In May 2001 Hans Rasmus Astrup paid almost six million US dollar for a larger than life gilded statue in porcelain made by the American artist Jeff Koons. It is a rendering of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and his beloved pet chimpanzee.
The statue was bought at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, 13 years after Jeff Koons had made the porcelain figure with religious associations likely based on a press photo titled “Banality”.
The price the Norwegian collector paid was more than double of the artist’s previous auction record, even if the statue “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” exists in four versions. Since then prices on Jeff Koons’ works have increased considerably. Today you may watch Michael Jackson and other Jeff Koons works at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo.
Koons has a knack for genre-bending. His tolerance for all aspects of culture has garnered him more than a few celebrity fans. Lady Gaga commissioned Koons to create an artwork for her 2013 albun “Artpop”. Jay Z name-checked him in “Picasso Baby” and Kim Kardashian posted an Instagram photo of the artist with her and Kanye West’s infant daughter and Pharrell Williams collects his works.
“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” depicts the legendary Michael Jackson leaning back on a flower bed while his pet chimpanzee Bubble rests on his lap. Jackson and Bubbles wear similar clothing, and are colored similarly while parts of their bodies mirror with each other.
The sculpture is fabricated by Italian ceramists using gold and white “Rococo” palette and measures almost six feet across. Michael Jackson will forever reign as King, but at the time Koons had the sculpture made, there were murmurings in the media and in society about Jackson’s lightening skin tone. Koons presents Jackson with almost stark white flesh.
“If I could be anyone,” Jeff Koons repeatedly proclaimed, “it would be Michael Jackson”. It made sense, then, that Koons would choose a portrait of the entertainer as the centerpiece for his 1988 exhibition. Koons produced four editions, and many of Jackson’s fans were offended by how the porcelain made Jackson appear white and feminine. Koons, however, claimed that Michael Jackson is the contemporary Apollo.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art writes the following about the sculpture:
“…The work makes many people uncomfortable – angry, even. Why is that? Is it the physical relationship between the man and the animal? The fact that Bubbles is dressed? The mere fact of depicting Jackson at all? Or perhaps the gaudy use of gold? Jackson’s gilded costume brings out his red lips, and the dark make-up around his eyes. His porcelain-white skin may be the most unsettling detail of all.”
The Astrup Ferner Museum of Modern Art writes the following about “Banality”:
“…The works from “Banality” represent a line from Duchamp’s ready-mades and Andy Warhol’s silkscreen image transfers, but through the appropriation of such subject matter as fairytales, Buster Keaton, the Pink Panther or Michael Jackson. Their chief originality and achievement lies in the way in which Koons creates a new kind of artistic language, extracted from “mass consciousness.” “
Filmmaker John Waters, who had public conversations with Koons, refers to the sculpture as the artist’s “scariest piece”. Jackson himself, however, was “very supportive” of the project and even sending over press photographs at Koons’ request. “This was a time when Michael was going through a lot of plastic surgery, so I had to use multiple pictures to keep up with it,” says Koons.
This piece is now a beautiful representation of Jackson’s younger days before he was ridiculed by some and deified by others. The gold almost depicts a time when anything Michael Jackson touched turned to gold.
About Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons was born in 1955 in York, Pennsylvania. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore (1976), and honorary doctorates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2008) and Corcoran College of Art and Design, Washington, DC (2002). Koons plucks images and objects from popular culture, framing questions about taste and pleasure.
Watch Michael Jackson in Oslo, written by Tor Kjolberg