At his most basic level, Jeff Koons
does not merely appropriate
other work or images - he meticulously copies them. In his show Equilibrium
, 1985, (Jeff Koons
work can only be viewed as a whole, the entire exhibition being a single work of art
), he lined the walls with facsimile
images of Nike
advertisements. In Luxury and Degradation
, 1986, he does the same with advertisements for liqueur
. These images are reproduced perfectly - Koons returned to the Nike
headquarters in Oregon
from New York
multiple times to ensure that his reproductions were flawless. All the advertisements he chooses have a certain kitsch
value, especially in the Equilibrium
show, Koons appears to have chosen the most nauseus
ly so, such as Dr. Dunkenstien
, 1985 and Secretary of Defence
But the vast majority of his work is not so idealistically detached. Koons' seminal work appropriates from a variety to sources, postcards, souvenir figures, popular comic characters, and cheap toys, and turns them into aluminium, porcelain and wooden models, and even an enormous flower puppy. The resulting product is often even more kitsch than the original, witness the original postcard which Bear and Policeman, 1988 (from his Banality show, also 1988) is taken from. By reproducing it in over-coloured and sentimentalised porcelain, the 'cringe' element in the sculpture is increased. But this sentiment is not dictated by any artistic addition of Koons, any flick of the paintbrush to accentuate facial features. Instead the sentiment is imposed by the very material it is made from; the material being nothing more than another 'choice' of Koons, rather than any particular talent of his.
'Koons works by systematically appropriating areas in which there is a high degree of fictionality. He uses the same methods that are already at work in such fiction, be it woodcarving, porcelain manufacture, the pornography industry, or Moreno glass blowing. He uses the means, the experience and above all the features of each of these approaches to fictional production to give his own ideas concrete form and extend his palette. '
Koons' appropriations are always from lowbrow
culture, an extension of Andy Warhol
's Campbell soup cans and celebrities. But while Warhol was merely acknowledging a lowbrow pop culture
and creating highbrow
art from it, Koons seems to want to embrace the very qualities that make it low. Instead of ironic
detachment, Jeff Koons' work is his subject; Koons takes Warhol's pop to its logical conclusion.
Koons' attack on artistic originality is two-fold - Koons completely appropriates his images, and does not make the finished product himself. He employs highly skilled artisans and industrial producers to create his art, removing himself from the process of both design and production and therefore relegating him to as he calls it 'an ideas person.' In his early work his ideas are simple - make a Jim Beam model train out of metal, cast a rowboat out of bronze - it is the juxtaposition of various pieces in the gallery that make the art. Viewed as a whole, the Luxury and Degradation show - consisting as it does of the Jim Beam aluminium train, the advertisements for alcohol, and various cups and hip flasks cast also out of the same metal - can be quite powerful, whereas a single reproduced advertisement or cup can is meaningless. The controversial and pornographic show Made In Heaven, 1990, is also only decipherable as a whole; each piece individually is artistically worthless (not literally worthless however - if anything, Jeff Koons is the most economically shrewd artist this century.)
One of the pieces from the Made In Heaven show that can actually stand to criticism by alone, Manet, 1991 is, unusually for Koons, a direct appropriation of another artist's work - Édouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass, which Pablo Picasso also appropriated. The large photograph silk-screened on canvas, Manet features Koons and Cicciolina engaged in a sexual act amidst a rocky outdoor landscape. The two are heavily lit so that the pinks and yellows of their skin shines out against the dark greens and greys of the rocks. The title, referring to the impressionist artist Édouard Manet, invites comparison with Manet's most famous work, Luncheon on the Grass 1863 in which a nude model is shown having lunch with the artists who are painting her, in a similar landscape to that of Koons'. Most of the Made In Heaven show is not an attack on the concept of artistic originality, and Manet should not be viewed as such. Instead the appropriation of the classic work into the pornographic world acts to both mock and distort the original. Koons appears to be suggesting that Luncheon on the Grass contains some sort of sexual tension between the artist and the model, the same (obviously resolved) sexual tension that is between him and Cicciolina. When Luncheon on the Grass was displayed in 1963 it was a source of great controversy as the model is nude while the artists are not. But in Koons' version, the model is not only nude by splayed, revealing herself pornographically, being pleasured by an also nude artist. The artist is acting out the fantasy that social forces dictated he couldn't act out in Luncheon on the Grass.
Appropriation, as contemporary artists such as Koons define it, has been one of the most controversial techniques of art this century, the most visible symptom of the attacks on artistic originality that was started with Marcel Duchamp's urinal. The contemporary understanding of the notions of originality trade idea for craftwork, the person who thought of the idea taking precedent over the person who is hired to construct the work itself. Auteur Theory allows art critics to draw the analogy between art and the movie business - the director does not physically act in the film or turn on the camera, but he is recognised as the idea behind the movie, and therefore the artist. This analogy is useful with Picasso's appropriations; his work both elaborates on and challenges the originals so that the result is unquestionably Picasso's - the question of originality is not an issue because the original classic works are reduced to mere composition. But when someone distances himself so much from the work, like Jeff Koons does with the Nike and alcohol advertisements, then all he does is reproduce a work like the newspapers do when they place that ad on their pages, or signage companies do when they plaster that ad on a billboard. But Koons presents it as art. And with the lack of even ironic detachment from the original, Koons' function as an artist can be considered as nothing but a glorified photocopier.
But such a view denies the core of Koons' art. While Picasso placed classic imagery into the context of his oeuvre, Koons places advertisements into the context of the gallery, surrounded by other appropriated imagery and sculptures. Postmodern appropriation, as represented by Koons, can be understood as a method of recontextualisation, taking an image out of its original context and placing it in another, with the resulting change in meaning.
Baker, D.S. "Jeff Koons and the Paradox of a Superstar's Phenomenon", Bad Subjects, Issue #4, February 1993
Buskirk, Martha. "Appropriation Under the Gun" Art in America v. 80 June 1992. p. 37-39
Muthesius, Angelika, Jeff Koons Benedickt Taschen, Frankfurt,1992