Property from an Important New York Collection
Upright, inflated and polished to a highly-mirrored finish, Jeff Koons’s stainless steel Lobster is among the most iconic examples of his work, epitomizing his celebrated sculptural practice. Seemingly balancing against all laws of physics, Lobster stands on its nose and claws, its fanned tail nearly five feet off the ground. Bursting at the seams and seemingly inflated to its maximum capacity, Lobster’s convincing artifice is betrayed only by its brilliant, mirrored shine. In typical Koonsian fashion, Lobster simultaneously recalls the innocent, simpler days of childhood while raising existential questions and probing the distinction between high and low culture. Always provocative and often highly subversive, Koons transforms a ubiquitous object into a masterpiece of postmodern sculpture. Paradoxical in its broad appeal, Lobster is a powerful example of Koons’s alchemical ability to elevate and utterly transform the visual and material culture of the American landscape.
Inflatable objects have long been central to Koons’s practice, beginning with his Inflatables series, which consisted of actual inflatable toys positioned with mirrors behind them. His first foray into trompe l’oeil inflatable sculpture is his iconic Rabbit, 1986. That sculpture led, eventually, to his Celebration series of the mid-1990s, from which his iconic Balloon Dog hailed. The inflatable object has proved an enduring motif for Koons, as it allows him to engage with the readymade, while also proposing questions about the relationship between sculpture and viewer. Lobster, built through successive layers of transparent color, offers a warped and brilliantly colored image of the viewer and his or her surroundings. Affirming the viewer’s existence and the object’s physicality, this reflectivity, for Koons, functions as a powerful symbol of transcendence.
Drawn to pool toys since childhood, Koons recalls his own first-hand encounters with inflatable floats as “liberating”, allowing him to swim without his parents’ help. For Koons, intensely personal experiences are often seamlessly grafted onto sculpture suited for public consumption. In an unchanging state of inflation, Lobster freezes and preserves that fleeting memory of childhood using the hyper-permanent medium of sculpture. What’s more, Koons uses that metaphor to introduce the theme of mortality, saying, in 2009, “I think of the inflatables as anthropomorphic, we are ourselves inflatables, we take a breath, we expand; we contract, our last breath in life, our deflation” (J. Koons quoted in S. Murg, “Jeff Koons: We Are Ourselves Inflatables,” August 6, 2009). In Lobster ’s permanence, Koons renders a powerful memento mori, as if to suggest that Lobster is no more or less permanent than its viewers’ or creator’s ability to engage with it.
The distinction between the temporary and the enduring has long been at the center of Koons’s practice—he often juxtaposes the two poles to achieve the drama for which many of his sculptures are recognized. With Lobster, Koons continues his tradition of elevating objects that exist on the cultural periphery, whose ultimate destination is often a landfill or the dusty corner of a storage unit. In so doing, Koons furthers the mission of Pop by monumentalizing the otherwise trivial and highlighting, without irony, the unassuming beauty of the everyday object and the paradox of life and art in a throwaway culture. Lobster is disarming in its sincerity in an artistic climate in which sincerity is often replaced by wink-and-nod cynicism. Quite the contrary, Koons has long insisted that the goal of his work is to elicit an immediate, positive response and reach as wide of an audience as possible. Surely, Lobster accomplishes this altruistic goal in spades, tempting viewers with its tactile form and weightless appearance.
Nevertheless, Lobster is a seductive and somewhat subversive item, despite its earnestness and immediate visual affability. Discussing its symbolic qualities, Koons says “If you look at [Lobster’s] arms, very strong, but they could be fallopian tubes and its body could be the womb. If you look at its tail, it’s almost like a stripper with a boa doing a feather dance, and also has tentacles that look like Dali’s mustache” (J. Koons quoted in N. Hartvig, “’It’s Somebody Having Sex’: Jeff Koons Bares the Subject of His Art in Brussels,” December 15, 2012). For Koons, an outward familiarity and simplicity does not preclude a nuanced and deeper reading of a given form. As with most of his subjects, Koons recognizes an essential duality in which an object’s nominal utilitarian function bristles against its various alternative meanings and symbolisms. For Koons, this intermediary valley is the location of much of the meaning behind the artist’s work, wherein common objects are not only remade, but reimagined as powerful signifiers of the human experience.
This symbolic reading of common objects, as alluded to in Koons’s statement about its veiled reference to Salvador Dali, places him in line with the Spanish surrealist and his contemporaries. Surrealist artists like Dalí, Max Ernst, and Man Ray and Giorgio di Chirico frequently deployed seemingly innocuous, everyday objects into completely absurd and outlandish situations so as to herald the dissolution of reality, as in a vivid dream. Koons’s masterful manipulations of scale, surface and context adapt this strategy and further it through the use of state-of-the-art fabrication technologies. A favorite subject of Dali’s, the humble lobster was often used in his work as a symbol for male sexuality and virility, a theme dually present in Koons’s oeuvre. In his nod to Surrealism, Koons acknowledges that movement’s enduring influence on his work, with its ability to imbue familiar objects with potent meaning. Incorporating elements of Dada, as well, Koons retools the concept of the readymade, turning it from a found object into a fabricated one. Moving beyond Duchamp’s assisted readymade sculptures, Lobster might best be described as a constructed readymade. Channeling Duchamp’s use of the everyday object in service of his art, Koons remakes and fortifies his found object, turning it from something found and re-contextualized, to something found and remade.
Lobster takes its rightful place among Koons’s pantheon of playful subjects, which include inflatable monkeys, caterpillars, dolphins, The Incredible Hulk and, of course, Popeye himself. The lobster made its first appearance in the Popeye series, which is among the most recognizable of Koons’s career, epitomizing his career-long effort to integrate high and low culture into a visual language that is uniquely his. Contrasting and conflating forms by placing his inflatable subjects in impossible positions—sometimes bisected by a ladder or, in Lobster’s case, standing effortlessly on its nose—Koons stretches the technical limits of his sculpture, achieving a level of uncanniness that so defines his best work and gives a surrealist edge to its neo-Pop and neo-Dada foundations. The lobster as subject matter first appeared in Koons’s Popeye series; similar in appearance but not reflective like Lobster, it became emblematic of that series and its surreal underpinnings. At once obviously impossible and completely believable, Lobster, with its precarious pose and impeccable finish, is a classic Koons object. Equal parts grounded in reality and seemingly unbound by the physical world, it draws viewers in to the artist’s alluring visual universe.
As the most recognized and celebrated American artist since Andy Warhol, Koons has transcended art world circles to become something of a global icon. His work is prominently featured all over the world and sought after, not simply because of its fantastic visual opulence, but because of its ability to channel that splendor into profound insights about art and life. Lobster is, then, a supremely important work by one of the world’s most beloved artists. In its heady combination of simplicity, intensity, and technical audacity, Lobster summarizes Koons’s genius in a human-scaled package. Powerfully redolent of an idealized childhood but almost alien in its form alone, Lobster transcends the typical role of art and becomes something of a totem of American life more broadly. A recycled and inherently unglamorous object becomes a coveted object of supreme magnificence. Willed into existence by the sheer force and magnitude of Koons’s imagination, Lobster stands as a pillar of the artist’s 21st century output, epitomizing his myriad triumphs and demonstrating why he is widely considered the greatest living American artist.
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Property from an Important New York Collection
Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
Brussels, Almine Rech Gallery, Jeff Koons, October-November 2012, pp. 18-19, 21, 73 and 89, no. 19 (another example from the edition exhibited and illustrated in color).
Dinard, Ville de Dinard, Le Festin de l'Art, June-September 2014, p. 100 (another example from the edition exhibited; illustrated in color and on the cover).
Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner