NOVEMBER 20, 2010
In 1997 the Galerie Jerome de Noirmont organised Jeff Koons’ first solo show in France1, with a
selection of works offering the French public an overall view of his career, from the first
Inflatables made in 1979 up to the 1992 Puppy, a photograph representing the huge, flowercovered
sculpture that Koons created for that year’s Documenta in Kassel.
In 2008 the exhibition Jeff Koons Versailles set up a new original dialogue between
contemporary and classical art at the heart of the royal apartments in the Château of Versailles,
placing some of Koons’s most iconic sculptures, both recent and early, in juxtaposition with
treasures of French 18th-century art. Seeking to instil a strong sense of interactive significance
into this confrontation between these different forms of artistic expression, and aware that he
was addressing a wide public, the palace’s visitors some with little or no experience of
contemporary art, Koons was very attentive to the hanging of his works, always aiming to
interact with the decoration and function of the rooms. Thus his winsome Rabbit was exhibited
in the Salon of Abundance, his Bear and Policeman in the Salon of War, and the shiny Moon in
the Gallery of Mirrors.
His third solo show in France will be on view at the gallery from September 16 to
November 20, 2010; Jeff Koons will present his latest sculptures from his Popeye series.
Although his work contains numerous art historical references to figures from Fragonard to
Picasso, and more notably to Duchamp and Dali, the key to Koons’s art is the relation to the
viewer. His great concern is to address all kinds of people, whatever their social or cultural
origin – to create trust in the viewer: as Koons himself states, “I am very conscious of the viewer
because that’s where the art takes place. What’s important isn’t this object that we’re looking at;
that object communicates the information that you want the viewer to have a dialogue with. (..)
What I care about is letting the viewer know that they’re what’s important.”
In order to implement this discourse, which brings the subjective dimension back in the artwork,
Koons uses a visual language that all can understand, involving popular archetypes that are
essential images stored in the collective unconscious (flowers, toys, wedding rings, hearts). The
artist heightens the metaphorical power of these archetypes either by reproducing them in shiny,
reflective material, as in the Celebration series, or by heightening their realism in order to
enhance their credibility.
The image of Popeye, an iconic American cartoon figure created in 1929, was a natural choice
for Koons as a symbol of self-acceptance, not only in terms of this character’s optimistic and
self-accepting personality (“I am what I am”), but also because of his obvious link to Pop Art
and, more allusively, to Surrealism, two movements based on an acceptance of the world around
The idea for this series begun in 2002 came from the sight of a tree growing through a chain-link
fence. This image inspired Koons to dream up a series in which “living” objects – usually an
inflatable pool toy featuring a cartoonish animal – are combined with simple “readymade”
objects such as a chair, a stepladder or a steel trashcan. Surrealist-like combinations of
heterogeneous elements, the sculptures in the Popeye series are composite works, unlikely
encounters between inflatable objects and inanimate ones, between leisure items which in our
consumer society are symbols of desire, and industrially produced functional objects.
In some of these pieces, such as Monkeys (Chair), in which three monkeys (cast aluminium)
hang from the ceiling while balancing a chair off the floor, the interaction between the inflatable
toys and the object looks like a dance. In others, like Seal Walrus Trashcans, the inflatable pool
toys are morphed into the trashcan and seem to have stopped in their movement. Inflatable
objects have been among Koons’s favourite motifs since his début in 1979. Here they function as
metaphors of the human body, as “breathing objects” that endow a semblance of life to the inert
objects with which they are combined.
A versatile archetype, the lobster is an essential element in this series. In this exhibition it is
represented by the imposing sculpture Acrobat. Synonymous with Surrealism ever since Dali
transformed it into a telephone handset, the lobster here takes the form of a playful and sensual
inflatable toy, its antennae seeming to form moustaches in an obvious reference to Dali’s
whiskers, and to the moustache that Marcel Duchamp painted onto the Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q.
The lobster also symbolises the duality of sexuality, which is something that Koons sees as an
essential aspect of his work and as one of the driving forces in Western art for long. Its shape
explicitly evokes this duality: from one angle, it suggests the male sexual member, from another,
a woman’s gaping vulva, with its tail as the womb. In Acrobat this intrinsic contrast is extended
in the contrast between the trashcan and the chair on which the lobster finds its balance.
The Popeye figure joins the lobster in the series’ narrative dimension, again suggesting a certain
idea of sexuality: we have Popeye on one side and Olive Oyl on the other (shown here in the
form of a mirror-like stainless steel piece with a red colour coating). Symbolised by the lobster,
this bipolarity, like sexuality itself evolving between feminine and masculine poles, can be found
in the image of Popeye, this cartoon character who oscillates between strength and fragility,
failure and success, who goes back and forth…
The multifaceted Popeye character is an archetype used by Koons from the modern Western
imagination to illustrate his discourse on the nature and the role of art in today’s world.
Like the avant-gardes, Koons is constantly aiming to redefine the function of art within society,
opening it to a wider audience. By using imagery that is both popular and contemporary, Koons
intends to go beyond the segregationist aspect of art and consider it, not as a pedagogical or
dogmatic discourse, but as a mode of action, halfway between tradition and innovation.