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


Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
signed and dated 'Jeff Koons '03' (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
102 x 138 in. (259.1 x 350.5 cm.)
Painted in 2003.
Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Jeff Koons, exh. cat., Naples, 2003, p. 142 (illustrated).
H. W. Holzwarth, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2007 (pp. 551-553, illustrated in color) and 2009 (pp. 537-539, illustrated in color).
New York, Sonnabend Gallery, Jeff Koons, November-December 2003.
London, Serpentine Gallery, Jeff Koons, July-September 2009.


Skin, leather, plastic, metal... In Jeff Koons' Saddle, painted in 2003, all these elements gleam lusciously upon the surface, invoking an almost mouth-watering yearning in the viewer. There is a palpable sensuality to the imagery that allows Koons to present as though equivalent the playthings, dreams and desires of children and adults alike. Toys, recreations and masturbation are all granted equal status in Koons' world, and this is emphasized by the approval inherent in the contagious cartoon smile of the inflatable dog which dominates so much of the canvas.

Themes of childhood and reproduction have often collided in Koons' oeuvre, striking at the heart of one of his great concerns: Koons believes in removing shame from his viewer, be it in terms of life or of art. The cultural doctrines that filter down as to what is deemed as "good" and "bad" taste are, to Koons, a form of segregation, inducing guilt and self-consciousness. Saddle exuberantly scatters such concerns in an explosion of sumptuous imagery that brazenly and flamboyantly celebrates childhood, nostalgia and pornography alike. The saddle is wholly apt as subject matter for Koons: it introduces the theme of support, it lends the picture an intrepid, pioneering air of Western-style fantasy and adventure and also implies that Koons, the contemporary cultural crusader, is on the warpath once more.

Saddle belongs to Koons' Popeye series and in its determined encouragement and equation of porn and play, reveals the artist revelling in the eponymous sailor's dictum, "I yam what I yam" (J. Jones, 'Jeff Koons: Not Just the King of Kitsch', The Guardian, 30 June 2009). In the Popeye paintings, Koons took the same aesthetic and techniques that he had used in the Easyfun-Ethereal series but carried out some crucial twists. Here, the theme of water is more overt, be it in terms of ships, of Popeye himself, or of inflatable toys; so too is the sexual imagery - porn rather than glamour. Several other motifs and themes recur throughout the series, for instance support (in the form of chairs, chains and the saddle here), fences or divisions and the history of art; Koons has also sometimes used his own snapshots as components within the densely-layered compositions. Within these palimpsests, some of the images disappear in part or in whole, obscured by the additions and adjustments carried out on Photoshop, leading to an ultimate design subsequently rendered in oils by a highly-skilled team in his studio. The final image, then, is the product of a long and arcane process of evolution, of selection.

One of the key factors in the Popeye series was the use of inflatable toys as motifs, returning in a sense to the theme of his first works, The Pre-New, which consisted of blow-up flowers and rabbits. Koons scoured outlets, often online, for archetypal poolside toys such as the dog here: the inflatables in the Popeye pictures are therefore found objects, rather than the found images upon which Koons had relied for decades and which remain so conspicuously present in Saddle in the form of the collaged fragments of photos in the background. In an intriguing extension to the Popeye series, he also had meticulous aluminium replicas of the toys created and used them in sculptures that also featured found elements. The interrelationship between the sculptures and paintings introduces a fascinating self-referentiality to Saddle and its sister-works: here, the inflatable is the same as that recreated in Dogpool (Panties) which also incorporated the same photo detail of a masturbating woman that is repeated in the background of this painting (the titular underwear also featured in Koons' stage design for the Rolling Stones' 2002 Licks tour).

As Koons has explained, 'Sexuality is the principal object of art. It's about the preservation of the species. Procreation is a priority.' In terms highly relevant to the Popeye series, he continued:

'But this also has a spiritual aspect for me. It's about the way that we have children. [...] When I was in college, I became very interested in Dada and Surrealism. But my introduction to ready-mades released me from a personal iconography and led me toward mass iconography, more universal' (quoted in H. Bellet, "Jeff Koons : 'La sexualité, c'est l'objet principal de l'art'", in Le Monde, 30 August 2005, reproduced at, trans. C.T. Downey).

Here, the chains, the saddle, the inflatable and the pornography are all "mass iconography," evocative triggers that can prompt reactions from a wide audience, that teeter on the edge of an incredibly contemporary sense of the universal.

Regarding the reintroduction of the readymade to his work, Koons declared, 'I've returned to really enjoying thinking about Duchamp. This whole world seems to have opened itself up again to me, the dialogue of art' (quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 504). That dialogue takes place on a range of levels within Saddle and the Popeye series: Koons has introduced references to a variety of sources, most importantly his own. By this device he explores, as in the paragone debates of centuries past, the contrasting merits and skills of sculpture and painting; the bursting gloss of this almost trompe-l'oeil picture is a riposte to the incredible verisimilitude of the aluminium sculptures such as Dogpool (Panties).

The textures in Saddle and the other works - be they sculptures or paintings - in the Popeye series allow Koons not only to investigate such academic notions of representation, but also introduce an intriguing tension. The viewer is painfully aware of the precarious nature of the inflatable, of its vulnerability, especially when placed next to the more brutal, sturdy industrial chains. In a sense, it is the jolly dog of Saddle that most aligns the picture with the tradition of the memento mori. Yet rather than introduce death as a theme, Koons is celebrating life. Indeed, the inflatable, in one guise or another, has been one of Koons' most frequent themes, be it in the found flowers of The Pre-New, the vacuum cleaners of The New, the basketballs, aqualungs and dinghy of Equilibrium or the Balloon Flowers and Balloon Dogs of the Celebrations series. They are all filled with air, with that invisible element so vital to life. Koons discussed this perennial interest in a 2008 interview with Amy Cappellazzo: 'I still enjoy working with inflatables, because I see them as life-saving devices, and you know, a lot of times if you look at pool toys it'll say it's not a life-saving device, but I think it's really just the opposite' (quoted in interview with Amy Cappellazzo, 2008). For Koons, every breath we take is life force, is a further step in the survival of our species and the cycle of life: the inflatables are 'really about the future and trying to sustain life. [...] sexuality is an important part of it in the vocabulary, because it's embracing the preservation of the species, and the continuation of life, and the acceptance of how life moves forward' (quoted in ibid.).

For Koons, that lesson has deeply personal aspects in the Popeye series. As well as the theme of support invoked by the saddle here and by chairs in several other works, these pictures often featured divisions: fences, walls or even these vertical, bar-like chains. Koons explained the genesis of this motif: 'I was in Rome and saw this tree growing through a chain link fence, and I looked closely. It was interesting, but I was a little turned off by the trauma and the distortion.' Koons therefore created a body of works including Saddle that replaced that distortion with a positive continuity, basing it on his own experiences:

'I went through a custody situation some years back with my son Ludwig, and I wanted to make a body of work that featured objects going through things, but not becoming distorted. It is important in life, when you're faced with a challenge, not to have that cause trauma or make you lose your path. I believe in being able to keep your life energy in a very optimistic direction, not allowing trauma to take place' (Koons, quoted in P. Aspden, "Lunch with the FT: Jeff Koons", The Financial Times, 21 August 2009).