'I have always enjoyed flowers. Since taking art lessons as a child, I have had flowers in my work. I always like the sense that a flower just displays itself. The viewer always finds grace in a flower. Flowers are a symbol that life goes forward' (Koons, quoted in M. Codognato & E. Geuna (ed.), Jeff Koons, exh.cat., Naples, 2003, p. 157).
Jeff Koons' Celebration series is aptly named. Looking at the gleaming and vast perfection of Balloon Flower (Magenta), the ultimate Koonsian trophy, one cannot help but be awed and enthused by the mixture of humour, beauty and humanity, as well as the crazy scale. Koons has taken a childlike vision, blown it up in size and cast it in seemingly indestructible steel, a far cry from the fragile membrane of the all-too-burstable balloons it is based on. The dignity, the formal beauty, of this glistening mass of curves is gleefully deflated by its deliberately infantile subject matter. Balloon Flower (Magenta) is a monument to nostalgia and to the wide-eyed awe with which children see the world. And, as is so often the case with Koons' works, it is so much more: Balloon Flower (Magenta) provides the viewer with a thrilling and sensuous image of the pristine that is at the same time rife with strange tensions between lightness and weight, between the ephemeral and the eternal, even between irony and earnestness, and with references to childhood and, to top it all, to sexuality.
It is fitting that the flower should play such a seminal role in the
Celebration series, as it has long been a recurring character or subject in Koons work. As early as 1979, he had taken inflatable flowers and placed them on mirrors, using a Duchampian readymade technique to take something all too cheap and perishable and grant it some strange apotheosis, to some degree prefiguring the creation of Balloon Flower (Magenta). Later, he created Puppy, the vast sculpture of a dog covered in turf and live flowers; originally placed outside the Castle of Arolsen in Germany, this work proved so popular that it was 'reincarnated' in other venues again and again over the years.
It was the appearance of the Vases of Flowers in the Made in Heaven series-- which also featured many images of the artist in sexually explicit poses with his former wife-- that cut to the heart of their place within Koons' iconography and philosophy. For flowers are considered innocent and pretty yet there, for all to see, are their stamens and carpels, their reproductive organs. The entire nature of procreation is on display in all of these flowers, be they Disney-like, balloon-like or live. This is clearly the case in Balloon Flower (Magenta), in the petals, stem and carpel and also in its strange undulating and penetrating forms. Here, as in so much of Koons' work, there are phallic and vaginal elements, as well as the womb-like, egg-like sense of containment of the (paradoxically phallic) balloons themselves, while the colour-- a reddish magenta-- itself introduces associations with flesh as well as fuchsias. With the curves and crevices of its surface, the flowing forms of Balloon Flower (Magenta) lead the eye on a sensuous tour that invokes its strange and intoxicating sexuality. Even the tension introduced by our consciousness of the little pin-prick with which a 'real' balloon flower would have burst and been destroyed has a sexual dimension to it, as was made all the more explicit in the PVC Inflatable Balloon Flowers that Koons made in 1997.
For Koons, the flower is the ultimate symbol of the cycle of life, something that we should all embrace, and it is through sex that life is perpetuated. Balloon Flower (Magenta) is a zany and glitzy celebration of reproduction, an invitation for us all to shed any sense of shame about the urges that have kept humanity alive through time, to indulge in our own Made in Heaven moments and approach the state of innocence that Koons himself has sought. 'Sexuality is the principal object of art,' he has stated. 'It's about the preservation of the species. Procreation is a priority. But this also has a spiritual aspect for me. It's about the way that we have children' (Koons, quoted in H. Bellet, 'Jeff Koons : 'La sexualité, c'est l'objet principal de l'art'', in Le Monde, 30 August 2005, reproduced at www.lemonde.fr, trans. C.T. Downey).
Flowers, in Koons' work, are less associated with death-- as was so often the case in the memento mori of the Old Masters-- than with the joy of life and the joy of sex. With his customary panache, Koons is encouraging mankind to shed fig-leaves and shame and to work a way back into the Garden of Eden, to discard the entire notion of Original Sin and its equivalents that has filtered, as though by osmosis, into so many parts of life and sections of society. Sex, for Koons, is a form of worship, a way of both celebrating and continuing life: 'I believe the way to enter the eternal is through the biological' (Koons, quoted in The Jeff Koons Handbook, ed. S. Coles & R. Violette, London, 1992, p. 35).
The associations between flowers and reproduction make them a perfect theme for the Celebration series. For as well as encapsulating the entire process of procreation in their very being-- in the lurid and colourful display of reproductive organs-- flowers are also offered as gifts in romantic gestures that in many cases are intended to be precursors to the human equivalents of those very same acts of procreation...
For Koons, there are great links, and indeed parallels, between man and flower. While flowers have their annual cycle, blooming, mating or suffering according to their fragility and to the rigours of the seasons, so too do humans, but our year is made of strange markers, many of them associated with life and with sex: Valentine's Day, anniversaries, Spring... And all these events can involve flowers, either as a gift or as a backdrop. And those gifts may set a ball rolling, and may even result in birth, in the creation of children, new innocents set to wonder at the alchemy by which forms spring to life in the balloon sculptures of the parties of tomorrow. The fact that the Celebration series presents the viewer with objects seen as though from a child's innocent and unformed perspective, invoking our renewed amazement, is a call to the viewer to be at one with oneself. And it is made all the more emphatic by the fact that childhood is such a key element, and sometimes result, of the entire dialogue that Balloon Flower (Magenta) introduces.
When faced with the huge Balloon Flower (Magenta), all of us are made to feel like children. The sculpture dwarfs us, and in addition is so shiny, so fascinating and so evocative of childhood, of birthday parties, of clowns making balloon sculptures, that it sets off a range of triggers in the viewer's mind. Analysis gives way to emotion and memory; our notions of good taste and high art are willingly cast aside as we are confronted with this perfect embodiment of the disposable ephemera from countless parties, circuses and fairs from decades ago, rendered in gleaming steel, towering above us with statuesque dignity, purpose and permanence.
Koons' interest in creating Balloon Flower (Magenta) and the other works in the Celebration series came about in part because he was able to witness the wonderment felt by his own children as they experience the world for the first time through new and innocent eyes. 'My son was born in October 1992,' he explained. 'Immediately I became interested in a lot of images I came across, the packaging of toys, a playful rabbit-- things that I enjoyed again. I had used a lot of these images in the past. I started the Celebration series without a title. My son used to come into the studio while I was working on Hanging Heart.' Later, when his son was separated from him, 'the work fell into an area where I felt that I wanted my son to feel how much I was thinking of him' (Koons, quoted in T. Kellein (ed.), Jeff Koons: Pictures 1980-2002, exh.cat., Bielefeld, 2002, p. 28). In this sense, the Celebrations show Koons immersing himself in his son's perspective.
While the ideas for some of the works had already occurred to Koons, the way in which they coalesced into the Celebration series came about almost by chance. Koons was working on an idea for a calendar which would feature various celebratory images, some of them made from balloons, some of them with associations that were linked to different times of the year. While he was contemplating his various themes, he began to realise that there was immense potential in this idea. As an artist who has always interested himself in notions of the cycle of life, the landmarks by which we define our year (Valentine's, Easter, birthdays, Christmas and so forth) chimed perfectly as prompts for a new series of works, all the more so as they reflected his growing awareness of these events as he experienced them anew through the eyes of his children. And so now new glistening sculptures and strikingly intense and hyperreal paintings sprung into existence, depicting a Hanging Heart, a Diamond, a Balloon Dog, Tulips, Cracked Egg and so forth. Each of these, be it in two or three dimensions, had an intensity that was beyond the real, be it through the lustre of the surface or through the composition of the painting. Balloon Flower (Magenta) is the marker of a romantic moment, of a gift of flowers, of the coming Spring.
Within the Celebration works, the balloon 'idiom' through which some of the themes have been brought into existence, straddling the gap between our universe and the Koonsian cosmogony, has great implications in itself. In each of these works, the notion of the balloon, of the container of human breath, has profound ramifications as Koons asks us all to take nothing for granted, to appreciate the very stuff of life. Breath is a life force. Breath is one of the crucial fuels that keep us going, and recurs throughout Koons' works, be it in Aqualung or inflatables, in lung-like hoovers or even the air-filled basketballs of Equilibrium. Regardless of the solidity of the steel in Balloon Flower (Magenta), the viewer cannot help but associate the balloon with the potential to burst, with vulnerability, and indeed with mortality. When one considers the perishability of the balloon sculptures of the parties and circuses of our childhoods, the way that they wrinkled and lost their form, one finds that Koons has smuggled some notion of the memento mori into his Celebration series. Death and funerals are events too, the all-too-final landmarks in human life cycles. But looking at Balloon Flower (Magenta), the viewer is left wondering whether Koons is frankly facing the reality of death, or whether the fact that he has created a vast and effectively indestructible, immortal balloon sculpture shows him cheating it to some degree. As is so often the case in the work of the earnest yet inscrutable Koons, answers are elusive. Just as we are reflected in the surface of Balloon Flower (Magenta), so too are our questions and answers reflections of the baggage that we bring. Sure, the flower and the balloon both have a sense of the seasonal that extends to humanity; but the overriding theme here is simple: this is a huge and exuberant celebration of Life with a big L.
To say that the Celebration works sprung into existence would be misleading, and would be to ignore a large part of what has become one of the best-known sagas of the art world. For while the works were begun in many cases in the mid-1990s, various problems conspired to mean that the project underwent some serious delays-- indeed, while Balloon Flower (Magenta) was one of the first of the Celebration works to be completed, some other sculptures from the series are still being manufactured to this day. Rumours abounded that Koons had been over-exacting in his demands for the quality of the finished sculptures and that this had caused delays, and indeed that the degree to which the research he encouraged in order to perfect the finish he desired resulted in his bankruptcy; other rumours focussed on his private life. While each of these stories had a kernel of truth, they were only a part of the problem, as the artist himself explained to David Sylvester in 2000:
'What happened with Celebration is that originally it wasn't going to be a huge body of work. And for a variety of reasons, it developed into a larger body of work that was going to be exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York. So the project demanded more work and time than a normal gallery exhibition. But we ran into financial problems. It's not that I didn't do my work, or that I was being too obsessive about my work. At the end of the day, the problem came down to increased costs for fabrication that were beyond our control. David, I believe in art morally. When I make an artwork, I try to use craft as a way, hopefully, to give the viewer a sense of trust. I never want anybody to look at a painting, or to look at a sculpture, and to lose trust in it somewhere' (Koons, 2000, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, pp. 335-36).
The absolute pristine perfection of the surface of Balloon Flower (Magenta) and its sister-works was the culmination of arduous research and development both in Koons' studio and in the foundries and companies with which he has worked so tirelessly. This coloured finish is the product of a specialised process by which the pigment is held under an exterior coat and above the flawlessly-polished, hyper-reflective steel. The end result is that Balloon Flower (Magenta) is an exceptionally beautiful object, with its jaw-dropping, mind-boggling visual impression induced by the combination of the immaculate gleam of the finish and those flawless, flowing curves and crannies. Content aside, in formal terms Balloon Flower (Magenta) marks a new pinnacle of sculpture as an entire medium, discipline and tradition.
It is strange to think that Balloon Flower (Magenta) itself had a remarkably humble inception, yet one that hints at Koons' strange dual status as artist and entertainer: 'I started “Balloon Flower” in 1995, and I blew up different balloons, and I chose the one that I felt was the most special,' he told Amy Cappellazzo. He had actually researched balloon sculpting in advance:
'I looked at the little manual. And actually it was through... making balloon dogs, and just enjoying these other shapes. I thought, you know, I want to make a flower, this is beautiful... So, when this form seemed so beautiful to me, we scanned it, and then we had it enlarged into foam, then we skimmed the foam with resin, and I would re-do things, I would move things, and re-check my measurements, and this went on for a couple years until... we finished our model.'
This is an indication of the quest for perfection that lies behind Balloon Flower (Magenta), both in terms of its composition and the quest for the glimmer of its finish. It was at this point that the model was sent to Arnold, the company in Germany who cast Balloon Flower (Magenta), allowing Koons the exceptionally high quality of surface that he desired.
To Koons, perfection in art is all-important. Imperfections are distractions. In terms of its lustrous finish and its scale, Balloon Flower (Magenta) has an immaculacy that verges on the spiritual, on the unearthly, as is only appropriate for an artist so intrigued by the art of the Baroque and the Rococo, and so concerned with almost religious subjects such as innocence. In creating a sculpture with an unblemished surface, Koons avoids material distractions. The viewer is faced not only with a sculpture, but also with the artist's idea itself; the quality of the workmanship and its invisibility (something which Koons is all too aware he could not achieve himself, hence his reliance on 'Fabricants') result in a covenant between Koons and his audience, a form of pledge and trust. It is not just a balloon flower that we see, but the balloon flower, an almost Platonic archetype. Koons has explained that even its size is intended to give that sense of some heavenly ur-flower, a balloon sculpture of the mind:
'archetypes are really things that help everyone survive in the world. So they are bigger than everybody. That is the reason for their scale. It is not to intimidate at all, it's more that I love vanilla ice cream so instead of a little scoop I make a big scoop' (Koons, quoted in T. Nichols Goodeve, 'Euphoric Enthusiasm: Jeff Koons's Celebrations', pp. 88-93, Parkett, no. 50/51, 1997, p. 90).
With its colossal scale, this giant-size 'toy' balloon bursts from the dimension of archetypes into our world in its shining perfection.
Koons' achievement in managing to hold out for a surface that fitted his own strict criteria is immense. With its fully reflective exterior, Balloon Flower (Magenta) is a modern, consumer, post-Pop, mass media-friendly reincarnation of the pared-back elegance and simplicity of the sculptures of Constantin Brancusi. This is pure form at its most supine and evocative. And it is made slightly less worldly, regardless of its origins in the children's parties and balloon sculptures of yore, by the shifting, shimmering mirror finish, which extends the covenant with the viewer by including us on the surface of the work, albeit in distorted form, while conversely preventing us from being able to inspect it properly-- our eye glides along it or is tricked into looking at the depth of the reflection, leaving us unable to gain a true perception of its appearance. There is something ungraspable and ineffable about Balloon Flower (Magenta) despite its mundane subject. Koons has introduced a provocative sense of the uncanny in the tension between the worldliness of the balloon sculpture and the overall other-worldliness, not least of its mirage-like gleam. It lies tantalisingly beyond our comprehension, like some wry religious mystery.
That the surface of Balloon Flower (Magenta) is pristine makes it almost holy. Like Brancusi's Le commencement du monde, there is a sense of the unspoilt and of infinite potential. This is not just other-worldly, then, but un-worldly. Koons has long sought to bring his viewers to a state of purity, of shamelessness, of innocence, and this has increased his interest in the perspective of children. The image of the balloon flower recalls our own days before age, education and possibly a smattering of cynicism conditioned us; by encouraging us to revel in the kitsch, supersized, over-the-top Balloon Flower (Magenta), Koons is pushing us to abandon all the 'taste' that we have so painstakingly acquired over the years. 'I very strongly do not believe in the sophisticated or important and I never try to present myself as a sophisticated or important person,' Koons has declared. 'I have no place for these things in my life. They segregate people' (Koons, quoted in A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 24).
To remove this segregation, Koons appeals to one of humanity's great, uniting, lowest common denominators: we were all children. It is in terms of sexuality and also in terms of taste, in terms of art, that Koons appreciates the perspective of unsullied youth, as he has explained:
'I have a son, and art is such a wonderful experience to be able to watch occur in young children. My work has continued to go in this direction. It's about being able to create a work that helps liberate people from judgement. First of all, the art has to make them feel that it isn't making any judgement on them. Then, it has to free them to have the confidence to understand that judgement being placed on them in life is irrelevant; there's no place for it' (Koons, 2000, quoted in Sylvester, op.cit., 2002, pp. 334-35).
For Koons, art is tied up with his children, and with his own childhood. One of his epiphanies was the snap, crackle and pop of the art on the back of packets of breakfast cereal:
'visually you can't get tired of the box. I mean, you sit there, and you look at the front, and you look at the back. Then maybe the next day you pull out that box again, and you're just still amazed by it; you never tire of the amazement. You know, all of life is like that or can be like that. It's just about being able to find amazement in things. I think it's easy for people to feel connected to that situation of not tiring of looking at something over and over again, and not feeling any sense of boredom, but feeling interest. Life is amazing, and visual experience is amazing' (Koons, ibid., p. 334).
It is this same amazement that Koons encourages with Balloon Flower (Magenta). While there may be layers of meaning, while there may be sexual dimensions and even a dialogue of the cycle of life and the fact of death, the physical presence of this sculpture pushes much of that aside and prompts amazement as we stand, Lilliputian, before the massive perfected embodiment and reincarnation of the half-formed memories of our own youth. Balloon Flower (Magenta) is big, it is fun, it is deliberately childish, and above all, it is most certainly a celebration.