PRINT April 2003


1986: Jeff Koons’s Rabbit

Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986, stainless steel, 41 x 19 x 12."

WHEN I FIRST SAW RABBIT, in the “neo-geo” group show at Sonnabend in 1986, I was dumbstruck. It seemed to me instantly, by involuntary reflex—and still does by long reflection—that this bunny is one of those very rare hits at the exact center of the target. It’s a piece where a ton of contradictions (about the artist, about the time) are fused with shocking, deadpan economy into an unforgettable ingot. I can unpack this sculpture endlessly without ever dulling the bewilderments—hilarious and outrageous but chilling and cynical, familiar but also from Mars—that caused that first frisson.

Rabbit is now so widely known through photographs—and is so effective as a logolike image—that one can easily forget how imposing it is as a sculptural object. The process of casting heated the air inside the inflatable original, so that each volume of the cast swells outward with an impossibly taut, barely contained energy underlined by the strained crinkling along major seams. The head—easily seen as a simple sphere in frontal photos—actually has a more awkwardly complex sculptural life, given the flatness of the sides and back and the large, critical detail of the inflation nipple protruding at the rear. The symmetrical lightness suggested in photos is also contrary to the real-life sense of the object’s ungainliness and menacing weight, balanced on the points of its unflat feet.

The piece has also become such an inescapable, seemingly inevitable icon of its epoch that no one much bothers now to remember its original context: a 1986 series called “Statuary,” which also included a bust of Louis XIV and several other, smaller stainless steel items of kitsch, such as a big-headed figurine of Bob Hope. The group, as its author said with characteristic circumspection, was “a panoramic view of how art has participated culturally since the French Revolution.” But, leaving aside the time-line problem of the Sun King (died 1715) and the uprising (born 1789), I doubt anyone has ever looked at Rabbit and thought it showed—as the artist said he hoped these pieces would—that “no matter who you put art in the hands of, eventually it will reflect their ego and just become decorative.” Among its other appeals, Rabbit is a terrific instance of how good art trumps rhetoric, even in the arch-rhetorical 1980s.

The catchphrase of the day, for example—“commodity critique”—seems a leaden downer that does no justice to Rabbit’s energies, frozen but quick-silver as well. And all the talk about Koons as a Duchampian appropriation artist might work fine for the Bob Hope statue and similar, more forgettable parts of his series, but Rabbit—like others among his best things—is mightily transformed from its source, extremely stylized, and derives much of its impact from its abstraction. As in Roy Lichtenstein’s comic canvases, the cheap, generic original is seemingly mimicked yet actually refined and made more abstract, with knowing nods to the styles of modern art. In the case of Rabbit—for the part of Koons’s audience that enjoys such games—the nods explicitly evoke Constantin Brancusi and Claes Oldenburg. The gleaming machine-age idealism of the former and the garrulous metamorphic bumptiousness of the latter are quoted and aggressed against in the same cruelly parodic breath. Yet the satire has its own rogue vitality, not only parasitic but autonomous, in the way Devo’s robotic 1978 remake of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” also seemed independently likable and pitch-perfect for its time.

The polish of Rabbit, too, is more than just a jab at Brancusi. It’s also an unexpected hinge point between the mirrors that Robert Smithson plucked out of Minimalism and the increasing glitz of younger art to come. We know from Koons’s own accounts that he was inspired by Smithson’s reflectors when he combined mirrors with his earliest use of inflatable bunnies and flowers, in 1979. His unabashed exploitation of that polished gleam as a fusion of high art and lowbrow commercial sheen then set a tone—along with his indulgences in color and his interest in display—for what would become, among younger artists in the next decade, a widespread interest in exploiting imagery of glamour and seduction. (Think Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s use of silver foil, or the mirrored boutique in Janine Antoni’s Gnaw, 1992.) When the larger story of how Pop and Minimalism came to hybridize in their afterlives is eventually told, Rabbit will be a key exemplar.

This snarky little thumper has other stories to tell too. Koons said, “To me the Rabbit has many meanings. It is a symbol of the playboy, of fantasy and also of resurrection.” (The joining of those last two terms alone can provide food for long thought, or skepticism.) “But to me, the Rabbit is also a symbol of the orator making proclamations, like a politician. A masturbator, with a carrot to the mouth.” Left out of that roundup is the way the piece prefigures Koons’s later concentration on images of toys and childhood, and the possibility of its vanitas associations. Like other work of his before and after—basketballs, life vests, balloons—the piece has to do with that most evanescent of life markers, breath. His inflatables are self-declaredly hollow, but also armored—in this case with the hard, gleaming bubble of American consumer delight, which it seemed, in the heyday of Reagan, that no one might ever pop.

Kirk Varnedoe is professor of the history of art at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. This spring he will be giving the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, on the subject of abstract art since Jackson Pollock.