Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
Jeff Koons (b. 1955)

Small Vase of Flowers

Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
Small Vase of Flowers
numbered and dated '1991 1/3' (on the underside)
polychromed wood
37½ x 55¼ x 37½in. (95 x 140 x 95cm.)
Executed in 1991, this work is number one from an edition of three, plus one artist's proof
Galerie Max Hetzler, Cologne.
Anon. sale, Christie's New York, 11 May 2005, lot 47.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
A. Muthesius and B. Riemschnedier (eds.), Erotik in der Kunst, Cologne 1992 (illustrated, p. 127).
A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992, no. 25 (illustrated in colour, p. 145).
Cologne, Galerie Max Hetzler and New York, Sonnabend Gallery, Made in Heaven, November-December 1991.
Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Zeitsprunge: Künstlerische Positionen der 80er Jahre, January-February 1993 (illustrated in colour, p. 51).
Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, Jeff Koons Retrospective, 1993 (on extended loan).
Hamburg, Kunsthalle, Family Values: American Art in the Eighties and Nineties, 1996 (illustrated, p. 8 and p. 99).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jeff Koons Andy Warhol Flowers, November-December 2002 (illustrated, p. 29 and p. 31).


Executed in 1991, Small Vase of Flowers bursts with energy, exuberance and extravagance. In this sculpture, Jeff Koons has deliberately pushed and tested the boundaries of what is accepted as 'good taste'. The incredible craftsmanship of the piece, which has been laboriously carved out of wood and coloured, is clear for all to see in the intricate detailing with which each bloom has been captured. This is contemporary Rococo, an over-the-top explosion of colour and devoid of any sense of restraint except that of the already sizeable vase. This is the result of the marriage between Baroque traditions and Walt Disney iconography. These too-perfect flowers are those of dreams, of nostalgia, of advertising, of some impossible perfect world - of some fictitious Paradise of perfect foliage. And it is thus significant that it forms a part of Koons' celebrated and notorious Made in Heaven series.

Koons' assault on notions of taste and beauty has been enacted over the years with a mixture of glee and deliberation. He combines wit, entertainment and solid beliefs together, penetrating the world of ideas through an onslaught of visual and sensory overload. The flowers here are psychedelic in their intensity. A bold iconoclastic verve informs the deliberate kitsch content here on such shameless display. And Koons is seeking precisely to push his viewers beyond their received concepts of taste:

'I've tried to make work that any viewer, no matter where they came from, would have to respond to, would have to say that on some level 'Yes, I like it.' If they couldn't do that, it would only be because they had been told they were not supposed to like it. Eventually they will be able to strip all that down and say 'You know, it's silly, but I like that piece. It's great' (Koons, quoted in The Jeff Koons Handbook, S. Coles & R. Violette (eds.), London, 1992, p. 112).

This itself is a reaction to Koons' supposition that, 'The artworld uses taste as a form of segregation. I was trying to make a body of work that anybody could enjoy' (Koons, quoted in A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 30). This is clear in the sheer blooming fun and intensity of Small Vase of Flowers. Koons is encouraging his viewers to abandon themselves to a state of rediscovered innocence, of prelapsarian grace. 'The door to the eternal is open to everyone through generosity,' states Koons, and what could be more generous than this bursting bunch of radiant flowers? 'Generosity makes fear disappear, and when fear is gone, guilt and shame follow: one is liberated' (Koons, quoted in Coles & Violette, op.cit., 1992, p. 35).

This liberation comes through the flagrant disregard of common ideas of beauty, but ideas that nonetheless have a firm rooting both in the past and in the present, especially in the church decoration of the Baroque era. 'I use the Baroque to show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal,' he explained, highlighting the role of sculptures such as Small Vase of Flowers in his artistic campaign. 'The church uses the Baroque to manipulate and seduce, but in return it does give the public a spiritual experience. My work deals in the vocabulary of the Baroque' (Koons, quoted in Muthesius, op.cit., 1992, p. 158). In order to make this explicit in both the medium and the message of Small Vase of Flowers, Koons even commissioned craftsmen - he refers to them as 'fabricators' - in Oberammergau in Germany and Ortisei in Italy, two places where the centuries-old Baroque traditions of carving were alive and well, to execute this work and its sister-sculptures. The use of these skilled sculptors works in several ways. It results in some of the thematic content of Small Vase of Flowers being reflected in the actual process of creation, and also results in Koons' sculpture being crafted to the highest degree of perfection, allowing his idea to take an ideal form.

In the context of notions of the Baroque, of shame and of church decoration, this sculpture's place in the Made in Heaven series becomes all the more explicable and all the more crucial. For this was a series of works that largely revolved around intensely explicit images and sculptures of the artist and his then wife, Ilona Staller, better known as La Cicciolina, engaged in various sexual activities. These works again embraced the kitsch wholesale, presenting their motifs against backgrounds of foliage, interiors resembling wedding cakes in their ornamentation, and a panoply of vivid colours. In amongst the works exhibited under this title were also sculptures of cute and cuddly puppies, and of course flowers such as the present work. To Koons, the destruction of the traditional and constricting boundaries of taste is linked to the removal of shame, be it in terms of beauty or of sex.

After all, sex is a natural process. Koons was removing the taints of imposed associations, liberating his viewers and himself from imposed associations of guilt and shame. And the flowers play a part in this. They are on the one hand the Baroque reinforcement of the overspilling beauty of the Made in Heaven series, and on the other hand are the conceptual reinforcement. For they illustrate the role of sex in every level of nature, illustrating Koons' statement that, 'I believe the way to enter the eternal is through the biological' (Koons, quoted in Coles & Violette, op.cit., 1992, p. 35). The flowers, like the puppies, demonstrate this through their existence. They bring the viewer's attention to the biological equivalency of the act, be it in the worlds of fauna or of flora. Plants, animals and humans have all secured the existence of subsequent generations through sexual reproduction, just as we owe our existence to it. And the flowers illustrate this sexual theme and sexual chain in other ways. In Small Vase of Flowers, the stamens and carpels, the male and female elements of the flowers, are on a display almost as explicit as the photographs of the artist and La Cicciolina in the Made in Heaven series. Indeed, Koons himself commented of a sister-sculpture that the flowers, 'are very sexual and fertile, and at the same time they are 140 assholes' (Koons, quoted in ibid., p. 126).

The year after Small Vase of Flowers was created, Koons unleashed his famous Puppy to the world. This was a monumental model of a dog that was covered in various types of real blooming flower. This invocation of the life cycle was an inversion of the Small Vase of Flowers, which is made out of wood. And in being made of wood, and therefore out of flora that has died in order that it can take this new form, be resurrected and reincarnated as an ever-blooming bouquet. Again, the medium reinforces the message. The dead wood becomes a symbol of life. Where in Dutch Old Master paintings flowers appeared as a form of memento mori, so they do here, but they have been given a momentum, a verve, that is life-embracing, positive, optimistic, celebrating eternity. And this joyful aspect reflects Koons' own warm, personal associations with the theme: '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, 157).