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

Buster Keaton

Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
Buster Keaton
numbered and dated 'AP 88' (on the underside of the base)
polychromed wood
66 x 51 x 27 in. (167.6 x 129.5 x 68.6 cm.)
Executed in 1988. This work is the artist's proof outside of an edition of three plus one artist's proof.
Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Private collection, Athens
Anon. sale; Phillips, New York, 11 May 2006, lot 30
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
R. Mahoney, "Miracle on W. Broadway," New York Press, New York, 9 November 1988, p. 15.
K. Levin, "The Evil of Banality," Village Voice, 20 December 1988, p. 115.
"Collaborations, Martin Kippenberger-Jeff Koons," Parkett, no. 19, p. 32 (illustrated).
A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, pp. 119 and 121, no. 21 (illustrated).
J. Koons, The Jeff Koons Handbook, New York, 1992, p. 159.
M. Spiegler, "How Many Buster Keatons Does it Take to Fill an Art Gallery," ArtNews, September 2004, p. 121 (illustrated).
H. W. Holzwarth, Jeff Koons, Köln, 2007, pp. 273-275 (illustrated in color).
H. Bourdeaux-Martin, "Profile-Dominique Levy," Whitewall, Winter 2008, p. 42 (illustrated in color).
Cologne, Galerie Max Hetzler; New York, Sonnabend Gallery and Chicago, Donald Young Gallery, Banality, November 1988.
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art, The Carnegie International, November 1988-January 1989.
Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation, May-August 1989.
Trento, Museum di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, American Art of the Eighties, December 1991-March 1992, p. 60 (illustrated).
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Portland Art Museum; Paris, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; Mexico City, Museo Rufino Tamayo and Miami Art Museum, Let's Entertain Life's Guilty Pleasures, February 2000-November 2001, p. 246, no. 4 (illustrated). Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Jeff Koons, June-September 2003, p. 71 (illustrated in color).
New York, C&M Arts, Jeff Koons: Highlights of Twenty-Five Years, April-June 2004, no. 5, n.p. (illustrated in color).
Oslo, Astrup Fearnley museet for moderne kunst, Jeff Koons: retrospektiv, September-December 2004, p. 89 (illustrated in color). Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeff Koons, May-September 2008, p. 64 (another example illustrated).


Buster Keaton, a near life-size polychrome monument to the titular comedian, was executed in 1988 and forms a part of Jeff Koons' celebrated and notorious Banality series. In this group of works, Koons plunged his viewers into a world of deliberately questionable taste: alongside Buster Keaton was a porcelain group showing Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a sculpture of a jolly bear with a London policeman, overly sweet children, cuddly toys, pornographic puppets and smutty jokes, all immortalized in three dimensions and a large scale. Koons used a Baroque aesthetic -- and, indeed, "fabricators" in surviving centers of Baroque crafts such as Ortisei in Italy and Oberammergau in Germany-- to usher in a new age celebrating the banal, granting us mini-epiphanies, allowing us to see the beauty of the debris of contemporary consumer culture.

In its subject matter, Buster Keaton appears perversely secular, yet by its very nature as a large polychrome wood sculpture, it alludes to references to church decoration, unavoidably echoing the entry of Christ into Jerusalem and thereby paying strange homage to many artistic predecessors such as Giotto, Duccio, Ghiberti and Fra Angelico. Koons also adopted, to deliberately absurd effect, the tradition of equestrian statuary so favored in portraits of military leaders such as Gattamelata in Padua and Colleone in Venice, great monuments of the Renaissance.

Koons chose a classic pioneer of film comedy for this mock-heroic sculpture, deftly selecting as his source a photograph of Keaton posing comically, saluting nobly, astride a miniature horse. Aside from the bird on his shoulder, escaped from some parallel Disney dimension, Koons adjusted little in the source to reach this result. His changes include the use of polychrome, shunning the original photo's black and white, and lending a more wistful, somber air to Keaton's face. This suited the subject, who so completely mastered deadepan comedey that he was nicknamed "The Great Stone Face." This new solemnity also plays to the composition's religious overtones. And it perfectly suited Koons as well, as Buster Keaton attacks with a poker face the hegemony of taste, against which Koons so long railed.

In many ways, Koons sharply contrasts Keaton: superficially, he creates sculptures that pay humorous tribute to kitsch, the mass-produced, the ephemeral and the tasteless, to figurines that litter the homes of so many grandmothers and the windows of so many shops, yet his aspirations are wholly serious and sincere. Buster Keaton is a Trojan Horse, the means of infiltration by which Koons smuggled a mass culture hero and slapstick master into rarefied, of so-called High Art. This work plays a part in Koons' long-standing assault on the hierarchies that prop up the art world, of which the Banality series is a very important vanguard action. "In Banality, I was trying to tell people to have a sense of security in their own past, to embrace their own past," Koons explained. "This was the most direct way that I started to speak about people not letting art be a segregator" (J. Koons, 2000, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 341).
Koons, then, tries to banish snobbery, to help us accept our own tastes and abandon received notions of what should and should not count as culture:

"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'" (J. Koons, quoted in The Jeff Koons Handbook, ed. S. Coles & R. Violette, London, 1992, p. 112).

Buster Keaton spreads joy and laughter, reminding us of childhood knickknacks. Koons places this sculpture in a prophetic new role with a winged cartoon creature as a familiar, a cherub, on his shoulder. He combines nostalgia and "low" humor, transforming them into a contemporary gospel, ushering in a new age of guiltless tastes and no snobbery. Koons acts to heal, not only society, but also the spirit which he emphasised in the Made in Heaven series that soon followed. Both in content and intent, then, Buster Keaton stakes its unlikely claim to territory in the universe of religious art -- of prophets and messiahs nobly advancing towards their dooms to secure the salvation of their believers -- that fills so many churches. "I use the Baroque to show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal," he stated, discussing works such as Buster Keaton that teeter between Rococo and kitsch. "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" (J. Koons, quoted in A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 158).