’, San Francisco Chronicle, 8 January 1993 (illustrated) Horst Valer, ‘Kunst der totalen Banalitat’, Das Magazin, April 1993, p. 57 (illustrated) Gordon Burn, ‘The showman’, The Guardian, 11 November 2006, p. 7 Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2008, p. 313 Sarah Lucas, ‘So wird's gemacht!’, Monopol, June 2008, pp. 34-35 (illustrated) Silke Hohmann, Oliver Koerner von Gustorf and Amélie von Heydebreck, Stations - 100 Meisterwerke Zeitgenössischer Kunst, Monopol – Magazin für Kunst und Leben, Cologne, 2008, pp. 22-23 (installation view illustrated) Renate Wiehager, ed., Blitzen-Benz Bang - Daimler Art Collection: Mixed Media, Sculptures, Commissioned Works, Ostfildern, 2009, p. 314 Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, pp. 305, 587 (illustrated; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 1993 installation view illustrated, p. 48) Divine Comedy, exh. cat., Sotheby’s, New York, 2010, p. 162 (illustrated, p. 163) Raphaël Bouvier, Jeff Koons – Der Künstler Als Täufer, Munich, 2012 (installation view illustrated, p. 264) The Bad Shepherd, exh. cat., Christie’s, London, 2014, p. 177 (illustrated) Barbara Kutscher, ‘Eine digitale Plattform ersetzt die Edelmesse’, Handelsblatt, 30 October 2020, online
inscribed with signature, number and date ‘3/3 91 J FUX’ on the underside of the female cherub’s left wing polychromed wood, in 2 parts 121.9 x 110.5 x 48.3 cm (47 7/8 x 43 1/2 x 19 in.) Executed in 1991, this work is number 3 from an edition of 3 plus 1 artist’s proof.