Jeff Koons (B. 1955)
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Jeff Koons (B. 1955)

Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine

Jeff Koons (B. 1955)
Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine
stainless steel, bourbon
11 x 17 x 6 1/2 in. (27.9 x 43.2 x 16.5 cm.)
Executed in 1986. This work is number three from an edition of three plus one artist's proof.
Private collection, acquired directly from the artist, 1991
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 12 May 2010, lot 23
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
J. Siegel, "Jeff Koons: Unachievable States of Being," Art Magazine, October 1986, p. 67.
R. Smith, "Rituals of Consumption," Art in America, May 1988, p. 168 (another example illustrated in color).
A d'Offay, J. Koons, and R. Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook: A Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1992, p. 157.
A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 71, fig. 2 (another example illustrated in color).
H. Holzwarth, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2007, p. 195 (another example illustrated in color).
K. Johnson, "Jeff Koons: ‘Jim Beam - J. B. Turner Engine and Six Individual Cars,’" New York Times, 5 March 2015.
New York, Craig F. Starr Gallery, Jeff Koons- Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine and six individual cars, February–March 2015 (another example exhibited).
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The seductive, luxuriant sheen of Jeff Koons’s Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine captivates the eye with its enticing, mirror-like surface, evoking the gleaming patina of silver though cast in stainless steel. An early and brilliant proclamation of the artist’s Luxury and Degradation series, the J.B. Turner Engine distills the fundamental concerns of Koons’s work, from the Duchampian selection of everyday objects to the concept of newness and its underlying currents of sexuality and desire. Created in 1986, works from the same series formed part of the artist’s pivotal exhibition held at the International with Monument Gallery in New York’s East Village, an early and important show in which Koons used stainless steel for the first time, a watershed moment that changed the direction of his career. In the J.B. Turner Engine, Koons replicates a vintage Jim Beam novelty decanter down to the minutest details. Like its original counterpart, the engine contains a fifth of bourbon and the tax stamp applied by the Jim Beam Company. According to Koons, the sanctity of the hidden alcohol sealed within each train car is the “soul” of the piece. Unbroken, the work exists in a perpetual state of newness, a pristine embodiment of the artist’s desire to create a “perfect” object.

The origins of the Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Engine are well-known. While wandering down Fifth Avenue in New York, Koons caught a glimpse of a plastic decanter shaped like a toy train in a liquor store window. He became enamored with the object and ultimately had it cast in stainless steel by the Jim Beam Company. Looking back on that series, he recalled, “I did Luxury and Degradation immediately after the Equilibrium series. I remember I was walking along 5th Avenue and at the corner of 22nd Street I saw a liquor store. In the window was a Jim Beam train with an engine, seven cars and rails. And I thought, “What a wonderful ready-made object!” But how to turn it into something connected with alcohol? That’s when I used stainless steel for the first time. The idea was that to create something visually intoxicating, you had to keep the spirit of alcohol. And then I understood that it would be a piece of art—you could cast the car that Jim Beam filled with alcohol and close its roof, and the work would keep its purity and honesty. They agreed. And that’s how the first object came to be” (J. Koons, quoted in an interview with Naomi Campbell, “Jeff Koons: Abstraction is a Powerful Weapon,” Interview Russia, November 2012, n.p.).

The miniature engine that inspired Koons to make J.B. Turner Engine was in fact based on an historical locomotive built in Chicago in 1867, at the dawn of the United States railroad industry. The original “John B. Turner” was named after an early pioneering figure who was the President of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad at the time it was built in 1848. Though Koons might have translated the original Jim Beam series into silver or platinum, he chose instead the more proletarian material of stainless steel, the same practical material that underpinned the expansion of the USA. Steel, after all, is the material used for the trains and tracks that made America; it is part of its DNA.

Stainless steel also had practical implications for the artist since it would maintain the quality of the bourbon as it aged: “It was perfect coordination because stainless steel was the only metal that would keep the alcohol preserved forever. But I also liked the fake luxury of stainless steel. It has always been the luxury of the proletariat” (J. Koons, quoted in A. Haden-Guest, “Interview: Jeff Koons,” in A. Muthesius, (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, pp. 20-21). Indeed, the gleaming, mirrored surface of the J.B. Turner Engine appeals to our nostalgic sensibilities and our instinctive desire for precious materials such as silver and gold.

The use of a reflective surface is a recurring motif in Koons’s work, too, which he explores with increasing complexity and technical skill, especially in his epic Celebration series. The mirrored facade allows the viewer to become increasingly involved in the fabric of Koons’s work. Gazing into the reflected surface of the Engine, we see ourselves, so that we are directly implicated within the universe of the artist. Koons describes this effect “Back in 1986 in the series Luxury and Degradation I told people that art intoxicates, that art and its abstractions are the most powerful form of communication. ... Then I started to work with reflective surfaces. I took stainless steel – I like the proletarian aspect of this material. Some write off my methods as sinfulness and a feeling of guilt, but reality it can all be reduced to abstraction and a feeling of surprise” (J. Koons, op. cit., n.p.).

Though it issues a rich nostalgia for the industrial railroad era that shaped the American landscape, Koons’s J.B. Turner Engine embodies the fundamental characteristics of the artist’s continued search for a perfect object that exists in a perpetual state of “newness.” The tax stamp affixed by the Jim Beam Company seals the bourbon up, preserving it for as long as the sculpture lasts. Like a present packaged in shiny wrapping paper or a toy sealed in plastic wrap, the J.B. Turner Engine is like a new gift, which Koons describes as the “soul” of the piece: “You can drink it and enjoy the bourbon, but you have killed the work of art because you’ve destroyed the soul of the piece when you break the tax-stamp seal” (J. Koons, quoted in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, n.p.).

The sexual connotations of breaking the seal parallel the undercurrent of sexual desire that thrums through Koons’s work. Indeed, the J.B. Turner Engine elicits a strongly masculine energy through its associations with the railroad industry and the men who built it. The engine itself was the most important part of the train, after all, since it administered the force required to tow an abundance of raw materials across the vast nation. The steam engine, especially, profoundly affected the American imagination. Like a smoke-breathing dragon, it chugged mercilessly into the frontier, ushering in a new age.

The train engine proves to be an important recurring motif in Koons’s oeuvre, especially considering one of the latest monumental projects planned by the artist that will feature a full-sized replica of a 1943 Baldwin steam locomotive suspended from a crane (this epically-scaled project is currently under discussion with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the High Line in New York). This amazing, awe-inspiring installation will replicate the operations of the steam engine down to the smallest detail, as it hangs suspended from a 160-foot crane. Koons describes his fascination with the steam engine, which must have informed his thinking of the J.B. Turner Engine when he rendered the work in 1986.

“Everything that a real train does this train will do—but it’s hanging, you know, facing straight down to the ground. It’ll start heating up and steam will leak from one valve and then you’ll hear, like, a ca-chunk and it’ll go into a gear. And then when finally it gets close to performance time you’ll hear a ding, ding, ding, and all the patterns of a bell ringing that a real train would do before pulling out of a station. Then the wheels will slowly start turning, building a moment like an orgasmic plateau, woo, woo, woo—the same curve, acceleration, every second going faster than the moment before until it’s at full speed going 80 miles an hour, then it will decline until the last drippage of smoke comes. … [T]here are other powers that have replaced steam, but still it’s a magnificent machine”(J. Koons, quoted in David Colman, “Jeff Koons,” Interview Magazine, 2009).

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