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

Hulk Elvis III

Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
Hulk Elvis III
signed and dated 'Jeff Koons '07' (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
108¼ x 84 in. (275 x 213.4 cm.)
Painted in 2007.
Gagosian Gallery, London
Acquired from the above from the present owner
H. W. Holzwarth, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2007 (p. 568, illustrated in color) and 2009 (p. 554, illustrated in color).
London, Britannia Street, Gagosian Gallery, Hulk Elvis, June-July 2007, pp. 68-69, 108 and 111 (illustrated in color).


A work by Jeff Koons looms large in one's imagination and physical space. Joseph Cornell's tender collages may spark a myriad of narratives and musings by the beholder, but Cornell modestly sized his works. A massive steel wall by Richard Serra reshapes the spectator's environment, but one does not dream about his work. Koons' art has the uncanny ability to do both. He works on a larger than life dimension and the latest images by the artist are hybrids of mass media cutouts transformed into evocative signs. Since 1999, Koons has been making colossal paintings that mimic Surrealist collages on a billboard scale. Images are sliced and spliced together with other disparate pictures, sometimes of children's toys reminiscent of the Celebration series; other times advertisements for consumer products, and photographs of come-hither women. The Hulk Elvis series began in 2007. The main motif of the paintings is a photographically faithful rendition of an inflatable Incredible Hulk toy, Koons represents in only 17 canvases. Koons said he initially turned to painting when his Celebration series, which mainly consisted of huge, complex, sculptural fabrications, became delayed. Now, the paintings stand on their own conceptual ground, and have come to embody the commanding presence of his sculptural output.

Hulk Elvis III contains a host of allusions and the composition is extremely multilayered as in all of Koons' canvases. Yet, the present work departs from earlier series of paintings such as Easyfun and Easyfun-Ethereal because the most of the assembled images are recognizable. Paintings from the early 2000s were strictly decontextualized elements, however writ large, and Koons' aim was to make the familiar and commonplace strange and exotic. Elements floated in these pictures, and the viewer is unable to trace the source of the image, let alone see the image in its entirety. Hulk Elvis III's main protagonist is the Hulk. Koons has acknowledged the connection between the Hulk figure and Andy Warhol's Elvis and the kind of masculinity shared by these two figures. The Hulk and Elvis are posed similarly, and have the same somewhat wary, watchful gaze, with the frontal stance that tends to flatten the picture. Koons also called the Hulk a "global-type archetype" that resembles Asian guardian gods who stand in front of edifices to protect the inhabitants, and are characterized by their menacing visages and intimidating poses. Working with inflatable objects has been an important component to Koons' work. He has created a personal dialectic regarding the inflatable or the container for "breath". If it is full, it has life, and is a symbol of plentitude; when it becomes deflated, there is loss and death. Koons always conveys fullness and abundance in his use of inflatables. In Hulk Elvis III, he has taken great care to emphasize the plastic sheen of the green toy figure, especially on the shoulder's bulging muscles and the ripped pants. Additionally the seams of the plastic are carefully rendered, where the air inside creates creases on the outside because of the tension between the pumped air and the plastic surface. The comic book hero Hulk is the alter ego of a meek Dr. Bruce Banner, who is exposed to experimental gamma rays, which turns him into a raging green monster whenever he experiences great emotions. Hulk Elvis III is a picture of controlled power ready to be unleashed at a moment's notice. Koons has acknowledged that his works latently possess an outward gesture, the impulse to push beyond their capacity. Intellectually it we could rationalize it as the impulse for growth; instinctively, it is the force that dominates the visual field and the physical space of the beholder.

In the present work, standing in company with the Hulk are four identical toy figures that seem to stand guard with him. The green and bulbous heads assume a totemic presence and the appearance of the surface exhibit viscosity that makes the heads look wet. In contrast to the heads that appear almost fully in the round are their flat, square bodies that look snapped on, with what it seems like various tools attached to belts wrapped around their torsos. These four figures possess a vaguely reptilian, primordial appearance. An interesting visual configuration appears where two "reptilian" heads flank Hulk's head, creating an image reminiscent of the Trinity. Interspersed between the figures on the colorful background are large swatches of what appears to be splashed and poured paint, which acts as camouflage. We could read these abstract paint splashes as homage to Jackson Pollock. They agitate the paint surface and act as a definitive foil against the plastic smoothness of the figures.

André Breton once said when one releases things from their original contexts, new perspectives emerge and transcendence into another realm occurs. When familiar objects that one would normally overlook are placed in a new setting, latent or additional meaning could rise up to the surface of consciousness. In Hulk Elvis III, a child's toy takes on the proportions of a god. The green heads assume a totemic presence. Koons' retains Pop Art's affinity with mass culture as well as its high-keyed palette. In his paintings, he acknowledged the influence of other artists like Warhol and Pollock by adapting their signature figures or method of image making. But for Koons, the Surrealist tool and principle of the readymade and free-association help steer his approach to his paintings. The combination of the figurative in hyper-real verisimilitude, the abstract obscuring, and the psychological frisson all co-mingle within this painting. The finished gloss of the present work has the sparkly expectation of a brand-new toy or a gift-wrapped present. It is untarnished and unblemished, and perfection, to the degree it is humanly possible, has been achieved.