In his typically provocative and enigmatic manner, Jeff Koons describes his polychrome, carved wood bouquet of spring flowers: "In the Large Vase of Flowers there are 140 flowers. They are very sexual and fertile, and at the same time they are 140 assholes." (In: J. Koons, 'The Jeff Koons Handbook', London and New York 1992, p.126.) Created in 1991, the 'Large Vase of Flowers' is included by the artist himself in his (in)famous series 'Made in Heaven' (1989-1992), near pornographic self-portraits in various sexual acts with his then wife, the Italian porn star Cicciolina. The 'Flowers' are, of course, of a much more subtle nature, as are several other works from the series, includung the self-portrait bust in pure white marble, the 'Yorkshire Terriers', and the 'Cherubs', all from 1991, as well as the glass 'Mound of Flowers' from 1992. Skillfully carved in wood and painted by European artisans, the multicoloured, sentimental 'Flowers' demand to be treated with the same artistic care and art historical attention accorded to the still life paintings of the Old Masters.
In all of his works, Koons embraces the blatantly non-art forms of popular culture with an almost emancipatory zeal. In discussing his work, the artist proclaimed: "I was telling the Bourgeois to embrace the things it likes, the things it responds to. For example, when you were a young child and you went to your grandmother's place and she had this little knickknack, that's inside you, and that's part of you. Embrace it, don't try to erase it... Don't divorce yourself from your true being, embrace it. That's the only way that you can truly move on to become a new upper class and not move backwards." (In: 'Jeff Koons', San Francisco 1992, unpaged.)
Flowers, as symbols of purity, beauty and vanity, as well as of everyday kitsch and guady middle-class aesthetics, feature in the work of Jeff Koons from the very beginning. One of his first series of works, the 'Inflatable Flowers' of 1979, takes not only dime-store aesthetics as its theme, but also cleverly translates the traditional role of the still-life as a 'memento mori' - that is to say, something that reminds us that all beauty is transient and that each and every one of us will one day die - into modern terms. The delicate vinyl of the inflatable flowers is never hermetic enough to keep in the ephemeral air that supports it internally. With the 'Large Vase of Flowers', the association to classical still life painting with its tradition of Vanitas is even stronger. Images of Flemish still life motifs quickly come to mind.
Like his Pop Art precedents, Koons recognises the expressive potential in the awkward symbiosis of art and popular culture. Nevertheless, the pseudo-mechanical finishes and deadpan presentation of Andy Warhol's soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein's comic strips, for example, contrast strikingly with Koons' hand-crafted, hyper-sentimental subjects. Rather than celebrate or criticise cool commercial culture, Koons taps into the fetishistic desires driven by the human need for unconditional love, here symbolised by the Hallmark card sentimentality of a 'Large Vase of Flowers', a universal emblem of love and affection.