Jeff Koons’ “Banality” Series
Jeff Koons is an American artist, born in 1955, who is based in York, Pennsylvania. He became very famous in the 1980s and was one of those artists who were at the centre of the great art boom of the period. His big break-out work was from the “New” series: high-end commercial vacuum cleaners that were displayed in glass boxes.
Koons’ art is influenced by Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades. A ready-made is an object that already exists that is not made by the artist, but is transformed into an object of art through its selection. Koons put a post-modern spin on this idea and takes objects in images that already exists in art and popular culture and collages them together. He makes sculptures, installations, and paintings. His practice involves employing a large stable of assistants to execute his work. In fact, he doesn’t do any of the making himself: he oversees the entire production and makes all the decisions ie. colours, materials etc. Because Koons is so prolific, I’m going to limit my discussion to a few of the pieces of the series that he made in the late 1980s called “Banality”. I’ll start by saying that my main critique of the work is that it lacks any depth of meaning: it does not go beyond the object/image.
Michael Jackson and Bubbles. I saw this piece when I was in Chicago many years ago. Aside from a slight chuckle, I felt that this work didn’t really do anything for me. It’s a porcelain sculpture of the now deceased pop icon Michael Jackson with his pet monkey, Bubbles, on his lap. They are dressed in some kind of military uniform which makes me think of The Nutcracker Suite. A porcelain factory created the piece for him: he did not do the sculpting himself. The piece is shallow and empty and in many ways, it is the choice of material helps me not like it: because of the preciousness (fragility) of the porcelain and also that it’s glossy and shiny (gold and white).This makes the work seem frivolous and any connection to anything beyond this image seems accidental. (details: 106.7 cm × 179.1 cm × 82.6 cm (42 in × 70.5 in × 32.5 in))
Saint John the Baptist. I saw this work at the Seattle Art Museum. It is inspired by a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, one can almost get some kind of a narrative from the piece because of the familiar art iconography from Renaissance painting, but it’s a confusing one. What do the pig and bird represent? What about the pose of St. John? The work is meant to be a juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, but this contrast seems pretty dull: perhaps because we aren’t shocked by this kind of image anymore. This is also made from porcelain and reminds me of tiny Jesus icons at my grandmother’s house. There is no struggle or strife that why would associate with this figure from Christianity. It might as well be Michael Jackson in his place. Once again the objects don’t encourage any kind of deeper investigation. (details: 142.2 cm × 73.7 cm × 43.2 cm (56 in × 29 in × 17 in))
Ushering in Banality. A pretty pig is being pushed by a few cherubs (clothed) and a small boy (which Koons identifies as himself) who could be straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. It is quaint and cozy. It might be slightly jarring to some because you know the boy is in for a messy time, but it doesn’t go much further than that. Whatever narrative is being conjured up here, it isn’t very interesting. These figures could be enlarged replicas from your grandmother’s Hummel figurines collection. But I would admit it’s an interesting use of the language and symbols of the bourgeois household. It’s not enough to interest me however, and once again, I’m left with a blind alley in terms of what the work means. (details: Polychrome wood 96.5 cm × 157.5 cm × 76.2 cm (38 in × 62 in × 30 in))
Is it enough to illicit indifference in a work of art? Maybe that’s the point that I’m missing in Koons’ work. I am indifferent to it, so I think it is bad art. Perhaps the art is doing its job by making me not like it? Another thing that bothers me about Koons’ work is the blatant commercialism of it all. It reflects the grandiosity of the elite class without any sort of commentary or critique. Especially now, with most of the world’s economic systems failing, this kind of work seems out of tune with the reality of our time and out of touch with most people.
Silver Bunny. I like this piece.