As its name suggests, New Hoover Convertibles, New Shelton Wet/Drys 5-Gallon, Double Decker consists of two brand new vertical standing Hoover Convertible vacuum cleaners and two, also pristine, Shelton Wet/Dry drum vacuum cleaners presented and preserved in a monolithic plexiglas box illuminated from beneath by tubes of fluorescent lighting. Conceived in 1981 and executed in 1986, this illustrious and reverential presentation and packaging of these seemingly ordinary household appliances forms part of the celebrated series known as "The New" with which Jeff Koons made his name.
"The New" was essentially a series of encased vacuum cleaners, which Koons first exhibited in the window of the New Museum in New York in 1980. There, these machines were displayed as if in a showroom, and orientated around a central red fluorescent lightbox with just the words "The New" written on it as if it were announcing some new concept or marketing brand. Encased in simple transparent cases and illuminated by an intense, strange and unearthly light, such was the reverence with which these immaculate but also innocuous machines were presented that they took on the appearance of holy relics or saintly apparitions. Enshrined in transparent temple-like cases as if they were strange anthropomorphic beings worthy of veneration, these mundane and familiar objects seemed to have been transformed into the bearers of some sacred message or mysterious level of meaning.
One of Koons' intentions with "The New" as it has been throughout his career, was to invoke, and by invoking also to re-awaken in the viewer, a sense of the simple aesthetic wonder and awe in the face of the world that we experience as children. To return us to that immaculate and pure state of openness and innocence, free and untainted by what Koons sees as the oppressive and narrowing constraints of the hierarchies of taste, prejudice and convention that we learn as adults. Koons attempts to achieve this liberation of the viewer through an art that openly attempts to seduce them back into a shared enjoyment of his rich and joyous celebrations of the banal, the mundane, the ordinary, and even the kitsch. Koons' vacuum cleaners -- sacred, immaculate and isolated from the corrosive dirt and chaos of the outside world in their pristine clear Snow-White-like caskets -- are his first, simplest and most direct statements in this respect. Sealed in their cases, pristine and virginal, they are objects that in the very nature of what they are -- machines designed and built to clean -- symbolize this state of innocence, cleanliness and purity -- the sacred state of the new born.
This anthropomorphizing of objects along with the idea of newness as a virgin state of childlike innocence and integrity, which Koons deliberately exploits in these works, seems to have its roots in the artist's own childhood. The vacuum cleaner is not only one of the first but also one of the most animate and seemingly magical mechanized household appliances that a child comes to know. Koons has often recalled the impression of strength and power the appliance had on him as a child. As an icon of both the inner sanctum of domesticity and also of an outer world of consumer goods, the vacuum cleaner is an object that for Koons was also closely associated with the world of the door-to-door salesmen. The realities of this powerful suburban middle-class stereotype of the 1950s and 1960s were in fact well known to him from an early age. As a boy growing up in the small town of York, Pennsylvania, Koons, who later went on to be a Wall Street broker, used to earn pocket money by working door-to door himself, selling gift wrappings and chocolates. "I'd present the product, and people would buy it, and it was nice," he told David Sylvester. "I felt it was a way of meeting people's needs. One of the reasons I make artworks (now) is to meet people's needs and give support to them" (J. Koons in conversation with David Sylvester, 2000, in D. Sylvester Interviews with American Artists, London 2001, p. 344). In addition, from his father, an interior decorator, Koons also appears to have gained an innate understanding not only of the importance and seductive power of packaging and presentation but also of the innate artifice of display from a showroom his father owned and used to display his wares.
All these elements are combined to great effect in "The New." This series, which was essentially a follow-on and a refinement to Koons' earliest series of works, now known as the "pre-New," in which Koons had appended ordinary household objects such as toasters to a backdrop of fluorescent lights, represented a clear attempt to extend the discourse of the ready-made art-object first begun by Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. Koons' adoption of the ready-made was in part a conscious attempt to position himself as a successor to the legacies of Duchamp and Warhol. Vacuum cleaners are, in one respect, banal and largely unaesthetic mass-produced objects very much like Duchamp's urinal and it is for this reason that Koons seems to have chosen them to carry the core message of this series. They are ideally suitable in this respect as there is little aesthetic appeal within them to distract from their core function as examples and bearers of the "New." As the fluorescent sign that accompanied these works announced, it is "newness" -- in all its perfection, commercial desirability and apparent unsustainability -- that is the real subject of these works. Newness, as a fleeting but much prized condition or state eagerly sought after and also intrinsic to a capitalist consumer-driven society, intrigues and fascinates. It is also a feature that applies as much to a commercially driven art world as it does to the world of consumer goods. Though desirable, appealing and seductive, it is ultimately, a fleeting, virginal and ethereal quality, destroyed as soon as the box is opened or the switch turned on.
For Koons, like Picabia, there is a sexual element underlying the seductive power and desirability of such immaculate mechanical newness, but unlike Picabia's whimsical and eroticized American spark plugs and light bulbs, Koons uses such meta-mechanics to invoke a more Protestant view of a sacred and sublime state of eternity. Puritanically encasing his vacuum cleaners in a sealed environment, Koons attempts to preserve the virginity of his machines intact for eternity. Anthropomorphizing these machines into almost distinct personalities, and organizing them into permutational groups of rather terrifying if also homely Nuclear families, it is the earnest integrity of his machines that Koons displays in his austere transparent and monolithic cases.
"They're very virginal and very frightening," Koons has explained. "I mean, they're dealing with the immortal. The vacuum cleaners are being displayed for their newness. They are displaying their integrity of birth. They never function (Their) function is to clean, but my pieces are non-functioning, so, if they're taken care of properly, and kept encased, they'll last forever. I went around and bought up all the vacuum cleaners I could buy before they stopped making a certain model. I wasn't showing them with indifference. I was being very specific. I was showing them for their anthropomorphic quality, their sexual androgyny. They are breathing machines. But, when they do function, they suck up dirt. The newness is gone. If one of my works was to be turned on, it would be destroyed!" (J. Koons, quoted in "Interview with Anthony Hayden-Guest," reproduced in Angelika Muthesius, ed. Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992, pp. 16-17).
Koons chose a limited combination of vacuum cleaners and arranged them in cabinets accordingly, juxtaposing the verticality of the upright cleaners with the squat cylinders of the Shelton Wet/Dry drum cleaners in a seemingly permutational progression that presents these objects as strange androgynous figures. For Koons, each machine has both male and female elements that establish an ambiguity within which he revels. "One machine I used was the Shelton Wet/Dry," he has explained. "I liked the phrase 'Wet-Dry.' It is similar to either-or, being and nothingness" (J. Koons, quoted in ibid, pp. 16-17). The anthropomorphism in these works is important for Koons, in that, in addition to performing the seemingly impossible feat of creating something eternally new, he also wishes his viewers to see the parallels between these cleaners, their potential to be eternally new, and themselves. Most important of all, in the end, is that, though rife with possible meaning, these strange, androgynous and enigmatic machines and their family-like combinations, assert only themselves. Presented immaculately and with the most minimal of means, these simplest of objects are for Koons, a mystical metaphor of transcendence, immortality and man's potential for personal emancipation. "They are ultimate states of being," Koons has said, "It is about being new, eternally new. I confront the viewer with objects that are in a position to present themselves as being immortal. They will remain new forever. What's important is that they maintain their integrity by not participating. It is different for the individual; to display integrity they have to participate. It is completely opposite for these objects" (J. Koons, quoted in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Naples, 2003, p.141).
Mixing mysticism and sexuality, commercialism, desire and the religious promise of immortality, Koons' "The New" invest the vacant world of consumerism with an epic and mythic sense of possibility and meaning. "These works present ideal newness. The whole philosophy of my work maintains that the individual just needs self-confidence in life. Self-confidence that cleverness is enough -- that they can display themselves, use the abilities that they have" (J. Koons, ibid.,, pp. 16-17).