Jeff Koons rose to prominence in the mid-1980s as part of a generation of artists who explored the meaning of art in a media-saturated era and the attendant crisis of representation. With his stated artistic intention to “communicate with the masses,” Koons draws from the visual language of advertising, marketing, and the entertainment industry. Testing the limits between popular and elite culture, his sculptural menagerie includes Plexiglas-encased Hoover vacuum cleaners, basketballs suspended in glass aquariums, photographs of himself coupled with his then-wife Ilona Staller, also known as La Cicciolina (former adult-film star and member of Italian parliament), and porcelain homages to Michael Jackson and the Pink Panther. In extending the lineage of Dada and Marcel Duchamp, and integrating references to Minimalism and Pop, Koons stages art as a commodity that cannot be placed within the hierarchy of conventional aesthetics. Koons’s series Easyfun-Ethereal foregrounds happy-face deli sandwiches, spiraling roller-coaster rides, and windswept hair all set against sublime landscapes. The artist combines familiar yet unrelated images to create collagelike paintings rendered with photorealist perfection. These works recall the advertising iconography and billboard-style painting technique present in James Rosenquist’s canvases. Koons’s new brand of Pop painting cleverly engages other art-historical references, in particular Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Sandwiches, for example, is a disjunctive, free-floating fantasy. The collage of animated deli-meats, the turkey made of ice cream, and the cartoon eye and moustache recall the free-associative visual games of Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and René Magritte, while the background streams and splashes of milk echo the abstractions of Jackson Pollock. Koons’s fusion of Pop representations with Surrealist and abstract overtones creates a hybrid of fun and fantasy, yielding a body of work that depicts gravity-defying forms of dreamlike pleasure.
In Puppy, Koons engages both past and present, employing sophisticated computer modeling while referencing the 18th-century formal garden. A behemoth West Highland terrier carpeted in bedding plants, Puppy combines the most saccharine of iconography—flowers and puppies—in a monument to the sentimental. Its size—seemingly out-of-control (it is both literally and figuratively still growing) but carefully constructed and tightly contained—can be read as an analogue of contemporary culture. Dignified and stalwart, this work fills us with awe, and even joy, while standing guard at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. In keeping with themes in his past work, Koons has, by combining elite references (topiary and dog breeding) with those of the masses (Chia Pets and Hallmark greeting cards), designed this public sculpture to relentlessly entice, to create optimism, and to instill, in his own words, “confidence and security.