Executed in 1986, Jeff Koons' Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine is part of the artist's Luxury and Degradation series. The present work is the very sole example that Koons personally gifted to the Jim Beam company, which had been so cooperative in the creation of Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine and its sister-works. Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine is based on a commemorative, collectible in bottle in the form of a locomotive that was created by Jim Beam; however, Koons appropriated this model and had it cast in gleaming metal:
It was the first time I'd worked with stainless steel. I liked its proletarian quality, pots and pans are made out of it. I was walking down the street and saw this ceramic train filled with Jim Beam and I thought: "This would be a great ready-made." So I cast it and went back to the company and had it filled with bourbon and sealed with the tax stamp. Because, for me, the bourbon was the soul and the tax-stamp seal was like the interface to the soul. It was about creating something that you'd desire. I wanted to create work that people would be attracted to (J. Koons, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 340).
The spirits, then, provide the spirit of the piece... Koons appropriates a knickknack from everyday life and grant it a strange apotheosis, placing it on a pedestal within the realm of so-called High Art. Such an action lays claim to its new-found status as a revered, reliquary-style object and critiques the staid and all-too-restrictive notions of taste that dictate our understanding of art. Koons is urging us back to a state of innocence, a condition of acceptance, encouraging us to abandon the snobbery that provides a barrier to our full enjoyment of life. After all, what is Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine if not an enlarged toy train? This is a plaything for the adult world.
In terms of its material and imagery, Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine invokes work, travel and even Western movies. Yet while critiquing taste, art and our joy-dampening education, like the other works in the Luxury and Degradation series it also criticizes the public's willingness to be pigeonholed for commercial purposes. In the ads and objects he took as his sources, Koons was exploring the different ways in which companies tailored their campaigns for certain markets, certain salary-groups, certain demographics, thereby implying that people have adhered to stereotypes by purchasing the beverages that the companies felt that they should be drinking. Abstract ads were aimed at the wealthier and therefore used in ads for high-end drinks, while the cheaper alcohols often presented aspirational images, linking the product to a world of glamour and sophistication. In Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine, this is echoed in the very metal that Koons has selected: the stainless steel is practical and proletarian, yet shines like silver. As Koons explained, "I was telling people not to give up their economic power -- that this pursuit of luxury was a form of degradation and not to get debased by it but to maintain their economic power. I was really telling people to try to protect themselves from debasement" (J. Koons, quoted in Ibid., p. 340).