Examples of this edition are in the collections of Dallas, Nasher Sculpture Center; Los Angeles, Broad Art Foundation and Athens, DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art.
Jeff Koons’s Louis XIV is an imposing, impressive sculpture: its gleaming surface accentuates the Baroque forms of the tumbling torrents of hair, the floral incisions on the cuirass, the lace of the cravat. Meanwhile, the monarch’s expression of confident command lends it an impressive, authoritative weight and gravity. Executed in 1986, Koons’s sculpture clearly harks back to the age of the Baroque, to the long reign of Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King.” At the same time, it is a contemporary masterpiece, an emblem of postmodernism, as is demonstrated by the fact that, of the three casts and artist’s proof, examples are held by the Dakis Joannou Foundation and the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. The casts have featured in a range of publications and exhibitions, including Koons’s unprecedented and celebrated show at the Palace of Versailles—a place that largely exists due to Louis XIV.
Louis XIV forms a part of the Statuary series, for which Koons created a number of sculptures from stainless steel. These ranged from the Baroque to the nostalgic to the contemporary, from the supposedly eternal to the resolutely ephemeral, each subject unified through its being reincarnated in the same material, including his now-iconic Rabbit. The quality of the steel is dazzling: it is so reflective that it creates a range of ever-shifting visual effects. In Rabbit, the dominant effect is a Brancusi-esque smoothness, a sheen recalling the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. By contrast, in Louis XIV, Koons has taken advantage of the variegated surface of his subject, resulting in a work that reflects a range of visual effects that occur. The steel of the armour is smooth, with decorated patterns upon it; the face has been created through undulating forms that have the near-liquid appearance of mercury, contrasting with the more textured finish of the hair itself. All this demonstrates Koons’s now-legendary exactitude.
By the point in the mid-1980s when he created Statuary, Koons had enjoyed two high-profile shows at the International with Monument gallery. These had garnered a great deal of attention, including from the legendary dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who invited him to take part in a group show she was organizing, alongside Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman. This was to propel Koons to a new level of public awareness.
Koons recounts that, while contemplating what to show at Ileana Sonnabend’s, he found inspiration in the shops of New York:
“I remember walking down Canal Street and seeing a fibreglass bust of Louis XIV in this place called Canal Plastics, where I would get a lot of my plastic sheets. I thought it was fantastic. I carried that with me in my head and then when I was walking around somewhere, probably somewhere around Times Square, I saw a little plaster cast of Bob Hope. Then this narrative started to develop. I realised they were really symbols of what happens when you put art in the hands of either the mass, with Bob Hope, or an individual, in Louis’ case of a monarch” (J. Koons, quoted in N. Rosenthal, Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, London, 2014, p. 125).
This encounter with a synthetic bust of Louis would come to mark the first entrance of “high” art into his work, rather than the domestic products, ads and cultural artefacts that he had hitherto presented either in their own right, in vitrines or in bronze. He was turning his sights towards the entire nature of cultural hierarchy, and thence of taste, inspired in part by the incongruously modern reincarnation of Louis XIV encountered in Canal Plastics.
The importance of Louis XIV was emphasised by its sheer scale. Louis XIV looms in a manner that befits the authority of its subject—an authority that has been augmented through Koons’s artistic intervention. For rather than turning to an extant bust of Louis XIV as his source, in this sculpture, Koons used an amalgam that accentuated various features and factors. The hair from some depictions of the French king is combined with armour, emphasizing the overbearing nature of the ruler, a factor that is only heightened by the steely expression on his face.
That notion of authority was key to Koons’s pointed use of Louis XIV as a subject. The Sun King was depicted in a range of paintings and sculptures by various artists throughout his long rule, including the legendary Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who created a bust of Louis XIV that can be seen as a precedent to Koons’s sculpture. Bernini also made an equestrian statue of Louis, which was subsequently altered by another artist, better to reflect the highly controlled image that the king wished to project. That story, with its subjugation of artistic freedom to accommodate a dictator’s agenda, reveals some of the extremes embodied by Louis XIV: his reign is seen sometimes as an artistic apogee and sometimes as a decadent nadir leading inevitably to the French Revolution. In this way, his rule can be seen as a prelude to watershed and bloodshed. Koons himself explained that the role of the king, so glaringly illustrated by the episode with Bernini, was central to his own Louis XIV:
“The first time that I ever worked with an image that made reference to Louis XIV was in 1986. I did a bust of Louis XIV, and I really used him as a symbol. After the French Revolution, artists had all the freedom they wanted to use art in any manner. But Louis was a symbol of what happens to art under a monarch (whoever controls it, it will eventually reflect his or her ego and simply become decorative). I was making reference to that because if I wanted that responsibility or had that opportunity, the same thing would eventually happen” (J. Koons, quoted in S. Collins, “Jeff Koons: Art Changes Every Day,” Interview, Art21, Jan 2014, reproduced at www.art21.org).
For Koons, then, modernism was a result of the liberation that came about after the removal of that central pinion, the dictatorial arbiter of taste in whose shape so much of the aspiring nation moulded its own image. But as he said when discussing Louis XIV and its counterpart within the Statuary pantheon, one hegemony was simply replaced by another:
“On one side there is Louis XIV and on the other side there is Bob Hope. If you put art in the hands of the monarch it will reflect his ego and eventually become decorative. If you put art in the hands of the masses it will reflect mass ego and eventually become decorative. If you put art in the hands of Jeff Koons it will reflect my ego and eventually become decorative” (J. Koons, quoted in The Jeff Koons Handbook, S. Coles & R. Violette, (ed.), London, 1992, p. 76).
By representing the French king in this way, Koons was exploring the role of the artist as a driver of taste, including himself. In Louis XIV, he thereby created a proselytizing self-portrait by other means. Koons knowingly adopted a position parallel to Louis’ own, albeit with a radical view to undermining the barriers of class of which the French king represented an antiquated extreme. This he did partly through the relationship between Louis XIV and the other works in the Statuary series, which comprised modern ribald souvenirs as well as period-looking ornaments and Bernini-esque sculptures. He also attacked any notion of hierarchy through the material that unites them all: stainless steel.
While its shininess pretends to the ritz and glitz of wealth, with works such as Louis XIV appearing like burnished platinum or silver, stainless steel is nonetheless a predominantly practical, even proletarian material. “I chose high-grade stainless steel as my material for the sense of security it emanates,” Koons has explained. ‘The polish only emphasises that security, as does the fact that the saucepans Mom used to cook with were steel too. In the high-grade steel works there’s a direct link with religious relics, which are polished too. So they make a spiritual appeal to the beholder and fill him with confidence” (J. Koons, quoted in A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 71).
This link between the shiny material and the spiritual is one that Koons has revisited time and again, and amplifies the interest in the Baroque already so evident in Louis XIV. Koons was trying to give a similar comfort to his viewers that a church gives its congregation. This had become apparent in the secular reliquaries of his previous Luxury and Degradation series, for instance his Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train of the same year, and remains central to his work even today, most conspicuously in the monumental Celebration series, revealing the huge impact that the material had on his sculptures. As Koons recently discussed:
“I often use reflective surfaces in my work, starting to work with polished steel in 1986. Polishing the metal lent it a desirous surface, but also one that gave affirmation to the viewer. And this is also the sexual part—it’s about affirming the viewer, telling him, ‘You exist!’ When you move, it moves. The reflection changes. If you don’t move, nothing happens. Everything depends on you, the viewer. And that’s why I work with it. It has nothing to do with narcissism”(J. Koons, quoted in I. Graw, ‘”There Is No Art in It”: Isabelle Graw in Conversation with Jeff Koons,” pp. 75-83, M. Ulrich (ed.), Jeff Koons: The Painter, exh. cat., Frankfurt, 2012, p. 78).
This is certainly true in the detailing of the surface of Louis XIV, where the refracted reflection of the surrounding space becomes a constant, ever-changing play of light and movement incorporating the viewer.
In Statuary, Koons created a parallel to religious art, an irreverent new canon that embraced everyone through its material and through the very Catholicism of its range and taste. This series thus marked the first overt appearance of a concept that would imminently become the central tenet of much of Koons’s work, not least in Banality, which he would launch a few years later. Louis XIV, and the Statuary series as a whole, thus lay the ground for the entire progression of Koons’s subsequent oeuvre, of his sustained and relentless assault on the hierarchies and hegemonies of taste. Koons had already probed aspects of the problematic relationship between society and culture in his Equilibrium and Luxury and Degradation series, where he critiqued art’s ability to promote aspiration, and the often economic manipulation that underpinned that process. In Luxury and Degradation, he was revealing the mechanics by which the alcohol and advertising industries pigeonholed their clientele and therefore reinforced a socio-economic stratification that was itself rooted in taste and aesthetics. In Statuary, by contrast, Koons was putting taste itself center stage. The son of an interior decorator, Koons took the tidemarks of various levels of taste, from the classic bourgeois bon goût of pre-Revolutionary France to the tchotchkes of the modern day United States, even incorporating his own work in the form of Rabbit, the steel reincarnation of one of his early Inflatables. He positioned himself as the great equalizer of art, levelling them all by presenting them all in identical steel.
It was only apt that Louis XIV presents a subject with such noble heritage through such deliberately base material. “I try to make a body of work that performs similarly to television,” Koons explained a few years later, in terms that relate to Louis XIV. “It tells a story, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and it opens itself up to absolutely everyone whatever their intellectual level would be. It’s all about creating an equilibrium and a levelling effect where a flow of power can exist. I think one of the vehicles that I try to exploit most is that of social mobility. I tried to bring an upper class down and raise a lower class up” (J. Koons, quoted in M. Collings, “Jeff Koons Interviewed by Matthew Collings,” pp. 39-47, A. Papadakes (ed.), Pop Art Symposium, London, 1991, pp. 42-43).
In this process of levelling, of social equilibrium, in the eradication of the artificial structures of taste, Koons was acting as a gleeful liberator, even a secular prophet, a position he would reinforce in his Made in Heaven works, in which he claimed he was striving to bring his viewers—his congregation— back to a state of the immaculate. Where in Made in Heaven, he was attempting to remove shame from the arena of sexuality, here he has removed it from taste itself. And he has embraced the viewers within the fabric of his work through the use of highly reflective steel.
Louis XIV would remain a touchstone for Koons, later serving as the partial inspiration for Koons’s iconic, monumental, flower-covered Puppy, first installed at Arolsen in Germany in 1992. Koons felt that this bloom-bedecked creature was the sort of thing that Louis might have whimsically decided he wanted to see outside his window, and that would therefore be conjured through an insane concentration of unperceived man-hours. It is only appropriate that a cast of Louis XIV served as one of the centrepieces of the retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, which was itself the continuation of the recent Whitney show. More aptly, a cast was also included in the selection of works shown at the Palace of Versailles in 2008. There, it was shown in the Salon de Mercure—the room in which the eponymous king himself had lain in state after his death. In the next door Salon d’Apollon, Koons placed his own marble Self Portrait created in 1991. This extended the dialogue already enshrined within Louis XIV itself: the battle for artistic creativity, the struggle for liberty from the tyrannical impositions of cultural heritage and taste, for which Koons was making himself the great bannerman.