With its smooth, robustly red surface taut and gleaming, Jeff Koons’s virile Lobster is a seductive exemplar of the artist’s universally appealing iconography. Lobster counts itself among the vividly colored sculptures depicting inflatable pool toys and balloon animals for which the artist is best known. Koons impeccably replicates a playful pool float approximating a crustacean in shining stainless steel, topping the sculptural result with a brightly colored transparent coating. Playing with paradox, the artist courts a productive frisson between Lobster’s rigid, durable material—the stuff of architecture and monuments—and its striking resemblance to inflated vinyl objects, susceptible to deflate by a mere pinprick. With his stainless steel inflatables Koons draws out the symbolic significance nested in these mass-produced, hollow, pleasure-oriented objects, even viewing them as a cipher for mankind. In the present work, a buoyant lobster toy morphs into a sleek, sensual vehicle for explorations of such weighty concepts as mortality, sexuality, and transcendence.
Lobster harkens back to an early source of visual and tactile pleasure for many children, a mass-produced commodity that is nothing short of a beloved childhood object: the pool toy. Koons has recalled fondly that in his own childhood, his parents supplied him with a pool float that allowed him to swim on his own and thus had a “liberating effect” on him. The pool toy is at once literally floatable and metaphorically buoyant in the youthful optimism that its light, cartoonish form conveys. Koons has said, “I think of the inflatables as anthropomorphic, we are ourselves inflatables, we take a breath, we expand; we contract, our last breath in life, our deflation” (J. Koons quoted in S. Murg, “Jeff Koons: We Are Ourselves Inflatables,” August 6, 2009). Lobster, then, has eternal life as it is forever frozen in a moment of perfect, taut inflation. On one level, the work immortalizes childhood optimism.
A lobster pool toy would be a source of joy and sensory stimulation for any child; Koons bulks up the youthful delight of an oversized blow-up lobster with more adult pleasures. While the gleaming inflatable is certainly tied up with the commodity fetish, the artist has also noted that “there is a huge sexual fetish thing on the Web for pool toys” (J. Koons quoted in S. Thornton, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, W.W. Norton & Company, November 2014, n.p.). Particularly erotic due to its engorged tumescence, Lobster is an intentionally gender-fluid object of desire. Koons has expounded, “If you look at [Lobster’s] arms, very strong, but they could be fallopian tubes and its body could be the womb. If you look at its tail, it’s almost like a stripper with a boa doing a feather dance, and also has tentacles that look like Dali’s mustache” (J. Koons quoted in N. Hartvig, “’It’s Somebody Having Sex’: Jeff Koons Bares the Subject of His Art in Brussels,” The Huffington Post, December 15 2012). Lobster additionally nods to Salvador Dali, a hero of Koons’s, in its symbolism. Dali frequently featured lobsters in his works as sexually charged symbols. Koons has suggested that Lobster pays tribute to Dali’s canonical Surrealist work, the 1936 Lobster Telephone, an absurdist piece in which the artist affixed a rubber lobster to a telephone receiver. Lobster, and much of Koons’s oeuvre, is also clearly influenced by the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, to which they bring an invigorating Post-Pop slant.
Koons is one of the few contemporary artists who has become a household name. He first began working with vinyl inflatable objects in 1978 shortly after his arrival in New York City. Combing through the bins of discount shops on New York’s Lower East Side, Koons selected inflatable objects that he presented along with mirrors, “parodying the chaste rationality of minimalist sculptures” (P. Schjeldahl, “Selling Points,” The New Yorker, July 7, 2007). In the 1980s Koons further developed his inflatable oeuvre with groundbreaking cast metal readymade versions of inflatable toys such as his 1986 Rabbit. These earlier works laid the groundwork for, among others, the Popeye sculptures, the series in which the lobster made its first appearance. Begun by Koons in 2002, the Popeye sculptures include depictions of inflatable dolphins, lobsters, and monkeys. The artist’s clarity of vision and commitment to an almost clinical level of meticulousness in his artistic process are wholly evident in Lobster. While Lobster has the appearance of a genial plastic exterior, the mirror-polished stainless steel of which it is made is also the material basis for many impeccable works of Minimalist sculpture. A complex, multilayered piece, Lobster is both a replica of a commercial product that is made for the sole purpose of bringing joy and a stunning, technically perfect sculpture with a sophisticated philosophical and art historical orientation. Lobster visually and emotionally seduces with immediate impact while maintaining the rich conceptual complexity that makes a viewer linger.