'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 empower them. And on the tightrope between, there is one's cultural history. These images are aspects of 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.'
(Koons, quoted in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne 2009, p. 252).
Winter Bears is a seminal work from Jeff Koons' highly acclaimed Banality series, which launched him as an international art star in the late 1980s. At over 120 cm in height, the pair of child-sized sculptures, with their wide eyes, matching 'his and hers' clothing and cartoonish faces, wave to us and welcome us into the distinct world of Jeff Koons. If the Banality series was Koons' idealised human civilisation or 'Garden of Eden', the Winter Bears represented Adam and Eve, the perfect depiction of human unity, as an Alpine European couple. Painstakingly carved out of wood which has then been polychromed in the traditional manner redolent of the great Medieval church sculpture in Germany, Koons has here lent a human and spiritual air to a cartoon-like creation. Their size and physicality lends them a thoroughly human quality which begins to jar the lines between cartoon and reality, and high and low art. Another version of Winter Bears resides in the collection of the Tate Modern in London.
Launched with great fanfare in 1988, the Banality series was Jeff Koons' attempt to justify the relationship he has with many of the visual icons of his life, but which are denied legitimacy by the wider art establishment. For this seminal show, which was one of the very first art exhibitions to be launched simultaneously at three internationally respected galleries; the Sonnabend in New York, Max Hetzler in Cologne and Donald Young in Chicago, Koons presented his overview of a 'Garden of Eden' or ideal paradise of human existence. The images that Koons chose to include in the series come from a variety of sources; some well-known, some less so. The Pink Panther, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Buster Keaton and the dog, Odie, from the Garfield cartoon series appear alongside more bizarre creations featuring child angels, farmyard animals and other images garnered from books, magazines and print and billboard adverts. But Koons was not merely copying these existing images, with his distinctive eye for visual imagery he adjusted and changed the colour and composition to come up with his own unique creations which were created from a variety of different media. Each work in the series had a function in this paradise. For instance, Winter Bears was representative of Adam and Eve.
Koons' unique combination of ideas and imagery alludes to a wider move in his career at this point in that he began to return to the idea of collage. Banality was the first series in which Koons' created sculptures without depending entirely on ready-mades. Instead he collected images which he had cut out from newspapers, magazines and books and glued them together form the desired image. Then, with the help of his team of fabricators these images would be converted into the three-dimensional sculptures. Koons worked with the finest artisans to create these works. In the case of the wood sculptures, such as Winter Bears, he worked with wood carvers from the South of Germany and North of Italy who had made wood carvings for generations and Koons hired them as ready-mades to fabricate his works to further enhance the feeling of spirituality that he aimed to achieve.
In general, the works featured in the Banality series follow several basic themes including the cuteness of childhood, sexual cliché and a number of broad Christian themes that have crossed over into the secular world. For example, in Winter Bears, we see a vision of an idealized co-existence which is so perfect that maybe all is not what it seems. At the centre of the sculpture the two bears clasp a heart- shaped bag in unison. Koons has suggested this could be a reference to the Sacred Heart of Jesus or to a pop love song by Paul McCartney. All the time, various cultural hierarchies are being crossed and played with in order to discuss big themes at various levels of seriousness. These themes manifest themselves in the wide range of materials that Koons used to disseminate his message. Brightly painted wood, porcelain, gilt and mirrored decoration are used to construct the rich tableaux that Koons presents to the world. By remaking a range of objects in new materials and proportions, and seeking new contexts, Koons challenges the diktats of taste that he feels dominates and segregates too much of the realm of cultural appreciation in the modern world.
The formal nature of Winter Bears has its roots in the many trips to Germany that Koons' was making at the time. In 1987, the year before his Banality exhibition opened, Koons spent a period of time in Münster preparing for his debut at the prestigious Skulptur Projekte exhibition.
'1988 marked the apotheosis of Koons as an art star. His new series debuted simultaneously in three major international galleries: Sonnabend in New York, Max Hetzler in Cologne, and Donald Young in Chicago. The Hubris of this three-ring circus heralded his new position as a major player in the contemporary art scene, with commensurate expectations for the work. Koons didn't choose this moment to proclaim lofty ambitions, or adjust the tone of his work to suitable seriousness, however. In fact, he deliberately took the opposite tack, aggressively titling the new series Banality.'
(K. Siegel, quoted in H.W. Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne 2009, p. 254).
Koons had begun to visit Germany regularly, due in part to the warm reception that he had received from European collectors and the museum community. These trips had also awakened an interest in the country's local art and architectural history and he became increasingly fascinated by the rich decoration and ornaments to be found in the
churches of the Counter-Reformation. It was during this time that he began to formulate the ideas that would heavily influence many of the works in the Banality series.
Winter Bears is constructed using polychrome wood, a clear reference to the wooden sculpture that Koons would have seen in the churches of southern Germany. Discussing his choice of medium, Koons explained, "Wood is a material that churches have used a lot, therefore it is associated with spirituality. It is considered a living material. I enjoyed works from the Counter-Reformation. I love the Baroque and Rococo' (Koons, quoted in M. Codognato & E. Geuna (ed.), Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Naples, 2003, p.151). This connection with the traditions of the past and the region goes so far as the method of the figures construction. Koons employed local craftsman, or "fabricators" as he terms them, from areas such as Oberammergau, where wood carving is still a thriving local industry. These figures were then carved to Koons' exacting standards and then painted and coloured by hand.
Winter Bears, along with the other masterwork from the series Michael Jackson and Bubbles, succinctly provides us with a snapshot of Koons' work from this period. Like the bears, his porcelain sculpture of the King of Pop and his favourite pet monkey is the perfect vehicle for Koons' favourite themes. Questions about the nature of identity in popular culture, the modernisation of childhood and the debate about the value of so-called high and low art are present in both of these works. By turning Michael Jackson from an African-American pop star into a white and gold sculpture adorned in the high Rococo style Koons questions the changing role of popularity and taste. Both Michael Jackson and Bubbles and Winter Bears show Koons at the height of his power. He has transformed these two loveable bears from marketing creations designed to adorn an array of trinkets and souvenirs into objects of high art and in doing so has questioned the entire process by which we discuss and validate what society deems to be important. By transcending the need for validation by the so-called art establishment, Koons helps to breakdown cultural barriers and produces some of the most visually rich and intellectually stimulating work of his career.
Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Jeff Koons , 1980s, Sculptures, Statues & Figures, United States of America, Contemporary
Cologne, Galerie Max Hetzler; New York, Sonnabend Gallery and Chicago, Donald Young Gallery, Banality, 1988-89 (another from the edition exhibited).
Salzburg, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Vertigo, 1991 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated, pp. 65 and 75).
London, Serpentine Gallery, Objects for the Ideal Home: The Legacy of Pop Art, 1991 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated, p. 29 and on the cover).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Jeff Koons Retrospektiv, 1992, no. 47 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated, p. 65 and on the back cover). This exhibition later travelled to Aarhus, Kunstmuseum and Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie.
Bielefeld, Kunsthaus Bielefeld, Jeff Koons: Pictures 1980-2002, 2002 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in colour, installation view, p. 23).
Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Jeff Koons, 2003 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in colour, p. 69).
New York, C & M Arts, Jeff Koons: Highlights of 25 Years, 2004, pl. 2 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in colour, p. 23).
London, Tate Modern, Artist Rooms, 2009-11 (another from the edition exhibited). This exhibition will later travel to Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland.
Edinburgh, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Childish Things, 2010-11 (another from the edition exhibited, illustrated in colour, p. 44).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
overall: 48 x 44 x 15½in. (121.9 x 111.8 x 39.4cm.)
Mit dem Fernrohr durch die Kunstgeschichte, Von Galilei zu den Gebrüdern Montgolfier, exh. cat., Basel, Kunsthalle, 1989, no. 50 (another from the edition illustrated, unpaged).
S. Morgan, "Big Fun", in ArtScribe International, March-April 1989, no. 74 (another from the edition illustrated).
M. Sentis, "The Importance of Being Banal", in Lapiz, October 1989, no. 61 (another from the edition illustrated, p. 38).
D. Pinchbeck, "Jeff Koons", in Splash, April 1989 (illustrated, p. 69).
A. Renton, "Review, Objects for the Ideal Home, Serpentine", in Flash Art, November-December 1991, no. 161 (another from the edition illustrated, p. 136).
A.C. Papadakis (ed.), "Pop Art", in Art & Design, 1991 (another from the edition illustrated, p. 6 and on the back cover).
J. Koons and R. Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook, Cologne 1992, p. 160.
A. Muthesius (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, p. 111).
K. Seward, "Frankenstein im Paradies, John M. Armleder, Jeff Koons, Jean-Luc Mylayne, Thomas Struth, Sue Williams: In Broad Daylight", in The Parkett Series with Contemporary Artists, no. 50-51, 1997 (another from the edition illustrated, p. 80).
R. Calvocressi, "Artist Rooms", in Arts Quarterly, Summer 2008 (illustrated in colour, p. 40).
G. Bader, "Jeff Koons: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago", in Artforum, September 2008 (illustrated in colour, p. 450).
H.W. Holzwarth, Jeff Koons, Cologne 2009 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, p. 269 and installation views illustrated, pp. 258 and 268).
Deitch Projects, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1994.