'Consider the large wrought-iron Moustache. It has the form of a generous curled moustache, somewhat comical, like the moustache worn by some figure in the circus or by Salvador Dali. But it also looks like legs spread wide and open, in a posture of sexual accessibility. And, as if to underscore that meaning, the points of the moustache penetrate two smiling swimming toys, hung over it at either end. It is at once innocent and insinuating. It is a tribute to its double meaning that Koons won with it the commission to transform it into a piece of public art, to mark and celebrate the notorious red-light district of Hamburg, where it proclaims as it disguises the traditional commerce of the site, between pleasure-seekers and fille de Joie. 'R Toys 'r us' (A.C. Danto, 'Banality and Celebration: The Art of Jeff Koons,' pp. 125-34, Jeff Koons: Retrospective, exh.cat., Oslo, 2004, p.
Executed in 2003, Moustache forms part of Jeff Koons' Popeye series, which will be the subject of his first major public exhibition in the United Kingdom, being held at the Serpentine Gallery, London from 2 July this year. In this work, the monochrome metal form of the moustache hangs like some medieval contraption from its red chains. Perched absurdly on the twists at the ends of this vast comedy Victorian moustache are two swimming-pool toys, hanging facing downwards, their maniacal grins intact.
Moustache introduces a complex visual game of contrasts that is accentuated by the presence of the inflatables. The wrought-iron look of the moustache itself, suspended from the industrial chains, give a great sense of weight, of Damocles-like suspense as well as suspension. This introduces an intriguing visual contrast with the inflatables so perkily perching on its ends, a contrast that is disrupted entirely by the fact that they are in fact cast aluminium sculptures, painstakingly painted to appear identical to their original sources. This perfectionist craftsmanship means that the life-sized inflatables enact a fantastic deception, creating the impression of lightness and flexibility while actually being made of heavy metal, recalling the bronze Aqualung and Lifeboat of his 1985 series, Equilibrium. The visual game that Koons has created with this sleight-of-hand is only accentuated by the contrast in terms of scale between the life-sized models of blow-up toys and the insanely gigantic moustache itself. In terms of weight, scale and even content, Koons is playing with our sense of proportion.
The moustache as an iconographic element in Koons' work first appeared in a painting in his Easyfun-Ethereal series entitled Sandwiches, executed in 2000. This facial fur, which recalls the strongmen in circuses of old, has since become a central motif in many of his two- and three-dimensional collage works, invoking a range of sources and inspirations. In it can be perceived one of the earliest and most irreverent acts of appropriation, Marcel Duchamp's moustachioed Mona Lisa from his 1919 work L.H.O.O.Q. Likewise, it recalls the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, whose example both as an artist reaching a wide audience and as an accessible persona within the art world provided such guidance to Koons, who as a teenager had made a pilgrimage to visit him at New York's St. Regis Hotel in 1974. It also refers to the work of one of the great protagonists of so-called 'Outsider Art' in Chicago, H.C. Westermann, whose own semi-autobiographical prints of the Dance of Death featured a sailor sporting a rather rakish moustache.
The Popeye series to which Moustache belongs consists of two strands of collage: paintings, in which his own works and images from found photos, pornography and magazines are reconfigured to playful new effect, and a group of sculptures in which swimming-pool inflatable toys are juxtaposed with metal objects. In Moustache and the other inflatables, Koons has reinvoked the piratical appropriation which lay at the source of so many of his early works. ' I've returned to the readymade,' he stated. 'I've returned to really enjoying thinking about Duchamp. This whole world seems to have opened itself up again to me, the dialogue of art' (Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 504). For this series, Koons made a practice of trawling through shops and websites, searching for inflatable toys that somehow embodied the almost Platonic perfection and recognisability that gives his work its intense visual impact, that allows it to speak to everyman. However, as is so often the case with Koons' works, appearances can be hugely deceptive: these ersatz inflatables, made of painted aluminium, are only based on found objects.
For Koons, whose works always combine humour with the philosophical, the containment of air that is invoked by these inflatables has long been a key motif. After all, it is the very stuff of life, without which we cannot survive, and is integral to his early inflatables, to the vacuum-cleaners displayed in vitrines, to the Equilibrium works and the Celebration sculpturs alike. In an interview last year with Amy Cappellazzo, he explained that, 'I still enjoy working with inflatables, because I see them as life-saving devices, and you know, a lot of times if you look at pool toys it'll say it's not a life-saving device, but I think it's really just the opposite.' These objects, hanging so strangely on the metal-frame moustache, are designed to float, to support people, and at the same time they contain breath. The notion of buoyancy itself has long been crucial to Koons, and rooted in his own experiences, as he recounted in the same interview:
'When I was about three and four, I'd go swimming with my father, and at one point I got this little Styrofoam tank that gave me some buoyancy, then I would put this on my back, and it gave me a sense of independence. And I really think that as a person I started to kind of go off in the world more from that experience. And that buoyancy kind of has changed in different ways, and it's gone into inflatables and different devices with air. I think comes from some of those first times swimming in the ocean.'
Throughout his career, Koons' works have often been celebrations of life and, by extension, of procreation. He has long sought to remove any sense of stigma or shame relating to sex, which after all is an integral part of the survival of humanity. The inflatables themselves often have a strange sexual tension to them, acting as wombs, as containers. In the case of the two toy animals in Moustache, this oblique sexuality is invoked by the steel frame penetrating their inflatable rings. Throughout the Popeye series, in both its sculptures and its paintings, Koons has deliberately collided cutesy imagery relating to childhood and toys with a liberal dose of raw sexuality, perhaps equating the two and suggesting that sex is a form of game for grown-ups. As Arthur C. Danto pointed out, the sexual content is even heightened in Moustache by its resemblance to a pair of spread legs. The chains suspending Moustache and its sinister, dark frame may prompt associations with bondage; the angularity of the moustache itself appears to threaten the toys, which in reality would be deflated by the simplest puncture, introducing themes of fragility and damage that introduce both a sense of the sado-masochistic, accentuated by the torture-device look of the work as a whole and also of the ephemeral nature of life itself. After all, we as humans are also forms of inflatable-made-flesh, easily punctured, precariously balanced as we stumble through life. In this way, Koons has managed, through this three-dimensional juxtaposition of moustache, chains and toys, to create a work that explores a vast range of issues relating to the human condition, yet which remains as engaging as the grins on the inflatables' faces.