Jeff Koons: Poking Fun at Pop

P H I L L I P S
Oct 30, 2013 4:20PM

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.

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. 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.

With the original sculpture of Buster Keaton, 1988, Koons presented an unprecedented object, one rife with permutations of self-portraiture and spiritual enigma. 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)

This 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 of to claim his fortune amidst a family feud reminiscent of the Hatfelds and McCoys, the still image finds its protagonist at the start of his journey, ready to head south. The image 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 stonefaced 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 but 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. 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, 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 fat, 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.

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.

Jeff Koons's Buster Keaton, will be offered in our Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 11 November 2013, in New York.

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