Other examples are in the collections of the Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao; Victor Pinchuk Foundation, Kyiv; Fondazione Prada, Milan and The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica.
Towering over the viewer in a blaze of multi-colored splendor, with each color dramatically reflecting and rebounding off the other to create an intense rainbow effect, Jeff Koons' monumental Tulips marks the technical crescendo of his Celebration series. A timeless sculptural masterpiece, Koons has taken the simple temporary nature of a small, light balloon sculpture created in a matter of seconds, and blown it up to a heroic scale. It is an enchanting sculpture that casts the illusion of joyous weightlessness but is paradoxically heavy, employing over three tons of meticulously sculpted stainless steel. This is a multivalent sculpture, operating on a number of different levels from the simple and directly arresting visual beauty of the object and its awe-inspiring scale, to the ground-breaking complexity of its fabrication and to the deep conceptual themes which lie beneath its apparently flawless surface. The Celebration series evolved from Koons' desire to recreate the ecstatic experiences of a child's enjoyment of the world with universal signifiers. Creating forms that recall Constantin Brancusi's sublime sculptures as well as children's toys, Koons has tapped into the canon of the history of art by taking flowers as his subject for this still life colossus, introducing ideas of the memento mori as well as romance and beauty. Flowers have run as a thematic thread throughout Koons' career, appearing already in his Inflatables of 1979, and came to the fore in his Made in Heaven series in 1991 where he emphasized their sexual nature. Tulips marked the sculptural culmination of the theme, and of Koons' now-legendary Celebration series. Tulips was created in an edition of five versions, each of which features a unique arrangement of the colors of the flowers. In recent years, these have become icons of Koons' work, featuring in a range of his exhibitions and in articles about the artist.The other examples are held by high-profile collections: one was shown at the unveiling of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008, while others are at the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Prada Foundation and the Viktor Pinchuk Foundation; an exhibition copy was also created to be shown in China and is on a ten-year loan to the US Embassy in Beijing.
This transformation of the original latex balloons into a giant, metallic monument reveals Koons' role as a guide through the quagmires of class, taste, sexuality and life. Rendered in mirror-polished stainless steel, the balloons clearly give a false sense weightlessness. This ties into the dialogue of illusion and paradox that underpins so much of Koons' work. The concept of an object filled with air, a metaphor for the human lung filled with breath, is arguably the most constant in Koons' work, relating to the Inflatables, the vacuum cleaners in The New and the flotation devices and basket balls of Equilibrium. Where his 1979 Inflatable Flowers were light, his subsequent works often toyed with paradoxes, being transformed into absurdly heavy materials. His iconic masterpiece Rabbit was reincarnated in stainless steel, his Aqualung cast in weighty bronze in Equilibrium and his swimming pool toys depicting inflatable lobsters and dolphins rendered in aluminum in Popeye. In Tulips, Koons uses the inflatable nature of balloons, and their vulnerability, in order to play with the ephemeral and the eternal. While a latex balloon can easily be burst, the Tulips are virtually indestructible. Accordingly, Koons has subverted the notion of the floral still life in history, which so often served as a celebration of beauty, but also a reminder of the brevity of life, as a memento mori. This was all the more the case with tulips, which bloom for a short amount of time each year, creating a colorful yet brief explosion of beauty before wilting and collapsing. In his own Tulips, Koons defiantly tries to banish such notions of ephemerality. Instead, he is invoking durability and immortality, or at least the endurance of our species. After all, as he has said, "I believe the way to enter the eternal is through the biological" (J. Koons, quoted in Coles & Violette (ed.), op. cit., 1992, p. 35).
Tulips and the other stainless steel sculptures of Koons' Celebration series have become iconic, placed in high-profile locations throughout the world. Koons had already created monumental works such as Kiepenkerl, made for the decennial Munster Skulptur Projekte exhibition, and the flower-coated Puppy originally installed in Arolsen in 1992 and also in Bilbao's Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum since 1997. In Celebration, Koons dedicated himself with new vim to this monumental scale of creation, often employing a pared-back visual language that echoed the restrained eloquence of Brancusi's smaller sculptures such as those on display in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Tulips is one of the largest and most complex of the Celebration works, featuring a rare, emphatic spectrum of colors: the rest, with the exception of Coloring Book, comprises either one or two colors only, as opposed to the rainbow-like spread here. The combination of the vivid color-scheme of Tulips and its mirror finish means that it reflects the viewers, and also crucially reflects itself. This unleashes a kaleidoscopic cascade of color variations that derives from a deliberately limited palette of the seven constituent parts. The colors proliferate in the receding reflections like a Pantone color chart. In this way, the surface of Tulips embraces itself, resulting in a wondrous implosion of color ricocheting through the near-infinite succession of reflections. This is all the more appropriate in Tulips, as the titular plant has long been prized for its vivid colors.
The celebration of the flower's color is reflected by its origin in Persian lore: scarlet tulips had sprung from the blood-drops of the vanquished lover Ferhad, who according to legend had been falsely informed that Shirin, the object of his desire, had died. In the Sixteenth Century, they were imported from Turkey to Europe. There, their intense hues and the possibility of breeding cultivars with petals of different colors resulted in an explosion of floral still life paintings that are treasured to this day. The tulip remains associated with romance, and also with Oriental splendor and luxury. It decorates Iznik tiles and vessels and was praised in verse. Indeed, the cultural highpoint of the Ottoman Empire was named the 'Tulip Period.' The sheer colors of Tulips, the fantastic scale and the sensuous curves all combine to create a lyrical tribute to this romantic flower, while also revealing Koons' unique and playful contribution to the long-standing genre of the floral still life. Despite having its roots planted in tradition, Koons' Tulips are incredibly modern and introduce a range of concept pertinent to the contemporary world. The medium emphasizes the message: its smooth, sinuous, pristine forms are crisp, contemporary and mirror-like, presenting the viewer with an image that pretends to be simple and joyous. Under the surface, Koons explores upon themes such as life, death and sexuality. The flower motif had already appeared in his 1979 readymade Inflatables. In the Made in Heaven series in 1991, the raw sexuality of the plants, with their stamens and carpels on such overt display, became more central. In Tulips, that exploration of sexuality is continued in the curves and crevices of the flowers, which combine their smooth, phallic stems with the gaping holes at the end of the flower heads, making them intensely evocative and mysteriously hermaphroditic. Koons has long encouraged his viewers to embrace their sexuality, rather than be ashamed of it. After all, as he has pointed out, it is integral to the continuation of the species.
With reproduction comes a new generation, and the concept of childhood and child-like innocence is fundamental to the Celebration works. Koons was initially inspired by the birth of his son, and began to view the world with the wide-eyed wonder of his child's perspective. The Celebration works were created as a vehicle to regain faith in humanity during a trying time in the artist's personal life. Many of the Celebration works chart the landmarks of the passing year, for instance Easter, the coming of Spring and birthdays, shown using a visual language that amplifies the perspective of childhood experiences, allowing Koons to tap into archetypes that are in fact universal, not merely personal. The inception of Tulips and the Celebration works came about when Koons was working on ideas for a calendar for the legendary dealer Anthony d'Offay:
"I took my camera and prepared these set-ups; I shot some balloon tulips on a reflective background, and I made a balloon dog, again on a reflective background. I bought a hanging heart with some gold ribbon from a shop window I saw on Lexington Avenue, and I photographed a bread with an egg. I shot these different images and soon realized that this was too good, that I had more than a calendar here. I had a whole body of work" (J. Koons, quoted in T. Vischer, "Dialogues on Self-Acceptance: Jeff Koons about Himself and his Work From Conversations with the Artist, New York, Early February 2012, Part I," in S. Keller and Vischer (eds.), Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Riehen, 2012, p. 34).
Accordingly, Koons began to explore this new-found iconography, charting the cycle of the year and the wider cycle of life, creating a series of vast paintings and sculptures: "[I]t is about a calendar year and how we may perceive different things within the course of a year. You can look at the Tulips painting or the Tulips sculpture and maybe it will make you think of Spring. You can look at Hanging Heart and think of Valentine's Day, or Cracked Egg and you think of Easter. If you look at Party Hat, you might think of a birthday. There are different times of the year and different forms of celebration within a cycle of time. Some are quite direct but others could be anything" (J. Koons, quoted in ibid., p. 34). As an indicator of Spring, the season of fertility when leaves and blossoms appear after the barren months of Winter, Tulips is filled with overtures to reproduction and also with festive glee, all the more so because these flowers have been presented as immense, exaggerated toy-like balloons, reminiscent of parties.
This is in part due to the Crayola-like palette with which the Tulips have been colored, and in part because of the incredible perfection of that coloring, which is fantastically even. It appears as though the mirrored surface of the metal itself is colored, rather than painted. This effect has been achieved by taking the mirror-polished stainless steel flower and applying layer upon layer of lacquer in which the pigment is suspended employing new techniques finessed by the Koons' studio. This finish took years to perfect and the completed Celebration sculptures emerged at the turn of the new millennium. Looking at the surface of Tulips, Koons' perseverance resulted in an incredibly even, otherworldly monochrome on each flower. The surface is almost liquid, it is seductive, and it reflects the viewer, involving us and our world in Koons' work. That Koons has transformed stainless steel, the stuff of the pots and pans of our everyday domestic universes, to these new lyrical forms, gleaming so that they evoke precious metals, treasures and relics, extends his embrace of the viewer. Taking that democratic, practical material, Koons has here-as he had in his earlier Luxury and Degradation and Statuary series-granted the hardy metal, and the ephemeral balloon tulip too, an apotheosis.