Stacked is one of the most conceptually loaded and critically acclaimed sculptures from one of Jeff Koons' most scandalous and celebrated series – Banality – which he made in 1988. Combining an elaborate response to the mechanics of appropriation art with a flair for material and a political gloss, Banality placed Koons firmly at the noise-centre of 1980s critical discourse and remains today one of the artist's most successful series. When exhibited for the first time at Galerie Max Hetzler, Cologne, Donald Young in Chicago and Sonnabend in New York, the combination of the large polychromed wood sculptures such as Stacked and the gleaming porcelain works such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles was seen as ushering in a new aesthetic era: outrageously confrontational, the audacity of Banality was to embrace a high-culture version of low-culture cults that epitomised Americana, trading on the ubiquity of knick-knacks from souvenir gift shops, the useless ornaments that clog up mantelpieces that in Koons' eyes served to define the bourgeoisie.
In Stacked, Koons enlarges a cheaply mass-produced kitsch ornament into an exquisitely fashioned sculpture. By recasting the trite trinket, Koons encodes the banal, the vulgar and the obscene and presents it on a pedestal formerly reserved for fine art. As a series, Banality could be interpreted in terms of a political manifesto in which Koons uses art as a stage to overturn received ideas about good and bad taste. As he explains, "Banality was about communicating to the bourgeois class. I wanted to remove their guilt and shame about the banality that motivates them and which they respond to" (the artist cited in Angelika Muthesius, Ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992, p. 26). As always with Koons, his choice of medium is essential and intrinsic to the meaning of the work. The wooden sculptures are based on an aesthetic vernacular which was long the exclusive province of religious objects, monumental depictions of Christ and the Saints designed to imbue faith which were latterly democratised and proliferated as cheap trinkets and religious souvenirs of holy sites. "When I work with porcelain it is to meet people's social and economic needs, so that they feel that they can be kings and queens for the day. When I work with wood it is so that people can feel the security of religion" (Ibid., p. 26).
More than any other sculpture from the series, Stacked pays lip service to the canonical laws of classical sculpture. Here, the ostensibly inane composition of superimposed animals forms a perfect pyramidal structure, with each incident in the composition – each of the animals' heads – falling on one of the lines of the triangle. With their gazes facing in various directions, it forces the viewer to circumnavigate the sculpture and view it in the round. As a result, these cute animals from a petting zoo adopt a certain gravitas at odds with their banal juxtaposition. At the pinnacle of this triangle, the lofty fulcrum normally reserved for divine depiction or the motif of paramount significance, Koons perches a little yellow bird which, unlike the other creatures, is not anatomically faithful. Resembling the Tweetie-pie of the Warner Brothers cartoons, it obeys an altogether antithetical code of artistic laws, those of animation in which the eyes and head are enlarged to make the bird seem cuter and to encourage empathy.
Koons said of Stacked: "This piece was about political power, the rational and the irrational, and the little bird is really a symbol of me" (the artist cited in Angelika Muthesius, Ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992, p. 25). Like a latter-day Orwellian satire, in Koons' idiosyncratic Animal Farm it is the artist himself who sits atop the hierarchy of animal forms. A parallel to Orwell's raven, Moses, which symbolised religion, Koons' avian surrogate here stands for the redeeming legitimacy of banal popular culture, in accordance with the slogan 'Banality as Saviour' which Koons chalks on a classroom blackboard in one of the advertising campaigns which accompanied the initial exhibition of the series. Caught between rational hierarchies of classical order and irrational trivialities of kitsch contemporary culture, Stacked is a real masterpiece in Koons' own canon in which multiple layers and themes unite.
To make Stacked, Koons employed the highly skilled master craftsmen from regions of the Dolomites in Northern Italy and Oberammergau in Germany, where for centuries the painstaking traditions of fabricating ornamental and religious sculpture have been passed on from generation to generation. For Koons, the manufacturing industry has always been an extension of his own palette and from the bronze cast of the Aqualung in Equilibrium, 1985, the artist had always delighted in the visual irony and aesthetic delectation of recasting his subject in a new media with the utter perfection of machine-precision finesse. Yet in this series, for the first time, the pared-back, frozen feeling of bronze or stainless steel is replaced by Koons' natural predilection for the baroque in the elaborate and intricate surfaces of the hand-carved wood. Now the machine-tool cutting-edge is replaced by the artisanal chisel, wielded with no less precision or finesse.
This is an important milestone in Koons' espousal of the ready-made, in itself an expansion of the Duchampian prototype. While his earliest series, such as The New, 1980, presented unadulterated mass-produced vacuum cleaners as high art in the tradition of Duchamp's urinal, by the mid-eighties Koons was recasting objects in new media, often drastically altering their scale, to radically inflect their semiotic charge. Importantly, his experiences of making Kiepenkerl – the sculpture made for the Munster sculpture project in 1987 which directly preceded Banality – liberated Koons from his reliance on pre-existing objects and in this series, for the first time, he modified and enhanced his ready-made source materials to better suit his artistic program. As he explains in relation to the present work, "A lot of things came from airport gift shops. Stacked came from a photo, and then I found other puppies and collaged them in" (the artist cited in Angelika Muthesius, Ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992, p. 25). Crucially, in the present work Koons' so-called ready-made is actually a hybrid which he bends to his artistic purpose. The result is a sculpture which is more authentic in feel than any ornament that he might have found, a hyperbole of kitsch which resuscitates the conceptual genius of Duchamp and rephrases it in a new voice.
Witty, intellectual and disingenuously candid in its presentation, Koons' appropriation of everyday commonplaces masks a narrative that operates on numerous levels, both political and artistic, confronting the viewer with reflections on social aesthetics while never losing sight of the primacy of the object's visual appeal. Hand in hand with the astringent semantic potency of Stacked, there is a visual poetry deriving from the purity of its form and the craftsmanship of its fabrication. It is the primacy of its visual appeal together with the cogency of its semiotic charge that makes Stacked one of the outstanding masterpieces of the series.
New York, Sonnabend Gallery; Cologne, Galerie Max Hetzler; Chicago, Donald Young Gallery, Jeff Koons, Banality, 1988-89 (another version)
Overall: 154.9 by 134.6 by 78.7cm. 61 by 53 by 31in.
Exhibition Catalogue, Salzburg, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, The Silent Baroque, 1989, p. 49, illustration of another example in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Metropolis, 1991, p. 174, no. 89, illustration of another example in colour
Jeff Koons, The Jeff Koons Handbook, London 1992, p. 113, illustration of another example in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Jeff Koons, 1992-93, p. 21, no. 9, illustration of another example in colour
Angelika Muthesius, Ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992, p. 27 (detail) and p. 118, no. 20, illustration of another example in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeff Koons, 2008, pp. 58-59 (detail) and p. 63, illustration of another example in colour
Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Children's Heart Foundation, Boston (acquired directly from the above in 1990)
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, 6 May 1997, Lot 10
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner