Jeff Koons (b. 1955)

Vase of Flowers

Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
Vase of Flowers
72½ x 53 x 1 in. (184.2 x 134.6 x 2.5 cm.)
Executed in 1988. This work is number one from an edition of three plus one artist's proof.
Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Pierre Nahon, Paris
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 11 November 2003, lot 53
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Metropolis, exh. cat., Stuttgart and New York, 1991, p. 176 (another example illustrated in color)
J. Koons, The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 160.
A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, pp. 110 and 168, no. 13 (another example illustrated in color).
H.W. Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2007, pp. 266, 289 and 600 (another example illustrated in color).
H. W. Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, pp. 264, 285 and 586 (another example illustrated in color).
Cologne, Galerie Max Hetzler; New York, Sonnabend Gallery and Chicago, Donald Young Gallery, Banality, November 1988-January 1989 (another example exhibited).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jeff Koons/Andy Warhol: Flowers, November-December 2002, p. 4, 10-11 and 28 (another example illustrated in color).
Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Jeff Koons, June-September 2003, p. 68 (another example illustrated in color).
New York, C&M Arts, Jeff Koons: Highlights of 25 Years, April-June 2004, no. 17 (illustrated in color).
Reihen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Flower Myth: Vincent van Gogh to Jeff Koons, February-May 2005, pp. 48, 162-163 and 195, no. 82 (illustrated in color).


Executed in 1988, Jeff Koons' Vase of Flowers is an exuberant agglomeration like a reflective jigsaw. It resemble an abundant, over-spilling cornucopia of flowers, a joyous bouquet that encapsulates beauty, life and - perhaps most importantly in the context of Koons' work - a sense of fun. There is a gleeful irreverence to the adoption of this subject matter: it is a Van Gogh-like medley of flowers and foliage amped up to some new extreme, which has been rendered using a technique associated with the Baroque, with the palazzi of Venice and Palace of Versailles.

Vase of Flowers was created as part of Koons' celebrated Banality series. His exhibitions of Banality in 1988 marked his true apotheosis as a contemporary artist and indeed superstar: the show took place in three galleries at the same time, Ileana Sonnabend's in New York, Donald Young's in Chicago and Max Hetzler in Cologne. These shows had been advertised with Koons' famous, and indeed notorious, self-promoting and self-deprecating ads in Art Magazine, Flash Art and Artforum, in which he was shown with braying donkeys, bikini-clad women and in a classroom, teaching kids about the new age of banality he was ushering in.

The exhibition - and the Banality series itself - was, Koons explained, based on the Garden of Eden. However, the Paradise of the Bible had undergone a distinctly Koonsian transformation, all the more so considering this was the first series in which he no longer relied on readymades but instead blended his own imagination with collaged fragments from the world around him to create a new imagery, a new iconography. Thus the various elements in Koons' Garden of Eden seemed more related to kitsch and cartoons than to religious tradition. Adam and Eve were porcelain children, the serpents were made of AgroDolce wrappers with funny faces, Christ was represented by Buster Keaton astride a donkey. Vase of Flowers was one of four mirror pieces in the series: two were gilded and Rococo, Wishing Well and Christ and the Lamb, while another work executed in similar style to Vase of Flowers was Little Girl. In the context of the Garden of Eden, Vase of Flowers represented the garden itself with its paradisiacal bounty of fertile flora.

The Banality series adopted elements of religious imagery, and also for the first time used crafts associated with religious art. For his sculptures, Koons began to commission craftsmen in places such as Oberammergau and Ortisei, continuing centres of ecclesiastical art where the skills requisite in making and replacing Baroque ornamentation survive. That Baroque aesthetic is likewise in evidence in Vase of Flowers. For Koons, the Baroque recalled church interiors and the Counter-Reformation, and therefore introduced a slew of religious associations in itself, insisting that, regardless of the entertaining appearance that his work might have, it was a new form of religious art in itself. "I use the Baroque to show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal," Koons explained. "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 A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 158).

Koons used this spiritual dimension of the Baroque to bolster the message of potential salvation through the acceptance, or love, of the knowingly kitsch elements that he espoused in his works. In the chapel of Koons, the love of knickknacks and gewgaws is the path towards enlightenment, allowing a return to a state in which shame and snobbery will be forgotten and all former "lapses" of taste forgiven. For Koons, the idea of the return to paradise, to a world before sin, was key: he was trying to usher in an age in which people would feel no shame regarding their own personal tastes and preferences:

"In the Banality work, I started to be really specific about what my interests were. Everything here is a metaphor for the viewer's cultural guilt and shame. Art can be a horrible discriminator. It can be used either to be uplifting and to give self-empowerment, or to debase people and disempower them. And on the tightrope in between, there is one's cultural history. These images are aspects from my own, but everybody's cultural history is perfect, it can't be anything other than what it is-- it is absolute perfection. Banality as the embracement of that" (Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 252).

Just as Koons, in his earlier Luxury and Degradation series, had explored and exploded the function of taste and education as social segregators, so now he was expanding upon the same theme, encouraging his viewers to come to terms with their own predilections; this was a theme that he would return to in his subsequent Made in Heaven series, where he attacked prudishness by using sex as a topic in his work. In all of these series, Koons' belief in the healing power of art is manifold: "Art is a form of self-help that can instil a sense of confidence in the viewer" (Koons, quoted in R. Koolhaas & H.U. Obrist, "Interview," pp. 61-84, Jeff Koons: Retrospective, exh. cat., Oslo, 2004, p. 61). Koons' generosity and inclusion of the viewer is demonstrated by our inclusion in the mirror's reflection, by our participation in this work of art.

While the Made in Heaven series was explicitly sexual in some of its content, it is important to note that issues surrounding the cycle of life and reproduction were already present in Vase of Flowers. Flowers have been one of Koons' most favoured motifs, already present in his Pre-New series and more recently as part of his famous Celebrations. They are beautiful, even while their own sexual organs are on flagrant display. Reproduction is vital to the survival of the species, and yet it is enshrouded in shame, guilt, rules, regulations, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Koons is actively dismantling the mechanisms by which these notions are presented, encouraging his viewers to embrace their own taste in life, in class, and in love. And he is doing so in a manner that is as public, as exhibited, as the flowers themselves. "I have always enjoyed flowers," he 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).