Fake or Facsimile Part 11: Jeff Koons: “Appropriation Artist”

I don’t much like the Jeff Koons Rabbit icon.  As discussed in Part 8 of Fake or Facsimile (ForF), I see that the 1986 LA Broad museum Rabbit sculpture is capable of making a bold and suggestive statement.  But the sharply minimized 2-dimensional memento versions leave me indifferent, even though they are a mandatory feature of the Louis Vuitton—Jeff Koons collaboration.  Last time I suggested that their inclusion in the LV Masters Collection did nothing to further any kind of dialogue with Renaissance painting, least of all the Mona Lisa.  The Rabbit theme may, however, have more persuasive power with the van Gogh version of the LV Masters handbag collection.  On my favourite website, viz. alibaba.com, I found an intriguing “reworking” of van Gogh’s notorious late Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889, Courtauld Gallery, London).  This modern commentary replaces van Gogh’s visage with a rabbit head and ear(!) and is entitled in part: “Modern Handmade Van Gogh Selfportrait Rabbit Oil Painting”.  Despite its being very reasonably priced, this modern interpretation will not be found hanging in my living room: the subject matter is just too controversial.

Recently, I discovered that in October. 2015, the Jeff Koons Rabbit icon was being marketed as a necklace (also a cuff bracelet) for $700 USD,[i] which disposes me a little more favourably towards the $585 price point for the LV Rabbit Bag Charm, relatively speaking; but I did allow myself to wonder whether one recent iteration of the Rabbit motif was being foregrounded so as to support the other, if you see what I mean.

T.S. Eliot has been repeatedly credited with the assertion that:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

This attribution seems to be confirmed by Fast Company,[ii] but I prefer my (no doubt totally illegitimately) invented variation: “a hack imitates; a great artist steals”.  Versions of the same sentiment have also been attributed to both Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinksy; so now we have poetry, painting and music all covered.

Jonathan Jones of the British Guardian has succinctly described Jeff Koons (JK) as “a notorious appropriation artist”,[iii] pithily thereby rehearsing one of the underlying themes of this ForF series—and flagging all the issues that we still want to discuss with reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), for instance.  But things have now apparently gone a (legal) step further.  In a December 2015 article, Jonathan Jones[iv] lists at least 3 lawsuits (and in March 2017 Koons lost another)[v] in which the famous American has been sued for developing his own artistic enterprise from other people’s photographs and advertisements.  Jonathan Jones is sympathetic, and not without reason: “Koons seems to have an imaginative vision of modern life as a banal funfair of kitsch images and desires. It’s a powerful picture of our time.”  I am mostly persuaded by this argument.  How would it be possible to parody a way of life defined by a relentless bombardment of advertisements and product placements, if you are not (legally) permitted actually to provide the citation and illustration necessary in order to effect the caricature.  For the caricature to have any purchase, the viewer needs to know of what it is, in fact, the caricature.  I also need to admit my judgment here may be clouded: the Philistine preparing this series actually much prefers the Koons’ sculptures to the earlier photographs: Fait d’Hiver & String of Puppies (both 1988); the photographs which it seems Koons may have appropriated.  Whatever else can be said, JK has probably replicated—and then also vastly improved.  The Koons genius is certainly at work here, because, by his artistic inspiration, something trivial and vapid has been turned into something quite original and interesting.

The case that Koons lost in March of this year has to do with his Banality series, specifically a controversial bit of porcelain entitled Naked (1988); whatever one thinks of that particular piece, I must admit that the series as a whole looks quite striking.  Naked was supposed to be on display with the rest of the series in Paris at the Centre Pompidou during a 2014-2015 retrospective; but it was not, in fact, available for viewing during the Koons exhibition.  The Centre Pompidou was found liable all the same, because it produced photographs of the porcelain sculpture in its Pompidou publications.  Claire Voon reported that Alain Seban (President of the Centre until February 2015) addressed the suggested charges of infringement: Banality’s “very principle is to take mass produced objects and images from the popular press as points of departure.”[vi]  I believe Seban’s defence has real merit, but opposing counsel was not convinced: Koons’ artistic appropriation was simply “counterfeiting”[vii] and equivalent to theft.[viii]

In the interests of balance and fairness, I am extremely grateful to have had an opportunity now to express some sympathy, even enthusiasm, for the artistic productions of Jeff Koons—but then one is pulled up short.  It is a little disappointing to learn that the work of “appropriation” had best stop with Jeff Koons himself, rather than allowing his work to inspire others to do exactly the same, perhaps even in singular tribute to Koons himself.  Luke Malone reports an effort by the Koons consortium (in 2011) of preventing a San Francisco gallery from “selling balloon dog bookends”.  As I have not seen these innovative artifacts, I cannot confirm my impression that they do seem to be a nod in the direction of JK.  Please remember that Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) remains, at $58.4 Million USD, apparently the highest price ever paid for the work of a living (American) artist.[ix]

“Balloon Dog (Orange)”
(AP Photo/ Christie’s)

There are a number of things that are worth remarking about this JK Balloon Dog icon and this sale of the Orange version:

1: Christie’s (Rockefeller Center, New York) offered a description of the auction item: Balloon Dog (Orange) is “mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating”, standing 10-feet high, and this version had been “signed and dated ‘Jeff Koons 1994-2000’ (on the underside)”.[x]  Orange belongs to a series (critics call it “a litter”) of five: Blue, Magenta, Red and Yellow are the others.

2: Christie’s published their estimate for the sale as falling between $35 Million and $55 Million USD.  I am assuming that had the bidding stalled Christie’s would have accepted the $35 Million figure.  In fact, the sale exceeded the lowest estimate by an eye-watering $23.4 Million, thus also moving well beyond the highest estimate.

3: It will surely be of interest for readers of ForF to know that The Broad museum in Los Angeles is the home of the Blue puppy, and that Magenta belongs to François Pinault.

4: This is not just co-incidentally significant because these are names that have already been mentioned.  With the Broad and Pinault Foundations looking after these versions of the series, the public is graciously assured actual access.

5: Depressingly, the Orange puppy “was purchased by an unknown telephone buyer”[xi] at Christie’s; so, as is now all too familiar: whereabouts unknown, and therefore wholly inaccessible to the viewing public in America or anywhere else.  Given the recording-setting millions paid for this work of a world-famous artist, some of us—despite ourselves—would be very grateful to have a look at it, just to find out what all the fuss is about.

6: I have had a close encounter with Jeff Koons’ Popeye, which was sold at Sotheby’s in New York to Steve Wynn (now Republican Party Finance Chair) for $28.165 Million USD on the 14th of May, 2014.  The piece was described by Sotheby’s as the same kind of coloured stainless steel as the Balloon Dog series, standing at a 6.5 feet high, and signed and dated by Jeff Koons (2009-2011), with the important additional information that, under Popeye’s right foot, it is “numbered 3/3”.[xii]  At the time of NY purchase, the other two versions were owned by Steve Cohen (hedge funds, #99 in the Forbes “real time” ranking), and Larry Gagosian, the art dealer and owner of 16 galleries in America, Europe and Hong Kong).  Shrewd company to be keeping apparently.

7: I have been inclined to see this as a potentially excessive price to pay even for someone of Koons’ global “brand” recognition.  But I have to hand it to Mr Wynn, whose name is prominently displayed on two enormous (and beautifully designed) Las Vegas hotels.  a) His 3rd version of Popeye is still centrally displayed in the lobby in front of the Wynn Theater in Las Vegas, an open space, and situated in such a way for guests to be able to approach and admire; this 2,000 pound-sculpture will soon be making its way to Greater Boston, again for accessible display;[xiii] b) It is hard for me to suppress the thought that the staggeringly successful Wynn bid for Popeye falls within the suburban vicinity of the dollar difference between Christie’s starting estimate and the final purchase price of Balloon Dog (Orange).  The $23.4 Million difference between these two numbers, of course, falls nearly $5 Million short of the actual Popeye purchase price.  But when you compare the much greater general dynamic, the heightened variety, and colour appeal of Popeye (of which there are only three) with the Balloon Dog series (of which there are five)… perhaps one might start to intuit that Mr Steve Wynn may have snapped up a bargain.

[envira-gallery id=”328″]

8: Apparently, I may not be the only one to think so: there are (of course, unconfirmed) reports that, within a year of the New York auction, Mr Wynn was offered (and refused) $60 Million[xiv] for the same piece, which is to say a figure double the auction purchase price, and (justly, in my opinion) in excess of the record-setting Jeff Koons’ Orange version of Balloon Dog.

9: Also impressive is Steve Wynn’s devotion to the care and preservation of the art that he collects.  According to the Las Vegas Sun, Popeye is refreshed semi-annually by “cleaning experts from Germany”, which amounts to an annual expense of $60,000.[xv]  Mr Wynn could easily imitate other collectors of the world’s most famous pieces, by keeping their acquisition anonymous and well shielded from public view (and interference).  I admire this determination to share his enthusiasm for extremely striking examples of American contemporary art.

10: As it happens, Mr Wynn also owned and displayed another massive Jeff Koons’ artwork Tulips (usual “mirror-polished stainless steel”, weight 3 tons; height of 6.5 feet; formerly in Las Vegas, now in Macau[xvi]).  The Wynn iteration is one of five versions; and Steven Wynn’s investment at Christie’s New York in November 2012 was for $33.68 Million USD.[xvii]  Other versions can be viewed at LA’s The Broad museum (of course), and also at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

11: Tulips and Balloon Dog are the most significant achievements of the Jeff Koons’ Celebration series, the purpose of which is, according to Christie’s, “to recreate the ecstatic experiences of a child’s enjoyment of the world through universal signifiers representing birthday parties and festive events… designed to ensnare and captivate… endowed with the joyful associations of childhood, hope and innocence.”[xviii]  This description goes a long way towards explaining why Jeff Koons hit upon his Bouquet of Tulips as the appropriate gift in response to the Parisian tragedies. [ForF Part 9]

12: Even more telling, in my opinion, is what JK submitted in a press release for the installation of the Wynn Tulips in Las Vegas.[xix]  Koons very graciously acknowledged the “profound meaning” of having his Tulips included in Steve Wynn’s extraordinary collection of contemporary art.  But what increases one’s respect for Koons is his explanation that Tulips “is a symbol of hope and the strength of life’s energy… It reflects the viewer to affirm the viewer’s existence…”[xx]  In that spirit, and with those aspirations of optimism, and a recovery of a sense of well-being, I can see that a Bouquet of Tulips was absolutely of a piece with Koons’ vision of what contemporary art might have to offer in the face of a tragical loss of innocence in Paris.

13: But, perhaps my apparent enthusiasm for Jeff Koons Celebration project is still capable of being a little more differentiated and tempered.  In its “Press Release” promoting the imminent sale of Balloon Dog (Orange),[xxi] Christie’s sets out a quotation from the artist which seems to be explaining his Balloon Dog concept: “It is about celebration and childhood and colour and simplicity—but it’s also a Trojan horse.”  Everything is persuasive until the last six words.  “A Trojan horse”, as an icon, I ask myself?  No, Koons explains: “It’s a Trojan horse to the whole body of art work.”  Please make your own interpretation and draw your own conclusions, but I am not particularly persuaded.  It might be a “Trojan horse” in the sense that its auction price of $58.4 Million is a kind of virus which has set a raging fever within the global art market.  But I don’t really see its bringing about a fundamental “transvaluation of all [aesthetic] values”, since as François Pinault has pointed out, and in a way that I deeply admire: “The works of art will always have the last word.”[xxii]

And now finally I have to return to the infamous San Francisco gallery that was “selling balloon dog bookends”, to which Jeff Koons LLC seemed to be taking (judicial) exception.  The gallery’s lawyer, we are told, pointed out that “balloon dogs” could not be considered as JK’s “private” intellectual property… but that “as virtually any clown can attest … the idea of making a balloon dog, and … the shape created by twisting a balloon into a dog-like form is part of the public domain.”[xxiii]  Given that Balloon Dog in the Celebration series is explicitly about “a child’s enjoyment of the world”—and in Koons’ own words about: “childhood and colour and simplicity”, perhaps the “Trojan horse” to which JK refers is that his viewers, his admirers, and his patrons might be so fully convinced by the themes of Koons’ Celebration, that then they might also be inclined to hold him to it.

His Celebration series suggests that Jeff Koons enjoyed birthday parties as a child.  In the same spirit of generosity, please feel free to enjoy the construction of your very own party balloon dogs at home—invoking the ésprit of Jeff Koons, in the knowledge that that he will gladly share his copyright … in order to celebrate with you.

Next Time: The Magpie Collection


[i] Vogue, October 22nd, 2015 (Steff Yotka): “Jeff Koon’s Iconic Rabbit now comes in Jewelry Form”

[ii] fastcompany.com, February 21st, 2014 (Matt Siegel): “The Right Way to steal Ideas”

[iii] The Guardian, April 12th, 2017 (Jonathan Jones): “Jeff Koons’ Louis Vuitton Bags: a joyous Art History Lesson”

[iv] The Guardian, December 16th, 2015 (Jonathan Jones): “Jeff Koons: Master of Parody or great American Conman?”

[v] rfi.fr (English), March 9th, 2017: “Artist Jeff Koons and Centre Pompidou convicted in Plagiarism Case”

[vi] hyperallergic.com, March 9th, 2017 (Claire Voon): “Jeff Koons convicted of Plagiarizing a Photo…”

[vii] artnet.com “Art and Law”, January 19th, 2015 (Alexander Forbes): “Jeff Koons Plagiarism Lawsuit could top Millions”

[viii] vocativ.com, December 17th, 2014 (Luke Malone): “Jeff Koons sued for ripping off other Artists—Again”

[ix] The American part is for sure; cf. artnet.com “Market”, July 25th, 2016 (Rain Embuscado): “The Top 10 most expensive living American Artists of 2016”; if we carefully add “auction” and “sculpture” to the equation, then we seem to be on solid ground for a world record sale with respect to a living artist.

[x] Christie’s (Rockefeller Center, New York): November 12th, 2013: “This work is one of five unique versions.”

[xi] qz.com [Quartz], November 13th, 2013 (Philip A. Stephenson): “One of Jeff Koons’s ‘Balloon Dogs’ just fetched a record price…”

[xii] Sotheby’s: New York: May 2014: Contemporary Art Evening Auction: Popeye

[xiii] Las Vegas Sun, February 11th, 2015 (Robin Leach): “Did Steve Wynn turn down $60 Million for Popeye Sculpture?”

[xiv] boston.com, March 24th, 2016 (Adam Vaccaro): “Why on Earth is Popeye … Centerpiece of Wynn’s Everett Casino Lobby?”

[xv] Las Vegas Sun, February 11th, 2015 (Robin Leach): op. cit.

[xvi] reuters.com, August 16th, 2016 (Farah Master): “Wynn calls Macau’s Bluff…”

[xvii] Christie’s (Rockefeller Center, New York): November 14th, 2012

[xviii] Christie’s (Rockefeller Center, New York): November 12th, 2013: Lot 12: Balloon Dog (Orange): “Lot Essay”

[xix] It is possible to view the actual work of the installation of Koons’ Tulips in the Las Vegas setting.  I highly recommend: Complex Canada, (Cedar Pasori) February 2nd, 2013: “A Time-Lapse of Jeff Koons’ ‘Tulips’ Sculpture being assembled at the Wynn Las Vegas”

[xx] Las Vegas Review-Journal, February 1st, 2013: “Wynn acquires $33 Million ‘Tulips’”

[xxi] Christie’s Press Release, September 6th, 2013: “The Stage is set for a Historic Sale: Christie’s New York to offer a Pop Icon of our Age”

[xxii] The News York Times, August 3rd, 2016 (Doreen Carvajal): “Plans take Shape for François Pinault Museum in Paris”

[xxiii] The lawyer’s name is given as Jedediah Wakefield in vocativ.com, December 17th, 2014 (Luke Malone): op. cit.

Please follow me: