In 2014, Jeff Koons was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This colossal show was the final one before the Whitney closed the iconic Marcel Breuer building. As well as an ending, though, it marked a beginning: the debut of Koons’s monumental Play-Doh, a sculpture that had already become legendary in the two decades of its creation. This is one of the largest and most complex works in Koons’s Celebration series, a group of works that had its inception in the mid-1990s, and which includes such contemporary icons as Balloon Dog, Hanging Heart and Tulips. The Celebration series has become almost mythic in its gestation, with Koons pushing fabrication techniques to new levels of perfection that met his own desire for a meticulous finish.
The result of this single-minded dedication is all too visible in Play-Doh: looking at the crevices, curves and bobbles of its surface, as well as the matte colors with their faint sheen, the viewer would be forgiven for thinking that this really was a Brobdingnagian mass of Play-Doh, the vibrant colours piled on top of each other. Yet this sculpture has been assembled through the use of more than two dozen interlocking sections of painted aluminum. Gravity alone fastens them together, the weight of each color pressing down on the next. Koons’s exacting criteria runs to intriguing extremes: each of these pieces is painted in its entirety, not just the facet visible when Play-Doh is fully assembled. And in each of the five versions of Play-Doh, the configuration is unique.
It is a mark of the importance that Play-Doh has achieved within Koons’s oeuvre that it has been published and exhibited extensively since it was first unveiled four years ago. Reviewing its debut at the Whitney show in Frieze, Chris Wiley would refer to the sculpture as, “one of his most important works to date,” while Roberta Smith described it in the New York Times as “a new, almost certain masterpiece whose sculptural enlargement of a rainbow pile of radiant chunks captures exactly the matte textures of the real thing, but also evokes paint, dessert and psychedelic poop” (C. Wiley, “Jeff Koons: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA,” Frieze, 16 Sept 2014, reproduced online; R. Smith, ‘Shapes of an Extroverted Life,’ New York Times, 26 June 2014, via www.nytimes.com).
In terms of visual impact, palette and even mass, Play-Doh marks the apogee of Celebration. This is a series of paintings and sculptures that were inspired by significant events within a calendar year, taking the milestones of the year and turning them into commentaries on life. With that in mind, the series has featured Koonsian transformations of Valentine’s Day in the form of Hanging Heart, Easter in the Cracked Egg, engagement rings in Diamond and birthdays in Cake. The Celebration series also involves childhood: the paintings and sculptures have an amped-up Pop presence that is designed to replicate the intensity of emotion felt when growing up, when toys and parties are the great foci of life. Cakes, candy, balloon sculptures and toys articulate this passage through time and development. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Play-Doh itself, where the eponymous toy has been monumentalised—and then some. The surface is so convincing that we are transported viscerally to our own memories of sculpting with Play-Doh, while the scale means that it not only demands, but commands our attention, as we are dwarfed by it. Koons presents us with a sculpture that short-circuits our brains, filling us with awe, glee and nostalgia alike.
For Koons, the theme of childhood so powerfully conjured by Play-Doh is connected to that of reproduction and thence to the human drive to prolong the species. Children are the evidence of mankind essentially approaching immortality through nature. Indeed, most of the calendar events marked in Celebration can be linked to the cycle of life, to birth, to sex and even to death. His choices of subject corroborate this: his Easter eggs imply both birth and resurrection, the flowers hint at romance as a prelude to sex as well as their own pollination, while the heart invokes both Valentine’s and the blood flow that keeps us alive. Underpinning Celebration is the very stuff of existence itself.
This is evident in Play-Doh both in its evocation of play and the tumbling forms of the variously-colored clays themselves. Koons has pointed to the Freudian aspect of the way they all fit together, the different colored elements squeezing each other, crevices and cavities yawning open, while concealed within the heart of the sculpture are myriad points of contact. Just as with Play-Doh itself, in this sculpture the various elements are fitted so as to be mounted one atop the other, creating a hidden dimension of intimacy and touch. This is a highly-connected community of forms. As Koons has pointed out, with Play-Doh, you can peel the various different pieces away from each other, revealing organic shapes, each shaped by the others, a process mimicked by the interlocking aluminum segments of this sculpture.
The grouping of elements in Play-Doh makes it appear like a kaleidoscopic tumult of flesh, a turbulent, oozing mass filled with openings and eruptions alike, the pressure appearing to force the material in different directions. This sculpture has a Rubens-esque quality. It recalls the frothy mass of flesh in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Baigneuses in the Louvre, Paris. At the same time, each crack in the supposedly-yielding surface can be read, in a Koonsian-Freudian fashion, as an only slightly oblique reference to L’origine du monde, the iconic masterpiece by Gustave Courbet—an artist he reveres and collects.
Play-Doh was inspired by Koons’s son Ludwig, who proudly presented his father with a similar colorful mound in Rome when he was a toddler. Koons had brought him the Play-Doh as a gift. “Ludwig made a mound similar to this on the coffee table, and then, with his arms out, he said, “Daddy, voilà!”’ (J. Koons, quoted in “Jeff Koons: The Turnaround Artist,” New Yorker, 23 April 2007, reproduced online at www.newyorker.com). Koons was struck by the complete faith that his son had in his creation. After all, this was a continuation of Koons’s own campaign against hierarchies of taste within the canon of art, a theme that had run through so much of his own work, in particular the Banality series of the late 1980s. Ludwig’s mound encapsulated this notion, as Koons himself would tell David Sylvester, “when I made my sculpture Play-Doh, I was very consciously trying to make a work that’s about no judgment. You know, the viewer can’t judge it, and it can’t be wrong. It’s just this mound of Play-Doh. You know, the intentions were good in doing it. I tried to give myself all the freedom of piling it up” (J. Koons, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 335).
Ludwig’s mound clearly pushed Koons to tap into his own memories and his own creative beginnings. “When I was about four and a half, five years old, I would go after school to this little building, like a little shelter,” he has recalled. “In the afternoons we’d make things out of Popsicle sticks. We’d work with Play-Doh. And this experience gave me my foundation. That’s what I hold on to in the world. And whatever I made at that time I know is equivalent to what I’m doing now. And that was, for me, really, art” (J. Koons, quoted in D. Rimanelli, “Jeff Koons: It’s my Party,” Artforum, Vol. 35, No. 10, Summer, 1997, p. 116). For millions of people across a number of generations, one of the most visceral early experiences of artistic creation is shaping and moulding Play-Doh. Through its towering scale and hyperrealism, Play-Doh transports many of its viewers back to those moments of early play and creativity, that age before the constraints of taste and learning have been imposed. After all, childhood, as Koons has explained, is, “a time of such growth and acceptance. It’s when life is expanding rapidly, and there’s often a feeling of security and acceptance-- it’s before the value judgments start” (J. Koons, quoted in I. Sischy, “Jeff Koons’ World,” in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 16).
The connection between childhood and Play-Doh, and indeed the Celebration series, was to become deeper and more complex following the birth of the artist’s son. Koons 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. Crucially, these works transcended these biographical origins, touching upon grand themes and tapping into an intoxicating sense of wonder. This has resulted in the works from the Celebration series such as Play-Doh being at once deeply personal yet also embracing emotions and concepts that are universal. Koons has explained that, “I was trying to make art that my son could look on in the future and would realize I was thinking about him very much during these times… that he can look and see my dad’s thinking about me, but to also embed in these things something that is bigger than all of us” (Koons, quoted in J. Jones, “Jeff Koons: Not Just the King of Kitsch,” The Guardian, 30 June 2009, reproduced online).
Ironically, the creation of Play-Doh spanned a twenty-year period—longer than a childhood. Koons had a long history of seeking out highly skilled people in order to attain the effects he desired in earlier series, be it in his correspondence with Nobel Prize-winner Richard P. Feynman for the suspended basketballs of Equilibrium or the traditional wood carvers and porcelain artisans of Banality and Made in Heaven. However, with the Celebration series his quest for perfection reached a new pinnacle, placing him within the realms of the most quixotic protagonists of the modern era. For some time, he seemed to disappear from the art world, immersed in his own quest, with rumors and images emerging from time to time showing the spectacular creations being made under his auspices. Koons was an utterly-dedicated, even fixated, in his attempt to achieve a seemingly-impossible dream. These works were originally intended to be shown in a 1997 exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, but that show was delayed and then ultimately cancelled. Behind closed doors, Koons was funnelling time, energy and funds into the creation of a string of contemporary masterpieces, but was pushing for the flawless finishes that had hitherto not been obtained.
This was demonstrated by the painting entitled Play-Doh, which which took thirteen years to complete as Koons sought absolute perfection in its palette (see S. Rothkopf, “Jeff Koons: Painter,” in Jeff Koons: Hulk Elvis, exh. cat., London, 2007, especially pp. 9-10). Similarly, articles about Koons would show him with the model for the sculpture, Play-Doh, as early as 1997. Koons had originally conceived the sculpture to be cast not in the aluminum ultimately used, but instead in polyethylene. This was the material used in Cat on a Clothesline of 1994-2001, which is also employed in the creation of children’s toys. Ultimately, this material was unable to achieve the finish that Koons sought for Play-Doh, hence the switch to aluminum. A combination of lost wax and sand casting was employed to create the 27 individual segments.
While these techniques have their basis in tradition, Koons managed to push them to new degrees of precision, achieving new levels of finish, as demonstrated by the incredibly convincing surface of Play-Doh. Even the palette was the result of an almost-quixotic dedication, as the Play-Doh colors of 1994 were painstakingly recreated. Discussing the costs and delays of the Celebration series with Sylvester, Koons explained: “the problem came down to increased costs for fabrication that were beyond our control. David, I believe in art morally. When I make an artwork, I try to use craft as a way, hopefully, to give the viewer a sense of trust. I never want anybody to look at a painting, or to look at a sculpture, and to lose trust in it somewhere” (J. Koons, 2000, quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., 2002, p. 336). This sculpture is almost architectural in its scope and intricacy, its surface belying the complexity behind the decades of its creation. Standing before it, one can see why Koons once declared, “I think it would be great if instead of reading that I am the new inheritor of Warhol, somebody would write ‘the new Bernini’” (J. Koons, quoted in M. Collings, “Jeff Koons Interviewed by Matthew Collings,” in A. Papadakes (ed.), Pop Art Symposium, London, 1991, p. 43).
That link to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and thence to the Baroque, is as pertinent here as it was in his Banality series in the late-1980s, when he had used traditional craftsmen to create modern images such as the porcelain Michael Jackson and Bubbles or the polychrome wood Bear and Policeman. Koons had explained that he used the material in order to provide comfort to his viewer, and that this echoed the way that the Baroque had functioned in Counter-Reformation Europe. In Play-Doh, that same function is evident. Indeed, the sheer materiality and materialism of Play-Doh has pushed that of Banality to a new extreme: it is opulent in its detail, its surface filled with the flow and eddies of Baroque drapery. Yet it is also rigorously objective, another crucial hallmark of the Baroque in Koons’s eyes.
That hyperrealism is almost at odds with the seeming gesturality of the surface. The Play-Doh has been recreated in such a way that it appears to show the traces of the human touch in its assemblage—albeit blown out of proportion in its new gargantuan scale. In this way, Koons has managed to create an intriguing tension: the surface resembles the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Willem de Kooning, yet this work is the result of two decades of research and craftsmanship, of fabricators and scientists, metallurgists and modellers, rather than the swirling gestures of either Ludwig with his Play-Doh or de Kooning with his paints. In this sense, Play-Doh deconstructs the modernist baggage that comes with notions of the artist’s touch. There is no facture here. But crucially, there is its semblance: in Play-Doh, the momentary has been made monumental. The chance-driven compacting of one color of Play-Doh onto another, its splatter and squeeze, has been crystallized, immortalized and placed on a massive pedestal. Despite the polarities enshrined in its very surface, its implied solidity, the static and almost monolithic nature of Play-Doh, reinforce its ability to reassure the viewer, to instil a sense of faith, trust and confidence. Yet ultimately, this sculpture is driven by its the sense of sheer fun, the ambitious and infectious enthusiasm of the artist willing to strive for two decades to recreate the appearance of Play-Doh on a vast, absurd, even Surreal scale. And the implied invitation for us not to judge, but to join in.