Pink Panther is a classic work by Koons, first exhibited at his legendary show, Banality, held at the Sonnenbend Gallery, New York, in 1988. The work addresses many of the central themes in Koons's art: sex and desire; kitsch and everyday imagery; artificiality and the simulacrum. It is an important and transitional work that simultaneously perpetuates the themes of the Statuary series of 1986, and points toward the issues he would deal with in the erotic Made in Heaven series of 1991.
The sculpture represents a blonde woman, naked from the waist up, embracing a large doll based on the cartoon character, the Pink Panther. The woman is slightly larger than life, and idealized in a highly artificial manner: her wavy blonde hair, bright red lips, scarlet nails, and pneumatic breasts characterize her as an embodiment of the standard male fantasy. Like Amore and other sculptures from the Banality show, the Pink Panther doll is a common object of affection, but a pathetic one--an inadequate surrogate for real human affection. Koons has said of his interest in these kinds of dolls: "The world of peluche animals--peluche means soft in French [sic]--is for me a dialogue, a negotiation between the animate and the inanim0te. They take on the stance of receiving love. A peluche doesn't desire to be loved. It doesn't look "Love me!" but teases "Love me". For if it did not automatically receive love you would throw it away" (A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 25). As Walter Benjamin observed long ago, the fascination of toys and the aura of works of high art (and especially sculpture) are in essence the same: both serve as the stimulus and recipient of intense human desire. The connection of the two is normally suppressed as it does not serve the interests of high art; but Koons, with the most ferocious irony, celebrates this connection in works such as Pink Panther.
Jeff Koons has famously said of this piece: "Pink Panther is about masturbation. I don't know what she would be doing with the Pink Panther other than taking it home to masturbate with" (ibid., p.113). Pornography, like art, is designed for contemplation, and is intended to alter the emotions of, and inspire action by, the viewer. And like the pathetic dolls and statuettes that inspired Koons's Statuary and Banality series, pornography is a poor substitute for the real thing. The fulfillment it provides is also a form of alienation and isolation--it is ironic by nature.
When planning the Banality show, Koons saw a photograph of the porn-star Cicciolina in the German magazine Der Stern. He used the photograph as the basis for one piece, Fait d'hiver, in the exhibition, and soon after initiated a relationship with her. Later he publicized their relationship in the 1991 show, Made in Heaven, which largely consisted of pornographic-like images of the two having sex. One of the photos bears a striking resemblance to Pink Panther. "Cicciolina" is the stage-name and concoction of Ilona Staller, who, in her fictional persona, mixes infantile gestures and speech with exaggerated, hard-core sexuality. Stuffed animals, like the Pink Panther and other peluche toys, are a common-prop in her publicity photos; she even posed with Jeff Koons while holding one. Cicciolina is an "O", an embodiment of nothing, an empty vessel to be filled by desire and fantasy. She is a living doll.
The use of style and mass-media to fabricate identity fascinates Koons, as it did Warhol and Duchamp earlier; and like Warhol, Koons was a successful graphic artist before making it in high art. Horkheimer and Adorno once wrote: "Because of his ubiquity, the film star with whom one is meant to fall in love is from the outset a copy of himself " (M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, English ed., New York, 1972, p. 140). Of course, this is true of Koons and Cicciolina as personae, and was a central theme of Made in Heaven.
Koons adores artificiality and fiction. That Pink Panther is made from porcelain augments its irreality--as a copy of nature, it is overtly fake. The material, too, has the contradictory associations that Koons delights in. Porcelain, once the rarest of materials reserved only for the aristocracy, is now a cheap and quotidian commodity, associated with mass consumption. In its history, porcelain embraces both the rococo and kitsch. Koons has stated, "When I work with porcelian it is to meet people's social and economic needs, so that they can feel that they can be kings and queens for the day" (quoted in Mathesius, op.cit., p. 26).
In their celebrated essay on the culture-industry, Horkheimer and Adorno wrote in 1944: "The idolization of the cheap involves making the average heroic . . . With the cheapness of mass-produce luxury goods . . . a change in the character of the art commodity itself is coming about. What is new is not that it is a commodity, but that today it deliberately admits it is one; that art renounces its own autonomy and proudly takes its place among consumption goods constitutes the charm of novelty." (M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, op.cit., p. 156-157). This statement could practically serve as a guide to Koons's art.