Part of the same Statuary series as Rabbit, his masterpiece, Flowers is widely regarded as one of Koons' defining works of the 1980s. The gleaming, sheer stainless steel Flowers, created in 1986, perfectly combines the unique mix of iconoclasm, irreverence, art historical reference and moral commentary that makes the work of Jeff Koons so distinctive and engaging. This sculpture has the sheen of silver, a luxury material, and yet is in reality made from steel, a material that Koons deliberately selected because of its domestic and even proletarian qualities. Similarly, the apotheosis that has been undergone by the found-object which served as a model for this sculpture, apparently a form of floral tureen, when it was transformed into steel means that its origins are somewhat muddied: was this a luxury item or a piece of kitsch? Koons has managed to present the viewer with a strange cipher which straddles the realms of the Rococo, Pop and pulp.
That mystery lies at the heart of Flowers' impact as a work of art. For this work forms part of Koons' Statuary series, in which Koons took diverse source objects in order to create, in uniform stainless steel, a range of sculptures of Louis XIV of France, Bob Hope, trolls, sexy nurses, his famous Rabbit and of course flowers. Koons created the Statuary series after being asked to take part in a four-artist exhibition being held by Ileana Sonnabend at her gallery in SoHo; this show would come to be seen as one of the defining moments in the creation of the so-called Neo-Geo movement which saw a concerted push against the Neo-Expressionism so dominant during the period. Looking at Flowers, one can see the vast gulf that divides it from that movement. Crucially, that exhibition also came to mark a breakthrough for Koons himself, who shifted from the more underground art scene of the East Village into a more mainstream arena. It was in part in expectation of this new audience that he selected his deliberately panoramic themes in Statuary, covering many bases, showing his customary sensitivity to mass media and its byproducts. While Koons was establishing himself in this new forum, he made sure that he retained a link to his past work. This was openly demonstrated in the now-iconic Rabbit from the Statuary series, which was based directly on his 1976 readymade, Inflatable Flower and Bunny. While Flowers was based on another found object rather than that early inflatable, it likewise shows a continuation of a theme that he had tackled earlier in his career and to which he would return again and again, for instance in his Made in Heaven and Celebration series.
In Statuary, Koons was trying to create an almost authoritative panorama of art and its uses through the ages, showing his continued fascination with the hierarchies of taste which he had explored to such searing effect in his previous series, Luxury and Degradation and which would be central to the subsequent Banality works, a notorious array that included sculptures of cuddly toys, John the Baptist holding a pig and a large gilded porcelain Michael Jackson. In Statuary, the selection of objects shown on an equal footing, cast in the same material, implies a levelling of the hierarchies of old, with Koons celebrating the equivalency that he perceives in all these subjects and liberating the viewer from the shackles of received notions of taste.
As well as introducing a new form of democratic equality to the art world through his Statuary works, Koons' selection of subjects meant that the series had an anthological quality that allowed it to reflect the different ways in which art exists as an extension of contemporary culture. 'Statuary presents a panoramic view of society,' he explained.
'On one side there is Louis XIV and on the other side there is Bob Hope. If you put art in the hands of the monarch it will reflect his ego and eventually become decorative. If you put art 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' (Koons, quoted in S. Coles & R. Violette (ed.), The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 76).
Certainly, Flowers is decorative, created in a material that shimmers with the illusion of luxury. But that decorative quality is in itself a weapon in Koons' arsenal: Koons deliberately deceives the magpie-like tendencies of the viewer in the modern, consumerist world that we inhabit, allowing him to reveal some of the mechanics that have lurked behind art over the centuries. With this in mind, Koons selected the subjects for the Statuary series with great care, with the monarch at one end of the spectrum, the mass entertainer at the other; Koons himself has explained that Doctor's Delight demonstrates the place that sex has occupied in art, Rabbit illustrates fantasy, Two Kids morality. In terms of these various facets, then, Flowers appears as a fulcrum point, perhaps representing art for art's sake, art as beauty, art as decoration. Flowers is also emphatically in the middle of Koons' 'panorama,' between Bob Hope and Louis, straddling the worlds of luxury and industry alike. It is a passepartout equally at home within the context of so-called High Art or Low Art, and is all the more entertainingly subversive for it.
Partly because of their wide-ranging appeal, their universal place in visual languages going beyond borders of nation, culture or class, and their role in the world of nature, flowers have long played a central role in his work. 'I have always enjoyed flowers,' Koons has said. '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). In this sense, Flowers must be seen not only as a decorative object but also as an embodiment of one of Koons' most perennial themes: that of sex. Flowers are a presented as a gift, they are venerated for their beauty, they are used as comparisons in romantic verse... Yet they also have their reproductive organs on glaring display in the form of their carpels and stamens. While it was in Koons' later Made in Heaven series that he openly explored the subject of attitudes towards sexuality, these themes had already been present for some time, forming an extension of his investigation and critique of hierarchies of taste, class and shame. In Flowers, this dialogue regarding sex, such a necessary element for the continuation of our species, is present in both the message and the medium, even down to the notion of the harmonious, androgynous co-existence of the genders: 'My art has always used sex as a direct communication line to the viewer,' Koons explained. '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' (Koons, quoted in Coles & Violette, op. cit., 1992, p. 78).