In 2014, Jeff Koons (b. 1955) was the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It was in this colossal show that the artist debuted his monumental sculpture, Play-Doh, a sculpture that had already become legendary in the two decades of its creation.
Play-Doh is one of the largest and most complex works in Koons’ Celebration series, a group begun in the mid-1990s, which includes such contemporary icons as Balloon Dog, Hanging Heart and Tulips. In these pieces Koons pushed fabrication techniques to new heights; today, the series has become almost mythic.
The result of the artist’s single-minded dedication to producing the perfect finish is all too visible in Play-Doh, with its crevices, curves, and the faint sheen of its matte colours. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking that they are really looking at a Brobdingnagian mass of Play-Doh, with vibrant colours piled on top of each other. So convincing is the surface that, for many, it triggers childhood memories of play and creativity — that age before the constraints of taste and learning have been imposed.
‘I've always wanted anybody coming into contact with my work to feel excitement through the senses,’ Koons explains, and Play-Doh does exactly that. ‘You have the different colours. You have the touch, the feeling of it. But you also have the smell, the aroma of the material. I wanted to create something archetypal, that would connect you to what it really means to be human.’
But if the sculpture is intended to appeal to the viewer on an instinctual, sensory level, the process by which it was constructed was painstaking and decidedly cerebral. Play-Doh was assembled through the use of 27 perfectly interlocking sections of painted aluminium. Gravity alone fastens them together, the weight of each colour pressing down on the next. Koons’ 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. In each of the five versions the artist created, the colour configuration is unique.
‘Never has a sculpture so apparently simple been so deeply complex to create,’ says Francis Outred, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in London. ‘This was the sculpture that took the longest to produce and pushed its creator to new feats of engineering.’
It is a mark of the importance that Play-Doh has achieved within Koons’ oeuvre that it has been published and exhibited extensively since it was first unveiled four years ago. Reviewing its debut at the Whitney show for Frieze, Chris Wiley would refer to it as ‘one of his best works to date’, while Roberta Smith described it in The New York Times as ‘a new, almost certain masterpiece’.
‘What I try to do every day as an artist is to make objects that you can’t make any judgements about’ — Jeff Koons
Play-Doh was directly inspired by Koons’ son Ludwig, who, as a toddler, proudly presented his father with a similar colourful creation. ‘He made a mound of Play-Doh, and he said “Dad!” And I turned, “What?”, and he went “Voilà!” in front of this mound of Play-Doh. He was so proud. I looked at it, and I thought this is really what I try to do every day as an artist, to make objects that you can’t make any judgements about. That it’s perfect, that you just experience acceptance,’ the artist recalls.
By the time Play-Doh was unveiled, Koons had already developed a reputation for seeking out highly skilled people in order to attain the effects he desired in his art. He corresponded with Nobel Prize-winner Richard P. Feynman when creating his Equilibrium tanks — a series of sculptures in which basketballs float in a glass tank — and traditional woodcarvers and porcelain artisans in the production of his Banality and Made in Heaven series.
Architectural in its scope and intricacy, Play-Doh belies the decades of research and craftsmanship that went into its creation
But his quest for perfection reached new heights with the Celebration series. Koons was funnelling time, energy and funds into the creation of a series of contemporary masterpieces, pushing for flawless finishes. Even Play-Doh’s palette was the result of an almost quixotic dedication, as the Play-doh colours of 1994 were painstakingly recreated.
Almost architectural in its scope and intricacy, the surface of Play-Doh belies the decades of research and craftsmanship that went into its creation, and the essential contributions of fabricators and scientists, metallurgists and modellers. This hyperrealism is almost at odds with the sculpture’s seemingly gestural quality: the Play-Doh has been recreated in such a way that it appears to show traces of human touch in its assemblage, albeit on a gargantuan scale. In this way, Koons has managed to create an intriguing tension.
In Play-Doh, the momentary has been immortalised and made monumental, almost monolithic. Ultimately, however, the sculpture is driven by a sense of sheer fun: the infectious enthusiasm of an artist willing to strive for two decades to recreate the appearance of Play-Doh on a vast, even surreal scale — and the implied invitation for us not to judge, but to join in.
On 17 May, Play-Doh will be a highlight of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York.