'I was walking down Fifth Avenue and I saw in a liquor store this train that was made out of plastic and porcelain. It was a Jim Beam train. What caught my interest was the possibility to transform it and to cast it in stainless steel and bring it to a mirror finish, but to also maintain the soul of the piece, which was the liquor inside. So after the train was cast, it was sent back to Jim Beam where they refilled each car with a fifth of Bourbon, and the tax-stamp seal was put on. You can drink it and enjoy the bourbon, but you have killed the work of art because you've destroyed the soul of the piece when you break the tax-stamp seal' (J. Koons quoted in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco, 1992, p. 65).
With the gleaming finish of its polished exterior, Jeff Koons' Jim Beam - Baggage Car emanates a shiny, silvery desirability. Its pristine appearance befits its status as part of Koons' famous Luxury and Degradation series, which Koons created and exhibited in 1986. This series, which was shown at the short-lived yet highly-influential International With Monument Gallery, New York where Koons had had his first one-man gallery show the previous year, comprised a range of drinking artefacts appropriated and rendered in stainless steel such as the Jim Beam commemorative train model reincarnated here, as well as a group of posters advertising alcohol, each recreated and framed. In this series of works, Koons was exploring - as the title implied - the extent to which people are degraded by their aspirations towards luxury. Using stainless steel as the great leveller, Koons oversaw the reincarnation of a range of objects ranging from the downright tacky to the decadent, from bourbon bottles to Baccarat. Koons' use of stainless steel as a signifier would continue later that year in his Statuary series, which featured a range of objects immortalised in this eminently practical yet, in artistic terms, seemingly inappropriate metal, including a bust of Louis XIV and the iconic Rabbit.
Jim Beam - Baggage Car occupies an important place within the Luxury and Degradation series, as it perfectly encapsulates Koons' incredible ability to present a raft of concepts within a deceptively simple format. The train carriages that Koons immortalised in steel were based on a collectible produced by Jim Beam which was made of porcelain and plastic. Koons has taken that mundane starting point and granted it a mysterious apotheosis, making it appear almost spiritual with its incredible shine. This is a contemporary reliquary, recalling the religious objects that still attract such veneration in churches today. However, it is a reliquary with a twist: it has been made of stainless steel rather than the silver and gold of religious artefacts, reflecting its very different origins and intentions. 'To me stainless steel is the material of the Proletarian, it's what pots and pans are made of,' Koons has explained. 'It's a very hard material and it's fake luxury. If these pieces were in silver, they would be absolutely boring. They have absolutely no desire to be in silver; they could not communicate in silver' (J. Koons quoted in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco, 1992, p. 65).
It is in terms of content as well as material that Jim Beam - Baggage Car appeals to the masses: instead of containing some relic that might be hoped to intercede in spiritual salvation, it contains Jim Beam bourbon. Unlike the promises of the church, then, the salvation that this reliquary contains is temporary, can leave a hangover and can lead to our debasement - hence the name of the series, Luxury and Degradation. 'For me, the bourbon was the soul and the tax-stamp seal was like the interface to the soul,' Koons told David Sylvester in interview. 'It was about creating something that you'd desire. I wanted to create work that people would be attracted to' (J. Koons, 2000, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London 2002, p. 340). The spirits, then, are the spirit of the work, and they also ensure that it is desirable. The drink, like the lustre of the steel, is a lure to the viewers, as Koons makes his creation eminently desirable in order to highlight the pitfalls of the advertising and alcohol industries and, by extension, the hierarchies that are at work in the capitalist world in general. Koons is therefore exploring one of the key themes of his entire oeuvre: the extent to which we, and our tastes, are conditioned by the world around us, often for cynical and commercial reasons. Taking the commemorative train and allowing it to transcend its origins by becoming an artwork, Koons was probing the notions of 'good taste' that he feels are used as a weapon in order to keep people in their places. This extends from art to knickknacks to sex, a dimension that would be more overtly explored in his later Made in Heaven series. With its stainless exterior, then, and its alcoholic contents, Jim Beam - Baggage Car allows Koons to hold up a distorted mirror to society.
It is fitting, considering the assault on innocence that the alcohol implies, that the only piece of this sculpture which contains colour - which is not stainless steel - is the tax stamp seal which is revealed when the sliding doors are opened, showing where the contents lie. That sliding door, as well as the tracks upon which the carriage rests, highlights another dimension: Jim Beam - Baggage Car is like a toy. Yet this gleaming plaything has been corrupted by adult tastes and predilections: despite its immaculate exterior, this grown-up version of a toy locomotive carriage contains alcohol, a far cry from the innocence associated with childhood. Indeed, the carriage here is a microcosm for the rites of passage as we pass from childhood: the toy of yesteryear has been elevated into shiny metal; meanwhile, it contains alcohol, a luxury associated with adulthood. Similarly, Koons associates the steel itself with sex, another milestone on the journey into adulthood. 'The surface of my stainless steel pieces is pure sex and gives an object both a masculine and a feminine side: the weight of the steel engages with the femininity of the reflective surface' (J. Koons quoted in S. Coles & R. Violette (eds.), The Jeff Koons Handbook, London 1992, p. 78).