Executed in 1986, Jim Beam-Box Car forms part of Jeff Koons' Luxury and Degradation series, a group of works thematically centered on alcohol. This group included a stainless steel travel cocktail cabinet and other renderings of alcohol related paraphernalia, as well as pictures that showed ads for drinks such as Gordon's Gin and Frangelico. Koons imbued this assortment of gleaming objects and glamour-filled advertisements with a Pop exuberance. And yet underlying it all, Koons' discerned that the way we drink, and the way that drink is sold to us, conceals an intriguing reflection of our aspirations and of class structures. The liquor companies have tailored each drink, each ad, each cocktail accessory, for a specific demographic, holding up an insightful yet peculiar mirror to society.
Within this framework, Jim Beam-Box Car appears as something resolutely middle class, and Koons has accentuated what he perceives as the aspirational Achilles Heel upon which so much alcohol advertising relies by casting it in shiny stainless steel. It has the merest veneer of luxury. It shines like silver, and yet is made of a far more common material, polished to a mirror finish -- its shimmer, a mirage-like target for the aspiring viewer or consumer. By deliberately invocing the gleam, glimmer and glamour of silver in a work made of steel, Koons makes Jim Beam-Box Car all the more potent and fascinating an object, lending it complex new meanings. "To me stainless steel is the material of the Proletarian," Koons explained. "It's what pots and pans are made of. It's a very hard material and it's fake luxury. If these pieces were in silver, they would be absolutely boring. They have absolutely no desire to be in silver; they could not communicate in silver" (J. Koons, quoted in J. Caldwell et al, Jeff Koons, exh.cat., San Francisco, 1992, p. 65).
Further discussing this tension between the appearance and the reality of his stainless steel sculptures, he stated, "In 'Luxury and Degradation' the objects are given an artificial luxury, an artificial value, which transforms them completely, changing their function, and, to a certain extent, decriticalizing them. My surface is very much a false front for an underlying degradation" (J. Koons, quoted in S. Coles & R. Violette (ed.), The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 64). This degradation functions on several levels. To some extent, the sculpture itself, which is essentially a glorified decanter, is degraded; the material, which attempts to mimic silver but is in reality steel, is also degraded; the whisky drinker is further degraded, a stooge falling prey to the liquor company's successful exploitative campaign to glamorize their drink enough to reel in another customer. And crucially, there is also the degradation implied by the overarching conceit, that of the class system itself. That system degrades and constrains various people, limits what they can aspire to even when it comes to how much or what kind of alcohol they can consume.
It would be wrong to see Koons' Jim Beam-Box Car solely as a critique. Koons encourages enjoying the object he has created. "It was about creating something that you'd desire," he stated. "I wanted to create work that people would be attracted to" (J. Koons, 2000, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 340). He revels in the fetishization of desire in the modern, consumer world. He is the quintessential salesman-artist, and even worked as a commodities broker before turning full-time to art. He is selling ideas. And he is asking us not only to question our desires, to become aware of them, but also sometimes to embrace them. In his own explanation, Koons sounds almost religious: "I am trying to capture the individual's desire in the object, and to fix his or her aspirations in the surface, in a condition of immortality" (J. Koons, quoted in Coles & Violette (ed.), op.cit., 1992, p. 34).
This relates to Koons' decades-long campaign against the hegemonies of taste. Koons has deliberately taken banal objects and placed them on a strange new pedestal, defying the usual strictures of what is considered either "Art" or "beautiful." He encourages people to embrace their own desires without shame: "I was telling the bourgeoisie to embrace the things that it likes, the things it responds to. For example, when you were a young child and you went to your grandmother's place and she had this little knickknack, that's inside you, and that's part of you. Embrace that" (J. Koons, quoted in Caldwell et al, op.cit., 1992, p. 89). Koons is trying, through his magpie-friendly, nostalgia-mining art, to encourage his viewers to enter a new state of grace, unfettered by societal notions of what is or is not good, guided only by emotion and desire, bringing about a strange new consumerist age of innocence and egalitarianism.
In addition to this Garden-of-Eden-like realm that Koons has tried to introduce by exuberantly celebrating the flotsam and jetsam of the exciting world around us, he discussed another almost religious aspect in Jim Beam-Box Car, a revelation that led Koons to create his original Jim Beam whisky train:
"I was walking down Fifth Avenue and I saw in a liquor store this train that was made out of plastic and porcelain. It was a Jim Beam train. What caught my interest was the possibility to transform it and to cast it in stainless steel and bring it to a mirror finish, but to also maintain the soul of the piece, which was the liquor inside. So after the train was cast, it was sent back to Jim Beam where they refilled each car with a fifth of Bourbon, and the tax-stamp seal was put on. You can drink it and enjoy the bourbon, but you have killed the work of art because you've destroyed the soul of the piece when you break the tax-stamp seal" (J. Koons, quoted in Jeff Koons, exh.cat., San Francisco, 1992, p. 65).
Koons carried out an almost mystical transformation, waving the magical wand of art over an everyday object, miraculously transforming it through his own intervention. But this very Duchampian process of taking the readymade and placing it in a new context in order to give it a new purpose, to create art, has almost been reversed by Koons. This ready-made-making process is a form of reincarnation: to some degree, the original nature of the Jim Beam train survives, not least in the form of the whisky within it. Koons has always stated that he is a believer in art, and it is this belief, in its transformative powers on aesthetic, spiritual, societal and conceptual levels that is enshrined in the gleaming reliquary Jim Beam-Box Car.