Jeff Koons’s Antiquity Series—A Reflection on Acceptance
I’m not wise, but the beginning of wisdom is there; it’s like relaxing into—and an acceptance of—things.
– Tina Turner
Much of Jeff Koons’s oeuvre offers a vast and powerful backdrop against which can be played, over and over, our obdurate resistance to accept the most fundamental human attribute, namely our libido. This life-bound sexual energy, linked with survival and procreating instincts (but not necessarily used as such), constitutes the core impulses of most of our behavioral patterns and offers the prevailing subject matter of most of Koons’s works.
A year before the end of his life, Sigmund Freud was summing up his long-lasting legacy, while, by the same token, anticipating much of Koons’s oeuvre to come, half a century later: “The sexual instincts are noticeable to us for their plasticity, their capacity for altering their aims, their replaceability, which admits of one instinctual satisfaction being replaced by another . . . .”[i]
Borrowing those very terms from Freud, the “plasticity” of our “sexual instincts” provides an accurate source for all of Koons’s oeuvre—from beginning to end. Indeed, as Koons’s work insists, these themes are universal, ubiquitous; they are transgender, transracial, transcontinental, transreligious; they apply to all. We all know what it is about, and it is not just about sex; it goes well beyond that. As Freud himself pointed out, psychoanalysis has more to do with Plato’s Symposium than with any kind of pornographic film. So does Koons: his work touches us all because it goes back, somehow, to our innermost desires.
Hence the artist’s interest of late in antiquity. Eros is its source. And Freud, of all, knew well that antiquity was the source for all acceptance of these inner sources: Eros was a god—yes, Eros, the incarnation of the fundamental desire from one human being to another. In today’s world—strangely, suspiciously—such things as the desirous drive from one individual to another lead us to be weary. Not so in antiquity. Antiquity is Koons’s world, and it embodies the artist’s psyche to the core: consider, for instance, Balloon Venus and Metallic Venus. This twofold exhibition—Koons’s paintings are being shown at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, and his sculptural oeuvre at the Liebighaus—engages in a direct and unprecedented dialogue between Koons and centuries, indeed, millennia of sculptural tradition.
Eros or libido represent the same thing in Freud’s world: it has to do with the innate, fundamental forces—Triebe in German—that bring us together. Freud went to the sources to find out where the earliest and most powerful articulations of human desire could be found: Greece and antiquity. So did Koons. Hence the present series.
Indeed, in his Antiquity series, Jeff Koons tackles most directly the themes of acceptance, humanity, and essential life patterns that repeatedly surface throughout his career. These themes are related not only via a discourse with art history, as Koons incorporates images from a wide swath of creative production, including, as the series’ title alludes, imagery of ancient statuary; but also universally, as Koons poses questions about acceptance and history on a broader, perhaps the broadest, scale. As the artist himself states: “I start with a sense of contemporary time and make references to different artists such as Lichtenstein or Dalí through to Manet, Renaissance artists, or the greatest artists of antiquity, like Praxiteles and Apelles. The aspect is the acceptance of how we exist, how nature procreates, and how we are able to sustain life.”[ii]
These works, conceived by Koons and executed with the help of studio assistants, echo the very tightly, digitally composed collage-based technique Koons employed in his Easyfun-Ethereal works and subsequently developed in his Popeye and Hulk Elvis paintings. In the compositions for Antiquity, he incorporates the same motifs throughout multiple works, producing a sense of visual rime across the series. Some of the works share an Old Master painting as their background: Rubens’s Daughters of Leucippus and Manet’s Jesus Mocked by Soldiers are two examples. The outermost layer of all the Antiquity works is a childlike drawing of a sailboat, rendered in a simulated Magic Marker—and this is Koons’s magic (or alchemy): he transforms a doodle into a most exacting, precise, and painstakingly rendered painterly gesture—indeed, accumulations of painterly gestures. Or, vice versa, he presides over myriads of pictorial and pain-laden gestures in order to turn them into the illusion of a mark made by a felt-tip pen. The fascinating power of Koons’ paintings, here, is that they constantly oscillate between the two.
Existing between these two layers, the background oil painting and the foreground “drawing” are arrangements of statues and sculptures from all periods of humankind. The way that Koons pulls from his stable of references and aligns the elements so that each canvas transforms into a singular painting resembles a visual mesostic poem. Each Antiquity painting has its own unique elements as well as elements shared with other works. The table below provides an overview of how these overlap within five of the Antiquity paintings.
In terms of the number of compositional elements, Antiquity 1 (ill. 1) is one of the simpler paintings in the series. For its background image, Koons chooses an oil-on-Masonite piece by an unknown artist. The work (ill. 2) that Koons found on the street thirty years ago—another demonstration of ACCEPTANCE of all artistic forms—is a thickly painted blue and orange seascape, the foaming waves painted in thick impastoed blobs. Koons meticulously captures the thick brushstrokes and conglomerations of accrued paint in a virtuoso display of trompe l’oeil wizardry. The cool sea-foam green and warm orange and yellow hues form a background for the central figures. The sculptural focal point in the middle layer of Antiquity 1 is the so-called Delos erotic group, a triad of Aphrodite, Eros, and Pan. This marble grouping was found on the Greek island of Delos in 1904 by French archaeologists and is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (ill. 3). In this ménage-a-trois interplay, Pan attempts to seduce Aphrodite, who reacts with both a threateningly held sandal and a warm, innocuous smile. Eros witnesses the proceedings.
The Aphrodite in the group, with her hand modestly covering her genitalia, was modeled after the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles.[iii] Praxiteles, the great sculptor from the golden age of Greek history, famously crafted his nude sculpture of Aphrodite for the island of Kos, which rejected it. The statue was then purchased by the citizens of Knidos, though it is now lost and known only through subsequent copies (ill. 4). Praxiteles’s Aphrodite was revolutionary in its depiction of a female nude, and it irrevocably altered the course of Western art history (for example, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as one of the most celebrated cases in point). The original Aphrodite was eventually installed in a Doric rotunda at Knidos where it could be viewed from all angles. Its beauty was so irresistible that according to legend a fervent admirer once attempted to rape her under cover of nightfall, leaving behind a stain on her Parian marble leg, a lascivious anecdote that flows well within the Koonsian world.
One irony implicit within Koons’s painting is that the original sculpture of Aphrodite of Knidos was most likely polychromed.[iv] Examples of polychromed sculptures exist from the Greek archaic period, and there are references to Aphrodite’s head having coloration, perhaps in the eyes, lips, and other features.[v] Pliny writes that Praxiteles commented that his favorite works are those completed by Nikias’s own painting, and that the two artists worked side by side. The likelihood that the original Aphrodite was painted to some degree stands in contrast to the later constructs of classical Greek beauty in pure, “natural,” unvarnished marble. As Maxwell Anderson has pointed out, the work of Praxiteles thus “would evoke the directness of Jeff Koons rather than the pristine, bloodless neoclassicism of Canova.”[vi]
Koons is not only concerned with the technicalities of Aphrodite’s coloring, but also her physique and her charged eroticism. Koons has said: “If I think of the word beauty . . . I think of the possibilities of nature. That’s what comes to mind for me, or Praxiteles’s sculpture.”[vii] In Antiquity 1, Aphrodite is part of the Delos erotic group and faces frontally. In the Greek legend, men were not allowed to view the goddess naked; even if she was seen as a temptress, falling prey to her gaze resulted in lifelong impotence.[viii] Still, the goddess’s sexuality is what needed to be celebrated in Praxiteles’s work. The sculptor solves this dilemma by having her hand simultaneously cover and bring attention to her genital area. The tension is then compounded by the faun’s left arm appearing to pull her hand off her genitalia, attempting to reveal her full nakedness to all. Praxtieles’s innovation, of a modest but sensual goddess, is echoed in the many Greek and Roman copies, and this type came to be known as the Venus pudica or modest Venus, seen in a version such as the Capitoline Venus (ill. 5).
Superimposed over these two layers is the archetypal drawing found in all the Antiquity paintings. This image recalls the Cy-Twombly-does-Origin-of-the-World scribbles on the top layers of both Hole I and Waterfall Couple (Dots) Blue Swish (see cat. nos. ##, ##). The motif appears to be a child’s drawing of a sailboat at sea between two cliffs with birds and a sun overhead. The drawing also approximates an image of a vagina, which references Koons’s earlier Courbet appropriate and his fondness for visual double entendres. Placed nearest to the spectator, this layer is an aggressive contretemps against the perfection of the Greek ideal lying underneath. The three elements—an amateur oil painting, a celebrated marble sculptural group, and a simulacrum of a child’s scrawl—unite in Antiquity to celebrate love, life, and the quintessential paradigm of humanity. These types of human experiences, intrinsic in the experience of life itself, are at the heart of Koons’s motivations behind the series, about which Koons has said, “I’m trying to let people know about narrative. Everyone is interested in narrative, and the narrative that we can really trust the most is the biological narrative, the narrative of human history.”[ix]
These essential themes of life are expressed throughout the series via these visual rhythms of repeated elements. For example, Koons employs a variation of the Knidian Aphrodite, a first- or second-century AD Roman copy in the Metropolitan Museum in another work from the Antiquity series, Daughters of Leucippus (fig. 1). Here, set against the titular Rubens painting (fig. 2, 1615–18) at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, the viewer sees simultaneously the front and rear views of this sculpture missing both arms. The multiple views of Aphrodite recall the rotunda in which the original Praxitelean sculpture was housed, and the ability of viewers to appreciate her charms from all angles. Missing her arms, this copy cannot be as modest as the Aphrodite in Antiquity 1. Both her vaginal area and the Praxitelean derriere that Koons admires are on full display.
Looking back toward antiquity is nothing new—artists from the Renaissance through the Neoclassical period, and from then to today, have been doing it: Raphael, David, Picasso, Twombly, to name a few, have all been immersed in the classical tradition. It is not as commonplace among living artists: Koons appears as a nostalgic maverick. Layering art forms from different periods does not intimidate him: this is, in fact, Koons’ modus operandi within Antiquity. One can think of a few others before him, namely Francis Picabia. In his Transparencies series from the late twenties he made reference to sculptures from antiquity, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, and his own gestural scrawlings. In the artist’s Villica-Caja (1929, fig. 3), Picabia references Guido Reni’s Nessus and Dejanira as well as a Mars and Venus first-century fresco from Pompeii. But unlike Koons and his Antiquity works, the motivation behind Picabia’s works remains sibylline rather than a vague desire to let his instincts have “free course.”[x] Picabia’s inclusion of elements from disparate time periods was borne of a more intimate, personal artistic vision than the forces behind Koons’s universalist assemblages.
This universalism is on display quite dramatically in Antiquity (Farnese Bull) (fig. 4). The centerpiece that gives the work its title is the Farnese Bull, a colossal sculptural group (fig. 5) designed for the Baths of Caracalla and uncovered in Rome during excavations by Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese) in August 1545. This sculptural group is identified as the one mentioned by Pliny as by Apollonios and Tauriskos of Rhodes and shows the brothers Aphion and Zethus tying Dirce to a wild bull as payback for her mistreatment of their mother, Antiope. The work, along with the Laocoön, was described by the sixteenth-century painter Federico Zuccari as “the most remarkable and marvelous work of the chisel of the ancients, showing what the art of sculpture can achieve at its most excellent.”[xi]
The painting featured in the background of Antiquity (Farnese Bull), titled On the Bridge (fig. 6), is by one of Koons’s own personal heroes, Louis Eilshemius. Eilshemius (1864–1941) was an eccentric early twentieth-century American painter who specialized in Corot-inspired nudes, fantasy visions, and landscapes. His stated aim as a painter was to infuse his works with a “soul quality.”[xii] The artist was trained academically in Paris, but was designated a primitive artist throughout his career, an epithet he was never able to shed. During his lifetime, Eilshemius was championed by Marcel Duchamp (the artist turned art broker who formed Katherine Dreier’s collection, better known as the Société Anonyme). However, being represented in the Société Anonyme was no guarantee for a life pension: Eilshemius died penniless from pneumonia in Bellevue hospital after being evicted from his home. He is one of myriads of artists left out in the warped and wacky story of modernism. Koons forces us to rethink about all this differently: with acceptance—not a common currency within the established art world.
Koons first appreciated Eilshemius as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; his instructor Whitney Halstead allowed him to foster an interest in this unusual painter: “If I liked Louis Eilshemius or something, Whitney would be supportive . . . I think it’s pretty special. My understanding of Eilshemius from my experience with Whitney and Chicago is one of the influences on my recent works.”[xiii]
Koons would surely value that his own appreciation of Eilshemius mirrors Duchamp’s earlier championing of “the American Rousseau,” and with this move, one could, perhaps, tax Koons for entering into another merry-go-round of art historical meta-references: but Koons does not play those games. These are left to art historians. Koons looks at art—and looks hard at it. When he decides to go for an artist, it is because that artist’s work yields back a great deal—and not necessarily in art-historical terms. Analogously, in the mid-twentieth century Robert Rauschenberg performed an extraordinary act of artistic hospitality through his 1955 combine Short Circuit (fig. 7). He was invited to a gallery show—and, in his typical congenial way, immediately wanted two of his closest friends to be included: Sue Weil, his ex-wife, and Jasper Johns. They were immediately rejected. Ingeniously, Rauschenberg then decided to include their works within his own work: Short Circuit included two smaller pieces by Jasper Johns and Sue Weil. With this bold move, Rauschenberg seemed to say: “You may not acknowledge these artists in their own right, but they are part of ‘me’; if you acknowledge me, you will thus acknowledge them too—by acknowledging me.”[xiv] Koons, analogously, hosts Eilshemius within his Antiquity paintings: Eilshemius becomes Koons, Koons becomes Eilshemius. Where the artist had been previously denied any presence within the (weirdly exclusive) art world (he was rejected from the 1913 Armory show, and would probably still be rejected from the Armory in 2013), Koons now shares his canonical status with Eilshemius—and by the same token, the conversation now includes Rubens and Manet.
Additional sculptural pieces join the Farnese Bull in the zones between the background and foreground of Antiquity (Farnese Bull). There is a bronze satyr—a priapic idol with an engorged phallus that brushes against the back of one of the Farnese brothers. His counterpart across the canvas is the same Delos Aphrodite from Antiquity I, holding a threatening sandal against Pan, unseen in this composition. Sitting in the foreground is a piece of unclear origin Koons discovered on the Internet and was able to acquire (“I love to just look around on the computer after the kids go to bed”[xv]), possibly a Celtic fertility idol excavated near Raglan Castle in Wales. Although exact details as to the piece’s origin are unclear, we can identify without problem obvious vaginal and phallic forms embedded in the squat prehistoric sculpture. This vaginal-phallic sculpture, as it is placed in Antiquity (Farnese Bull), obstructs our view of a vaginal-shaped waterfall in the background Eilshemius painting. These sexual connotations are picked up once again in the superimposed drawing that finds its way onto all the Antiquity works, the hybrid sailboat/pudendum executed in a brown marker. And, here is another fundamental aspect of this notion of acceptance within Koons’s oeuvre: acceptance does not only have to do with resisting our innermost libido—or finally accepting that we are driven by sexual forces and energies that shape each of us as who we are; acceptance now also has to do with recognizing that these forces express themselves throughout the planet, through genders, generations, and ethnic origins: the sculpture of a couple of lovers (that conjures up Archipenko) is one of myriads of such objects that one can see everywhere. Koons and his wife, Justine, born in South Africa, often travel to Africa: there, indeed, one finds ironic tokens of late traces of modernism (that bring up reminiscences of Picasso, Henry Moore, Hans Arp, or whoever). Koons’s fascination in such objects is that they express the same energies as any representation of a priapic satyr: from antiquity to the present, from Greece to South Africa—and beyond—there are only a few baby steps: the steps of Eros (who, after all, was a baby).
The antique sculptural works Koons featured in his Antiquity series are metonymic indexes of the very origin of art history. Johann Joachim Wincklemann, held as the father of art history, was one of the first writers to classify periods of the history of art and archeology; his model of art-historical analysis as a series of periods of rise and decline became the foundation for the majority of subsequent studies in the field. Although Koons engages within a Winckelmannian model by taking part in the art-historical dialogue with his forerunners, he also smashes the systems of art history by insisting on the equality of art forms from all periods and genres—allowing a child-like drawing of a sail-boat/vagina shape to hover above the representation of a classical Hellenic sculptural group. In doing so, Koons opens the gate for a new narrative of history. He should be hailed for doing so: he is offering to salvage art history, which continuously ages, while art itself continuously gets younger.