Jeff Koons - Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 14, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Video


    "Stainless steel is a seamless material. He [Jeff Koons] takes mundane everyday objects and tries to transfer them into timeless materials to make timeless sculptures". Svetlana Marich, Deputy Chairman & Co-Head of Contemporary Art, Europe discusses Jeff Koons Jim Beam - Observation Car, 1986 from his 'Luxury and Degradation' series about the luxurious lifestyles promised to consumers in advertising campaigns of the 1980's. "Koons was investigating what kind of dreams can come true if you use this product or that."

  • Provenance

    Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Los Angeles, Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Luxury and Degradation, July - August, 1986 (another example exhibited)

  • Literature

    Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1988, cat. no. 19, pp. 30-31 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, exh. cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1990, cat no. 32, p. 395 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    J. Koons and R. Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, pp. 66-67 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    A. Muthesius, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, pl. no. 10, p.74 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, cat. no. 28, pl. 24 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    R. Rosenblum, Jeff Koons: Easyfun - Ethereal, New York, 2000, p. 34 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collection, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2001, p. 224 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    J. Koons, Pictures 1980-2002, exh. cat., Bielefeld, Kunsthalle Bielefeld, New York, 2002, p. 21 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 2003, pp. 44-45 and p. 51 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    Jeff Koons: Highlights of 25 Years, exh. cat., New York, C&M Arts, 2004, pl. 15 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    S. Cosulich Canarutto, Jeff Koons (Supercontemporanea series), Milan, 2006, pp. 44-45 (illustrated, another example exhibited)
    H. Werner Holzworth, ed., Jeff Koons, Hong Kong: Taschen, 2009, pp. 197, 586 (illustrated, another example exhibited)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Creating work with a façade of visual seduction has remained one of Jeff Koons's signature points in crafting new pieces, ever since the premiere of his Pre-New series in 1979, which first captured viewers’ imaginations with its exhibition-style presentation of mundane objects. His Luxury and Degradation series, first exhibited in 1986, pushed the envelope on addressing contemporary tactics of consumer advertising. Focusing on alcohol, the show was a testament to the lengths to which corporations will go to promote their products, even to dehumanize their consumer. By elevating and highlighting the specific tactics employed by advertising firms, Koons was able to showcase the main concept within the advertisements- the luxurious lifestyle promised to the consumer. As the centerpiece in the show, the Jim Beam J.B. Turner Train represented the most sculpturally complete embodiment of the shows overarching message. Beautifully wrought, Jim Beam—Observation Car, 1986 is one of the finest examples of Koons’s work— and a symbolically profound entry in his series.

    Koons’s work in the Luxury and Degradation series is a combination of sculpture and painting, a collection of both advertisements and the paraphernalia used to transform alcohol into a toy for adulthood. The Jim Beam—Observation Car, 1986, was one of the most exciting projects within the series for Koons personally, as it brought into account the concept of temptation. Koons testifies as to its origins: ‘I was walking down Fifth Avenue and I saw in a liquor store this train that was made out of plastic and porcelain. It was a Jim Beam train. What caught my interest was the possibility to transform it and to cast it in stainless steel and bring it to a mirror finish, but to also maintain the soul of the piece, which was the liquor inside. So after the train was cast, it was sent back to Jim Beam where they refilled each car with a fifth of Bourbon, and the tax-stamp seal was put on. You can drink it and enjoy the bourbon, but you have killed the work of art because you've destroyed the soul of the piece when you break the tax-stamp seal.’ (Exh. cat, Jeff Koons, San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, n.p.)

    This transformation, from plastic and porcelain to a more permanent finish, which, in turn, resembled the platinum and silver that makes stainless steel such an appealing and visually captivating medium, was key for Koons. Stainless steel found its perfect employment in Koons’s Luxury and Degradation series. Always sensitive to the brilliant manipulation of the contemporary consumer market, Koons found himself drawn to the advertisements for alcohol. But rather than focus on the colours of the substance itself or indeed any resulting alcoholism, Koons chose to focus on marketing tactics, elevating the promotional products to the realm of aristocratic excess with his chosen medium. His series focuses on breaking down the consumer into a debauched animal, accessing the most visceral appetites by appealing to the values of each separate economic class of the user. By debasing the consumer, Koons realised, the alcohol industry could eliminate any economic or reasoning power of its target simply by presenting it in a medium that appealed to the base desires of the consumer.

    The present lot is a fine example of Koons's attention to sculptural detail and his devotion to the ideal of visual seduction. Jim Beam—Observation Car observes the same dimensions as its plastic and porcelain counterpart, as opposed to many of Koons’s other works in the series—many of which were magnified to highlight their immersive qualities. Yet Koons brilliantly both undercuts and emphasises the kitsch nature of his referent: the toy train is catapulted out of the realm of modern plaything and into the realm of artistic sculpture while simultaneously given an even more craft-like quality in its fabulous sculptural thoroughness. And, in addition, Koons’s final twist of adding bourbon, mimicking the original train set decanters loaded with alcohol themselves, gives the piece a functional quality. Yet, as we have already stated, the observer would be remiss to actually enjoy its contents, potentially monopolising both the artistic message and material value of the work. As such, Koons has created one of the most fascinatingly inaccessible examples of modern sculpture, where the viewer cannot be fully satisfied with all the work has to offer unless he is willing to compromise the integrity of the piece.

    Compact, yet finely polished and detailed, the exterior of Koons’s piece is a marvel of sculptural detail. From the miniscule fragments of polish upon the door of the train car to the deep and seemingly fragile pieces of metal that comprise the many components of the train wheels, Koons pays impressive homage to his original inspiration. The gleaming surface has undergone extensive polishing, to the point at which it is virtually indistinguishable from a mirrored surface. The few exceptions to this rule are the beautifully rendered stones that lay along the tracks at the bottom of the piece—a few metallic flourishes that make the entire work a wondrous thing to behold. In addition, the extended surfaces of polish are the main agents of Koons’s seduction, their pristinely shined facades producing an almost irresistible brightness.

    But while the exterior of Koons’s piece presents us with a work of almost mouth-watering visual stimulation, he prevents us from accessing its most exciting parts—the alcohol inside. This prevention is Koons’s gesture towards the ability to assume the desired persona of the viewer; while the seductive facades of the poster art and magazine advertisements centered around alcohol force the consumer to degrade their own persona in order to believe they would achieve a higher status through participation, it is ultimately out of their grasp. Koons presents us with the same dilemma in Jim Beam—Observation Car. Koons’s method of presenting us with this loaded metaphor is one of the most brilliant aspects of the present lot, and one that establishes it as both an object of fascination and an object of sinister intent.

    But Koons is also drawing upon alcoholic paraphernalia as a method of accessing the lingering immaturity inherent in adulthood. As one of the most common childhood toys, the train set is a representative of vestigial childhood, hidden behind the exterior of an object deemed ‘collectible.’ Despite its proposed value as an object of objective value (created by its inclusion amongst a set of other singly-minted alcohol paraphernalia), and despite its internal adult-only contents, the Jim Beam—Observation Car is in fact an adult toy. It functions in the same way that childhood diversions do, with perhaps the exception that its value accrues over time. It draws upon the satisfaction of possession and repose, not to mention the ‘model,’ which has occupied a place in the pantheon of childhood playthings.

    It is this use of the train as a symbol that makes Koons’s work so distinctly American as well. Symbolising America at the height of its expansion, the train car is one of the most perfectly established metaphors for the American dream: an ever-expanding force of uncertain origin but untold destiny. By utilising the train a loaded American signifier, Koons manages to present us with a four pronged metaphor, one that travels far beyond the reach of its original intent: to sell alcohol.

    The concept of Luxury and Degradation is a simple one at first—elevating the mundane to the realm of art employing concepts that we have utilised for nearly a century in contemporary art. But Koons’s willingness to imbue his work with a litany of associative powers and allusions eclipses the simplicity of the project. In place of an elevated sculpture, we behold a representation of America past and present: its vices, its origins, and, of course, its truths that lie below the surface. And, if we consider the year in which the present lot was made—1986, the height of Wall Street’s blatant voyage into materialism—we can add to that list a prescient view of the future, a time when inherent value took a backseat to material worth.

    Speaking on the subject of his series in 1992, Jeff Koons talked about the process of infusing his source material with the power of his symbology: ‘The objects are given an artificial luxury, and artificial value, which transforms them completely, changing their function, and to a certain extent de-criticalizing them. My surface is very much a false front for an underlying degradation.’(A. Muthesius, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 74) This artificiality is not applied with the object of making his work less significant, but rather with the intent of contrasting their appearance with their original use: to move product. As a representative of the Luxury and Degradation series, perhaps no piece is more profound in its exhaustive exploration of the willingness of man to be seduced by his environment than is Jim Beam—Observation Car.


Jim Beam - Observation Car

stainless steel, bourbon
26 x 40.6 x 16.5 cm (10 1/4 x 15 7/8 x 6 1/2 in.)
This work is number 3 from an edition of 3 plus 1 artist’s proof.

£800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for £962,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2014 7pm