Rabbit by Jeff Koons — a chance to own the controversy
Vacuous, disposable and deathless. Exuberant, celebratory and perfect. There is little that has not been said about Jeff Koons’s seminal 1986 sculpture, which sold for $91,075,000 on 15 May
In the 33 years since it was created, Jeff Koons’s Rabbit has become one of the most iconic works of 20th-century art. Standing at just over 3ft high, this stainless-steel sculpture is at once cute and imposing, melding a Minimalist sheen with a cartoonish sense of play. It is crisp and cool in its appearance, yet taps into the visual language of childhood; its lack of facial features renders it inscrutable, yet its form evokes fun and frivolity.
Few works of art of its generation can have the same instant recognisability: it has been on the cover of books, exhibition catalogues and magazines. A monumental blow-up version even featured in the 2007 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It is almost impossible to underestimate the impact that Rabbit has on its viewers — and the impact it has made more widely. Some have labelled it a lazy joke, a visual con that was not what it seemed. Others have embraced its sharp wit. But Rabbit’s many inherent contradictions — at once light and heavy, hard and soft — are also its greatest power. It was a thumb in the eye of the art world, while at the same time embracing its attitude and aesthetics.
When it was first shown at Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery in New York in 1986, the art critic of The New York Times, Roberta Smith, described this ‘oversize rabbit, with carrot, once made of inflatable plastic. In stainless steel, it provides a dazzling update on Brancusi's perfect forms, even as it turns the hare into a space-invader of unknown origin.’
The great museum director Kirk Varnedoe would describe it as a milestone, recalling that he was ‘dumbstruck’ when he first saw it at the Sonnabend exhibition. In 2000, Varnedoe curated Open Ends at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, juxtaposing Rabbit with Brancusi’s works.
In 1987, the year after Rabbit was made, a cast featured in the Saatchi Collection’s NY Art Now in London. Damien Hirst, then a young art student, would see it, later recalling, ‘I couldn't get my head around its simple beauty at first; I was stunned, the bunny knocked my socks off’.
This faceless quicksilver rabbit manages to embody whole ranges of references while at the same time remaining deadpan and aloof. We find ourselves filling its steely silence with thoughts of Disney, Playboy, childhood, Easter, Brancusi, Lewis Carroll, Frank Capra’s Harvey, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Andy Warhol’s Cloud, without ever plumping for a single meaning.
‘Look at the Rabbit,’ Koons said to David Sylvester, the British art critic and curator. ‘It has a carrot to its mouth. What is that? Is it a masturbator? Is it a politician making a proclamation? Is it the Playboy Bunny?... It’s all of them.’
Rabbit tells us that life is good, that all tastes are acceptable, that we should be at one with ourselves. Gleaming like some luxurious futuristic idol, it is a mirror not for princes, but for the public, reflecting us, incorporating us within the ever-shifting drama that plays out on its surface. We are all embraced by this totem.
‘It has a lunar aspect, because it reflects. It is not interested in you, even though at the same moment it is’ — Jeff Koons
The success of Rabbit, more than any of the other works in the ‘Statuary’ series that Koons had shown at the Sonnabend Gallery, is all the more impressive considering it was the only sculpture in the group that was almost not made. In a moment of inspiration Koons had sketched out — on a bar napkin — ideas for nine of the 10 sculptures in the series, ranging from Louis XIV to Bob Hope. Yet for Rabbit, there is a rare note of indecision. ‘When I made my stainless-steel rabbit, I really couldn’t decide whether to make an inflatable rabbit or an inflatable pig,’ Koons explained to Norman Rosenthal.
Koons chose the rabbit, which would provide a springboard to international recognition. He would go on to reach new levels with his subsequent series, ‘Banality’ — in which the jilted pig made its own resurgent appearance — and ‘Made in Heaven’.
In Rabbit, Koons appears to have fused the DNA of his first ‘official’ series of works, the ‘Inflatables’ of 1979 — a group of inflatable toys, which were shown on plinths made of right-angled mirrors, creating a single sculpture. Here, though, the ephemeral nature of the inflatable has been transcended: transformed into stainless steel by artisans working to Koons’s famously exacting specifications. Rabbit is nigh on indestructible. This is not an intimation of mortality: it is a refutation of it.
Crucially, as well as being strong and useful, steel also has the gleam and glimmer of luxury. ‘I think the Bunny works because it performs exactly the way I intended it to,’ Koons said of Rabbit. ‘It is very seductive shiny material and the viewer looks at this and feels for the moment economically secure. It’s most like the gold- and silver-leafing in church during the baroque and the rococo. The bunny is working the same way. And it has a lunar aspect, because it reflects. It is not interested in you, even though at the same moment it is.’
Rabbit, then, ties into the general wave of reassurance that lies at the heart of many of Koons’s works. He has often pointed towards social mobility, sometimes commenting upon it, sometimes critiquing it, but always insisting that the viewers accept themselves for themselves.
In ‘Luxury and Degradation’, the series that immediately preceded ‘Statuary’, he explored the mechanics of the alcohol industry and invoked stainless steel in his sculptures for the first time. Earlier, in Equilibrium, Koons had investigated the way that success in sports was exploited as a vehicle for social change, especially in the African American community.
Building on the success of its use in ‘Luxury and Degradation’, in ‘Statuary’ Koons explored to greater depths the ability of stainless steel to serve both as a leveller and as a deliberately flawed signifier of wealth.
‘“Statuary” presents a panoramic view of society,’ the artist explained. ‘On the one side there is Louis XIV and on the other side there is Bob Hope. If you put art in the hands of a monarch, it will reflect his ego and eventually become decorative. If you put it in the hands of the masses, it will reflect mass ego and eventually become decorative. If you put art in the hands of Jeff Koons, it will reflect my ego and eventually become decorative.’
As a sculpture, Rabbit is Koons’s avatar. Mute with its mouthlessness, but with its ears firmly pointed towards us, it is a passive, responsive dictator, perfectly encapsulating the contradictions of the role of the artist that preoccupy and drive Koons himself. It is nonetheless powerfully eloquent, its carrot reminiscent of a microphone.
Rabbit is a signifier that launches the viewer on an endless journey of association, tumbling down the rabbit hole of meaning
As Koons explained to Matthew Collings only half a decade after Rabbit was created, he saw the sculpture as a symbol of ‘being a leader, an orator, the carrot to the mouth is a symbol of masturbation. I see Pop art as feeding people a dialogue that they can participate in. Instead of the artist being lost in this masturbative act of the subjective, the artist lets the public get lost in the act of masturbation.’
Rabbit also prefigures what has since become one of Koons’s best-known and best-loved series of works: the ‘Celebration’. Rabbit may only be three and a bit feet tall, but it is a clear ancestor of Balloon Dog, Balloon Flower and its sister-works — as well as the subsequent Balloon Rabbit of 2005-10.
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Ultimately, though, Rabbit transcends its own limitations. It is a signifier that launches the viewer on an endless journey of association, tumbling down the rabbit hole of meaning. It neither confirms nor denies any of the conclusions that may be drawn. It is its ability to leave these ideas hanging that lends it the power that has seen it attain the status it enjoys today.
It is approachable, sweet, high-brow, Pop; it is about sex and death and taste and class; it is about optimism and innocence and reproduction. It explores the role of the artist in the modern world, and our own place too. It reflects whatever we bring to it. In this, it reveals Koons’s own ability to create art works that launch a thousand thoughts. Its importance has only been cemented by years of critical debate. Every riposte reflected (or more truly, deflected) by its blank visage.
The sculpture was cast in 1986 in an edition of three, plus an artist’s proof. In addition to this example, one is now in the Broad Foundation, Los Angeles, and the other has been promised to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago by its owners, Stefan T. Edlis and H. Gael Neeson. These two casts have travelled extensively since their acquisitions by their respective owners; by contrast, this example of Rabbit, which comes from the Collection of S.I. Newhouse, has not been exhibited in public since 1988.
On 15 May in New York, Rabbit will be offered for sale in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, providing someone new with the opportunity to own the controversy.