Metal rabbit or the ultimate, all-encompassing modern icon?
Art critic and author Blake Gopnik plugs Jeff Koons’s iconic, era-defining sculpture into 500 years of art history, tracing its lineage back to the moment when ‘High Art’ was born
‘A terrifying bunny’ — that must be as close to pure oxymoron as you can get. Yet the irreconcilable differences captured in that phrase are what make Jeff Koons’s Rabbit such a deeply compelling work. More than almost any other object by Koons, that scary bunny helped establish him, already in 1986, as one of the most important artists of our era.
The terrors of Koons’s stainless-steel rabbit are cited by almost every writer who encounters it — one called it ‘sinister’; another described it as ‘menacing’ with ‘a weird evilness’ — even as the object itself seems to bear witness to an evident and inescapable jollity. You’d think that the sparkle of its surface and the glee of its goofy subject would just about deny any notion that it might provoke nightmares. At most — or worst — the sculpture’s split personality seems likely to give it a pleasing dose of absurdity (think the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) or an easy jolt of shock-value (think the vicious doll in the Chucky slasher flicks).
Yet it turns out that its duality is about much more than silliness or shock. The tense binary in Koons’s Rabbit plugs in to tensions that took off in Western art at least 500 years ago, at just the moment when the ‘High Art’ tradition that we live in now was born. That’s when the gleam that fills our eyes when we look at Koons’s sculpture began to seem more suspect than cherished.
At least as early as Homeric Greece, and probably for millennia before that, the effulgent reflection off polished metal had been the perfect stand-in for the effulgence of divine power and grace. As the philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly have argued, when Homer describes Helen of Troy as ‘shining among women’, and then catalogues the golden gifts that she has received, the poet is invoking a world-view where the sparkle of beauty is a source of ‘sacred wonder’.
Once Homer’s descendants had perfected large-scale bronze casting, their temples overflowed with lifelike figures polished to a brassy gleam that could easily pass for gold. The tarnished greens and browns and blacks that we now see when we come across the bronzes of antiquity are an accident of ageing and chemistry; it wasn’t at all what the Greeks and Romans were after in their own metalwork. Civic decrees commanded that statues be cleaned to a shine.
In the Middle Ages, after artists had abandoned the glories of lifelike bodies, they stuck with the glory of polished metal. The painters of Byzantine icons revelled in the licks of golden dazzle called ‘chrysography’ — actual beaten gold glued down and burnished as lightning bolts of splendour that spread across the surface of any sacred figure.
You can tell the power and status of Byzantine saints by the amount of effulgence they release in a painting. The sparkle of Byzantine mosaics was likewise much more than a surface effect: it reflected — literally — the dazzling illumination of Christian faith. When medieval philosophers wrote about aesthetics, claritas was a central concept they invoked, and it had a lot to do with brilliant glow.
This taste for gleam survived into the early years of the Italian Renaissance. Artists formed an image of the classical past that was partly shaped by the culture they saw surviving among the ‘Romans’ of Byzantium, with their golden icons and mosaics. For much of the 15th century, when Renaissance culturati imagined the glories of antiquity they imagined a world of wildly ornate decoration and ostentatious glow, not of drab white togas billowing among dull white columns.
Their paintings conceived of the bronze ‘idols’ worshipped by the pagan Romans more accurately than we do: they portrayed them with almost as high a polish as Koons’s rabbit. There’s a good chance that in the early decades of the 15th century, when Florentine artists cast the first life-sized bronzes since antiquity, they buffed them to shine like the golden gifts of Helen.
The green and gloom of tarnish and patina only struck those statues — and, you might say, us — decades later, when gleam somehow got dropped from the repertoire of antique imaginings, and also from ‘serious’ high art. Already in the 1430s, Leon Battista Alberti, the first modern intellectual to write at length about art, was launching an anti-gleam movement that soon gathered force.
‘Some artists use a lot of gold in their paintings,’ wrote Alberti. ‘They think it lends them heft. I’m not in favour of it…. An artist deserves more praise if he can capture the sparkle of gold by means of paint.’ A matte and dulled reality took over the surface of paintings; the dazzle of gold got exiled to their frames, as second-class ornament.
Five centuries later, Alberti’s view had more force than ever. ‘No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level… Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength,’ wrote the architect Adolf Loos in 1913, in a famous essay that equated the decorative with ignorance and crime. With Loos’s words, gleam and sparkle, the ultimate in decoration — and once a sure sign of pure spirit — passed out of acceptable use in the most serious modern art.
Which is what made them so very powerful 73 years later, in Koons’s Rabbit. Its irrepressible, inescapable shine has come to stand for retrograde and forbidden pleasures. Those pleasures still carry the odour of power and spirit that they did for the first few millennia of human metalwork, but now that power strikes us as threat, not grace. The rabbit’s effulgence is demonic and dissolute, not heavenly. To be properly modern, the beast’s surface ought not to shine.
Its sheen stood for a shining materiality that had become a purely surface effect, with no promise of underlying power
Economics played a role in our change of heart. Over the course of the 19th century, paper money and credit replaced shiny coinage and gold as the sign and vehicle of wealth. By 1959, the gold-obsessed Auric Goldfinger seemed the perfect superannuated supervillain for Ian Fleming to pit against James Bond, most modern of spies. To kill a beauty who has betrayed him to Bond, Goldfinger covers her naked body in a glossy coat of golden paint. It’s a lugubrious modern twist on the ancient Greek story of Danae, with the difference that when Zeus visited that princess in a shower of gold it wasn’t meant as punishment but as a sign of special favour. (The great hero Perseus was the result of that gleaming rape.)
It’s no surprise that when Ian Fleming describes Bond’s bespoke, post-war Bentley convertible, the secret agent’s customisation included having ‘her’ painted matte gray — ‘and Bond loved her more than all the women at present in his life rolled, if that were feasible, together.’ In contrast, Fleming gives Goldfinger, gilder of women, an ancient, boxy Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost whose body is made of solid gold.
In 1971, the Gold Standard that had structured the world economy for the previous century finally came to an end. The drab virtuality of market forces took full control instead. Gold tumbled from being the lynchpin of global wealth, imbued with a power that was at once purely symbolic and utterly material, to being the stuff of nouveau-riche baubles and rappers’ teeth.
Jeff Koons was 16 at this moment when gleam lost whatever gloss of numen it once had. Fifteen years later, when his shiny rabbit was born, its sheen stood for this emptying out — for a shining materiality that had become a purely surface effect, with no promise of underlying power. The anxiety provoked by his bunny comes partly from the emptiness we recognise in it: its gleam no longer carries the meaning that millennia of human culture had led us to expect. Worse yet, the bunny reflects, in every sense of the word, the emptiness that all art seemed to suffer from in that first fully post-Modern moment. Modernism’s pretence of depth had finally been peeled away.
Or maybe modernity hadn’t completely excised the power and meaning of gloss. It still carried one notable charge, but it was hardly spiritual and it could have dark implications. Early in the 20th century, when Constantin Brancusi began making bronze sculptures that came polished to a golden sheen, their finish had less to do with the divine gleam of Greek sculpture (the sculptor could not have known that had ever existed) than with the polished brass of steam fittings and ships’ propellers.
Gleam had come to stand for modern industry and its precision parts; in a strange reversal, shine could now be seen as part of Loos’s modernist paring-away, but spirit got pared away in the process. In one final step, the brass that had powered the earlier Industrial Revolution (and Brancusi) gave way to the chrome and stainless steel favoured by the artists and designers of the Bauhaus and their successors — including, in the end of days, Koons.
Modernity’s perilous gloss acquired extra threat, ironically, from being applied to Koons’s silly rabbit
But by the time of Rabbit, art had almost completely left behind the technophilia found in the gleaming skyscraper sculptures that Man Ray and John Storrs had conceived before the Second World War. In the 1980s, the American economy was reeling from industry’s disappearance and the American environment was showing clear symptoms of that industry’s ill effects; glossy perfection was coming to hold more threat than promise. Koons’s terrible bunny was just the latest, or last, avatar of the gleaming feeding machine in Chaplin’s Modern Times or of the evil robot-woman in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, two early predictors of the eventual fall from grace of the machine-polished surface.
Modernity’s perilous gloss acquired extra threat, ironically, from being applied to Koons’s silly rabbit. That rabbit stands for representation at its most basic, as just about the easiest creature for any kid or unskilled adult to draw. (If you get the two floppy ears you’ve captured a bunny, whereas dogs, mice, koalas and cats need more care and detail not to be confused with each other.) Which means the rabbit also stands for everything that might be represented. It becomes the ultimate, all-encompassing modern icon, but in a kind of devilish parody of the original all-encompassing One, the Christ Pantocrator of Byzantine art.
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Where the Pantocrator mosaic fills our eyes with a sparkling, divine effulgence, inviting us into the embrace of its apse, the gleaming surface of Koons’s rabbit shows us only a twisted image of ourselves and of the emptied-out reality around us, reflected in a bulging gut. The holy book always held in the Pantocrator’s left hand becomes nothing more than a lousy carrot.
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ proclaims the Pantocrator.
Koons’s Rabbit rears up to ask us, ‘What’s up, Doc?’
Blake Gopnik recently completed a comprehensive biography of Andy Warhol for Ecco at HarperCollins. Words © Blake Gopnik, 2019