Painted in 2001, Auto forms a part of Jeff Koons' Easyfun-Ethereal series of pictures. In Auto, a zany excess of mingled and mangled details collide to spectacular effect on a vast canvas. The scale and the sensuality of this painting combine to create a work with a billboard-like intensity, but amplified to a new intoxicating extreme. Luscious, glistening lips and a bikini-bottom-sporting midriff conjure a raw and unbridled eroticism against a backdrop of strangely assorted objects, from a car to a bird of prey to a disembodied item of clothing.
Koons has long been a master of collage; as early as the 1970s, his Pre-New objects combined domestic utensils with other objects, rendering them useless, while his Banality series involved objects taken from a range of sources and brought together to entertaining and occasionally disturbing effect. It was while Koons was working on the pictures that formed part of his Celebration series that he began to see a new potential for computer-manipulated collage. Long a media magpie, he had already assembled an arsenal of source material that included his own assorted snapshots, and continued to do so, placing his findings into new bizarre and evocative juxtapositions first in the Easyfun works, and then in Easyfun-Ethereal.
The Easyfun pictures, like the Celebrations, distilled some of the novelty, awe, excitement and surprise of a child's vision of the world, in part inspired by Koons' observation of his own children growing up. Sweets, treats and toys and splashes of milk on cereal were amassed in crazed hyperreal detail and super-real intensity. Their effect was heightened by painting techniques and projection that ensured that the textures of the various elements had often been captured with quasi-photographic accuracy in oils applied by Koons' specially-selected team of assistants, as is also the case in Auto.
Speaking of the transition from the Easyfun pictures to those in the Easyfun-Ethereal series such as Auto, Koons explained that, 'My intention with Easyfun-Ethereal was that this was an adult version' (Koons, 2000, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 348). So here, the treats of the Easyfun works have been replaced with the heady sexuality of Auto. Where the Easyfun pictures revolved around food, the Easyfun-Ethereal works often feature flesh, bikinis, underwear, flowing locks of female hair or a combination of those, taking disassembled and jumbled fragments from pornographic magazines and erotic literature. Meanwhile, the titular car in Auto is an accoutrement of adulthood, a standard landmark in the coming of age of the middle-class suburban youth of today. And gleaming on the tongue of one of the female mouths is a succulent grape on the verge of being eaten, the teeth waiting to unleash a burst of sweet delight. This is the fetishisation of the elements of everyday life, ramped up infinitely in terms of impact. In Auto, Koons is attempting to engage the viewer, encouraging us to immerse ourselves in this realm of the senses with abandon and to recall our initial awe at the various grown-up treats on display. As he explained:
'My work, I think, is a support system for people to feel good about themselves and to have confidence in themselves-- to enjoy life, to have their life be as enriching as possible, to make them feel secure. I mean, what I really try to do is to give people a confidence in their own past history, whatever that may be, so that they can have enough self-respect to move on, to achieve whatever they want' (Koons, 2000, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 332).
Auto, then, is both 'easy fun' and, in its noble intent, 'ethereal.' Koons' art is a sensory overload that is aimed at self-help for the viewer. The artist is encouraging a return to innocence, a frank admission of our urges. He is trying to free his viewers from the societal constraints imposed in two key realms: taste and sex. Auto, then, relates in part to a continuous thread in Koons' work that was made most overt in his famous Made in Heaven series, in which many of the images showed him in sexually explicit positions with Ilona Staller, also known as La Cicciolina. Discussing those earlier works, Koons confessed that,
'I went through moral conflict. I could not sleep for a long time in the preparation of my new work. I had to go to the depths of my own sexuality, my own morality, to be able to remove fear, guilt and shame from myself. All of this has been removed for the viewer. So when the viewer sees it, they are in the realm of the Sacred Heart of Jesus' (Koons, quoted in The Jeff Koons Handbook, ed. S. Coles & R. Violette, London, 1992, p. 130).
It is a similar liberation, a similar invitation to the 'realm of the Sacred Heart,' that Koons encourages in Auto: a confrontation with the reality of our desires and indeed with the beauty of the natural process, of reproduction. He has presented the emphatically corporeal in a manner aimed at illustrating a dimension that is spiritual-- that is ethereal. This picture, a devotional image from the master of consumer baroque, is filled with overt and oblique references to sex and sexuality, from the decontextualised yellow and orange bikini elements to the pierced belly-button of the midriff in the lower right, from the pouting lips to the car itself, a vehicle enabling social, and perhaps other forms, of intercourse. And in amidst all this is a falcon, extending the theme of predation but bringing some nobility to the table.
Koons has made this point through the use of an insane jumble of details. There is a Surreal aspect to Auto as befits the work of an artist who, as a young art enthusiast, had managed to meet and talk to Salvador Dalí, an enduring influence. And the collage aspect of Auto likewise recalls another of Koons' touchstones: Jim Rosenquist. For in the lobby during Koons' time working at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, he was daily exposed to one of Rosenquist's billboard-scale Pop collages. Auto and its sister pictures appear, to an extent, as tributes to these prior masters. Yet while Koons has created a work that appears to have stylistic echoes of Rosenquist's paintings, both his methods and his intentions are entirely different. It is telling that, in his interview with David Sylvester, Koons was asked if his art was aesthetic. 'David, actually, I see my work as the opposite,' Koons answered. 'I see it as essentially conceptual. I think that I use aesthetics as a tool, but I think of it as a psychological tool. My work is dealing with the psychology of myself and the audience. 'Aesthetics' on its own: I see that as a great discriminator among people, that it makes people feel unworthy to experience art. They think that art is above them. But there are basic aesthetics that I use to communicate' (Koons, 2000, quoted in Sylvester, op.cit., 2002, p. 342). He has taken a visual language that is similar to the discordant jumble of ideas and loose associations of Dalí's and Rosenquist's paintings, but has used them in order to communicate with the viewer, to encourage us to be at one with our urges and ourselves. It is a tribute to Koons' unique vision that, in Auto, he has done so with such infectious flamboyance, creating a hurly-burly, topsy-turvy dream-like sequence of fragmented images that launches us into a world of the senses, of associations, of nostalgia and desire.