Since its creation in 1986, Jeff Koons’s Rabbit has become one of the most iconic works of 20th-century art. Standing at just over three feet tall, this shiny steel sculpture is at once inviting and imposing. Rabbit melds a Minimalist sheen with a naïve sense of play. It is crisp and cool in its appearance, yet taps into the visual language of childhood, of all that is pure and innocent. Its lack of facial features renders it wholly inscrutable, but the forms themselves evoke fun and frivolity, an effect heightened by the crimps and dimples that have been translated into the stainless steel from which it has been made. Few works of art of its generation can have the same instant recognizability: it has been on the cover of numerous books, exhibition catalogues and magazines; a monumental blow-up version even featured in the 2007 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For an artist such as Koons, who is so focused on widening the sphere in which art operates and communicates, Rabbit is the ultimate case in point.
Despite its endemic presence in our cultural fabric, Rabbit is also an exceedingly rare object. 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 Art Foundation, Los Angeles, another in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and a third in the National Museum of Qatar. Thus, the present example is the only one left in private hands, and while other examples have been exhibited extensively, this example of Rabbit has not been exhibited in public since the 1988 group show, Schlaf der Vernunft, or The Sleep of Reason, at the Museum Fredericianum in Kassel.
Looking at Rabbit, the precision for which Koons has since become so renowned is there in all its seductive glory. The steel surface of the titular bunny initially appears smooth and balloon-like, the forms reduced to some abstract, Platonic ideal. They nonetheless introduce complex plays of form, with the narrow carrot serving as a counterpoint to the rounded torso and face. Adding a dynamism to the composition, the tentatively-hovering carrot, perching at the edge of the spherical head also ensures that there is a tension to the work. It hints at penetration, at bursting the balloon, and at that most Koonsian of subjects: sex. The dynamism of Rabbit is reinforced by the fact that, on closer inspection, this sculpture has been rendered with an incredibly meticulous attention to detail. Be it in the corrugations that run up the bending ears, the seams that run down the body, the trails of sheet metal that sprout from the bottom of the carrot or the letters around the nozzle on the reverse, there is an incredible range of textures at play. These are made all the more dramatic by the mercury-like perfection of the bulk of the surface which they disrupt and emphasize. Its curving, sloping surfaces reflect the viewer, yes, but also reflect itself. In this, entire games of light and movement are invoked, with aspects of the rabbit’s anatomy reflected in its head, in its torso and even in the carrot, creating a veritable hall of mirrors.
It is hard to underestimate the cultural impact of Rabbit—both on artists and critics, and the wider viewing public. 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” (R. Smith, “Art: 4 Young East Villagers at Sonnabend Gallery,” New York Times, 24 October 1986, reproduced online). The respected Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe would describe it as a milestone, recalling that he was “dumbstruck” when he first saw it at the Sonnabend exhibition (K. Varnedoe, “Milestones: 1986: Jeff Koons’s Rabbit,” ArtForum, Vol. 41, No. 8, April 2003, reproduced online at www.artforum.com). In 2000, Varnedoe curated Open Ends at MoMA, juxtaposing Rabbit with Brancusi’s own works. In 1987, the year after Rabbit was made, a cast was 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” (D. Hirst, quoted in G. Wood, “The Wizard of Odd,” Observer, 3 June 2007, reproduced online at www.theguardian.com). And when Louise Lawler made the photograph Foreground in collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson’s home, it was the side view of the sidelined Rabbit that added to the pointedly understated visual drama, disrupting the Mondrian-esque geometry of the interior.
Kirk Varnedoe’s article in ArtForum, recalling his impression of the Rabbit when he saw it in 1986, exemplifies the incredible iconic intensity with which Koons managed to imbue his sculpture. Varnedoe runs through a catalogue of allusions and implications. After all, 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, Brâncu?i, Lewis Carroll, Frank Capra’s Harvey, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Andy Warhol’s Clouds… The Rabbit manages to invoke all of the above, without ever plumping for a single meaning. “Look at the Rabbit,” Koons said to David Sylvester. “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” (J. Koons, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 342). If not for Rabbit, Koons said he would have called it The Great Masturbator after Salvador Dali’s painting. Rabbit is what the viewer brings to it. “I’ll be your mirror,” breathed Nico in the eponymous Velvet Underground track a couple of decades earlier, at the height of their collaboration with Warhol. “Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know… I find it hard to believe you don’t know / The beauty you are.” Rabbit echoes this sentiment: it is a hand—albeit an authoritative one—held out in support for the viewer. It 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.
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. When, in the wake of his Luxury and Degradation show, Koons had been asked to contribute works for a group show alongside painters Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman, he had been struck in a moment of inspiration and had sketched out—on a bar napkin—ideas for nine of the ten sculptures that would give an idea of the cross-section of society. There is Louis XIV at one end, Bob Hope at the other, with Cape Codder Troll and Doctor’s Delight in between. 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. “I would stay up at night. I have drawings from around that time where I have written down, ‘Shall I do the rabbit or the pig?’ I would inflate the originals and look at them, and I couldn’t decide. ‘Shall I make the inflatable rabbit, or shall I make the inflatable pig? I like both.’ Economically, I could only make one of them at a time, and I chose the rabbit” (J. Koons, quoted in N. Rosenthal, Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, London, 2014, p. 135). The show was a hit, with the artists—dubbed ‘The Hot Four’—fêted in the press and in art world circles. Fueled in no small part by the positive reception of Rabbit, it was a springboard to Koons’s international recognition, which would reach new levels with his subsequent series, Banality—in which the jilted pig made its own resurgent appearance—and Made in Heaven.
In his recollection of the dilemma he endured, Koons mentions inflating the originals. In the case of Rabbit, this was a callback to his first ‘official’ series of works, the Inflatables of 1979. In this series, a group of inflatable toys were shown on plinths made of right-angled mirrors, most of them flowers. The mirrors were themselves inspired by Robert Smithson’s works. In Rabbit, Koons appears to have fused the DNA of the inflatable toy and its mirror support from 1979, creating a single sculpture. The shape has changed from the original one shown in Inflatable Flower and Bunny: its legs and torso are more bulbous, making it at once cuter—and more phallic. This emphasizes its links to the pared-back aesthetic of the revered Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brâncu?i, who would distill forms down to their barest essence. In his Male Torso, for instance, there is just the inverted Y form of three cylinders—a body and two legs; in Princess X,
the eponymous subject has been converted into what viewers and critics have repeatedly seen as an arcing penis and testicles—her head and breasts reduced to an incredible level of abstraction.
In truth, Koons has carefully worked to avoid accusations of over-abstraction in Rabbit. The wrinkles and creases of the inflatable original have been carefully crafted in steel, giving it a visceral link to the original object while instilling a heady sense of vulnerability. These ripples—themselves prefigured in the bronze version of Brancusi’s Princess X—create plays of light. Like the hanging strips of metal indicating the original plastic ‘leaves’ of the carrot in the bunny’s hand, they also serve as a covenant, inextricably linking Rabbit to its humble origin as a plastic blow-up toy. Thus, while serving as a textural counterpoint, adding a visual drama and dynamism to the ovoid and spherical forms that dominate the composition, they primarily function as minutely-observed details. In this way, Koons subtly insists that this is not a work of abstraction, but instead one of hyperrealism.
In this sense, 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. The vulnerable plastic of the inflatable has been reinforced through Koons’s deft intervention. Stainless steel was a material to which Koons had turned in his previous series, Luxury and Degradation, creating works such as his Jim Beam – J.B. Turner Train, Pail and Baccarat Crystal Set. These were all objets trouvés—found objects—that were then transmogrified by being rendered in shiny steel.
Steel is at once a practical, even proletarian material—one with which Koons had long associations, having been raised in York, Pennsylvania, a small city which prospered in part because of the local steel industry. Crucially, as well as being strong and useful, stainless 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 a 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” (J. Koons, quoted in A. Haden-Guest, “Interview: Jeff Koons,” pp. 12-36, A. Muthesius (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 22). In this way, Rabbit and its fellow sculptures in Statuary paved the way for the aesthetic that would see Koons continue to evoke the visual theatrics of European church interiors in Banality and Made in Heaven.
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. Thus, in Luxury and Degradation, the series that immediately preceded Statuary, he explored the mechanics of the alcohol industry and the way they tap into and manipulate people’s aspirations in order, ultimately, to peddle booze. It was in this series that Koons had first invoked stainless steel in his sculptures, hinting at both its democratic side, and the fact that it is not a precious metal, however utilitarian it may be. Earlier, in Equilibrium, Koons had explored the way that success in sports was explored and exploited as a vehicle for social change, especially in the African American community. Crucially, he was pointing out the irony both of the slender hope of salvation through basketball, and the fact that he himself, as an artist, was using these images as a rung in the ladder as he carried on in his own upward trajectory through the art world. This was the commodity culture of the contemporary art scene laid bare. Yet the suspended basketballs and the bronze Aqualung alike also acted as promises of support, of salvation.
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 leveler and as a deliberately flawed signifier of wealth. “Statuary presents a panoramic view of society,” Koons 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” (J. Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 224).
The various elements in Statuary occupy places across the strata of society and taste: from the inflatable toy of Rabbit to the old-school humor of Bob Hope to the extravagance and decadence of France’s ‘Sun King’ to the titillation of Doctor’s Delight, and so on… The objects range from treasures to gewgaws and everything in between. Koons ceased to use readymades in the series that followed, yet he continued to explore their aesthetic in his own works, creating confections which deliberately invoked kitsch in Banality and Made in Heaven. In the latter series, sculptures of flowers, cherubs and puppies were paired with others showing Koons making love to his then-wife in a series of lavishly explicit photographs, with some of their sex acts celebrated in three dimensions, on large scale, in materials such as polychrome wood, marble and glass. Koons was encouraging his viewers not to allow the structures and strictures of taste to keep them down, but to indulge their guilty pleasures, and indeed expunge any sense of guilt in the first place. As he has explained, “Art is a form of self-help that can instill a sense of confidence in the viewer” (J. Koons, quoted in R. Koolhaas & H.U. Obrist, “Interview,” pp. 61-84, Jeff Koons: Retrospective, exh.cat., Oslo, 2004, p. 61).
It is this self-help aspect that makes stainless steel such a perfect material for Rabbit and its fellow works. As Koons explained, “Polishing the metal lent it a desirous surface, but also one that gave affirmation to the viewer. And this is also the sexual part - it’s about affirming the viewer, telling him, ‘You exist!’ When you move, it moves. The reflection changes. If you don’t move, nothing happens. Everything depends on you, the viewer. And that’s why I work with it. It has nothing to do with narcissism” (Koons, quoted in I. Graw, “‘There Is No Art in It’: Isabelle Graw in Conversation with Jeff Koons,” pp. 75-83, M. Ulrich (ed.), Jeff Koons: The Painter, exh. cat., Frankfurt, 2012, p. 78). Rabbit, then, embraces the viewer in its reflective surface. Like the tree in the forest, it is activated by our presence.
As a sculpture, Rabbit is Koons’s avatar. It stands in for Koons specifically, and for the artist in general, a miniaturized authority figure on a plinth. Mute with its ‘mouthlessness,’ but with its ears firmly pointed towards us, Rabbit 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. As he explained to Matthew Collings only half a decade after Rabbit was created, Koons saw Rabbit 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” (J. Koons, quoted in M. Collings, “Jeff Koons Interviewed by Matthew Collings,” pp. 39-47, A. Papadakes (ed.), Pop Art Symposium, London, 1991, p. 42).
Rabbit stands out from the Statuary crowd, as it also prefigures what has since become one of Koons’s best-known and best-loved series of works: 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. In this, it taps into one of the most recurrent themes in Koons’s work: the role of air or breath as a representation of life. Explaining this with reference to the pool toys so meticulously reproduced in painted for his series, Popeye, Koons stated, “When you take a deep breath, it’s a symbol of life and of optimism, and when you take your last breath, that last exhale is a symbol of death. If you see an inflatable deflated, it’s a symbol of death. These are the opposite” (J. Koons, quoted in J. Peyton-Jones & H.U. Obrist, “Jeff Koons in Conversation,” pp. 67- 75, Peyton-Jones, Obrist & K. Rattee (ed.), Jeff Koons: Popeye Series, exh. cat., London, 2009, p. 71). Be it in the early Inflatables, in the vacuum cleaners shown in his earlier series The New, in the bronze boats and diving equipment of Equilibrium or the balloons of Celebration, this invocation of breath has been a constant for Koons.
Rabbit, then, transcends its own limitations. It is a signifier that launches the viewer on an endless journey of association, tumbling down a 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. It is only too apt that the last time this version of Rabbit was shown in public, over three decades ago, it was in a show entitled The Sleep of Reason. This phrase was taken from one of Francisco Goya’s caprichos, showing a sleeping artist beset by a tumult of beastly chimeras. “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” an inscription on the picture declares. However, Goya’s own explanation is more in tune with Rabbit: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”