Jeff Koons’s joyously sensual Triple Elvis has an exuberance of color, texture, form and subject matter. Channeling a pure Pop sensibility, it brings together a sequence of found imagery into a vivid, densely packed picture plane that dazzles the eye. Despite its photorealist finish, this is a pictorial invention that has little basis in reality. Instead, its flat, measured structure of vertical and horizontal forms is based on an extended process involving the fortuitous scavenging of images that are scanned, manipulated and collaged together in Adobe Photoshop before being transferred by hand onto canvas. Koons brings the same exacting approach to his paintings as he does his sculptures—consigning much of the labor to specially trained technicians while he oversees every aspect of the production. This process allows him to maintain control over his vision and the look and feel he seeks to achieve. A painting like Triple Elvis takes from a year-and-a-half to two years to realize, as the entire canvas is meticulously painted with carefully mapped colors and regulated brushstrokes one small area at a time.
Since his early readymade inflatable vinyl sculptures of the late 1970s, Koons has conceived of his diverse body of work within series that are grouped under thematic titles. Triple Elvis belongs to the Popeye series of paintings and sculptures that Koons began in 2002. While centered on the cartoon character Popeye, these related works do not always depict the spinach-swilling sailor directly. Instead, they are brought together by a shared sense of masculine vitality, intimations of water, and the distinctively retrospective approach that goes into their making. As Koons has explained:
“I think I was drawn to Popeye because it makes reference to our paternal generation, like the parents of people of my generation. I would think that to people like my father, and the people of his generation, Popeye is like a male priapist. So if you think in ancient terms, he would have a harem, a symbol of male energy. Popeye takes that spinach, and strength comes—art kind of brings that transcendence into our life, so I like these parallels. This enhancement of sensation. I think art teaches us how to feel, what our parameters can be, what sensations can be like; it makes you more engaged with life” (J. Koons quoted in N. Campbell, “Character Study: Jeff Koons,” Interview Magazine, December 2012/January 2013, p. 46). The result maintains the hard, bright look of a digital image through hyperrealism, and impersonal intensity that reflects Koons’s desire to establish the authority of objectivity in his art with the contradicton of the abundance of generosity through it’s hand-painted creation.
Triple Elvis, and the Popeye series in general, sees Koons looking back on his most formative influences. He has painstakingly selected each element of this composition as he perceives them to be steeped in personal, art historical and pop cultural significance. It is perhaps easiest to delve into the import of these pictorial components by unpacking them in consecutive order, from front to back. With the lobster, which lies splayed across the center of the canvas as if hovering above the female figures below, Koons makes reference to two of his most important artistic heroes: Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp. Dalí’s 1936 mixed media assemblage Lobster telephone (also known as Aphrodisiac telephone) connects the lobster to sexuality, the unconscious and the surreal. His uncanny, symbolically loaded imagery was also an important touchstone for Koons as a child: a coffee-table volume on Dalí was one of the only art books in his parents’ house, and at 17 he arranged to meet the artist in New York.
Like Dalí’s famous telephone assemblage, Koons has elected to use an object modeled on a lobster, rather than depict the real thing. By selecting this poolside inflatable, which he has also turned into cast aluminum sculptures, he picks up on his earlier use of flotation devices in the 1985 Equilibrium series. Equilibrium included a bronze, life-sized aqualung and lifeboat in addition to basketball-filled vitrines, to suggest different kinds of support mechanisms as well as being motifs of containment, of balance and of air—the invisible element so vital to life that has recurred throughout Koons’s oeuvre. It is no coincidence, either, that the antennae of this crustacean mimics Dalí’s flamboyant trademark moustache. Koons has also linked it to the mustachioed Mona Lisa artwork that Duchamp dubbed L.H.O.O.Q., a pun that may be translated as “she is hot in the ass”.
While working on the Popeye series, Koons stated that he had “returned to the readymade. I’ve returned to really enjoying thinking about Duchamp. This whole world seems to have opened itself up again to me, the dialogue of art” (J. Koons quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 504). Not only is Triple Elvis a conglomeration of readymade components, it also takes on the gender-bending characteristics of Duchamp’s doctored Mona Lisa as the appropriated Playboy playmate is named after the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Koons saw something in the curled lips and come-hither eyes of this pin-up girl that reminded him of Elvis Presley—a star whose popularity peaked during his parents’ era. He also enjoyed reprising the concept and repetitive structure of Andy Warhol’s iconic 1963 series of silkscreened Elvis paintings. Whereas Warhol repeated the same film still image of Elvis across his various canvases, Koons amps up the sex symbol status of the subject by using shots of a nude model enacting a strip tease for the viewer. Koons has likewise emulated Warhol’s concern with seriality by producing two further ‘Elvis’ paintings—Elvis, 2003 featuring two nudes and a vertical lobster, and Quad Elvis, 2008, featuring four nudes and a similarly placed horizontal lobster.
Possibly due to his love of Duchamp and Dalí’s work, Koons has pursued an almost animistic interest in ordinary, often pop culture objects and images throughout his career. He tries to banish snobbery with these quotidian subjects to help us accept our own tastes and abandon received notions of what should and should not count as culture. Part of this quest for personal self-acceptance revolves around the removal of shame from the realm of sexuality, which he explored most blatantly in the Made in Heaven series, which began in 1989. His work since that notorious series has tended to be less explicit while nevertheless underlining the joy and importance of our biological impulses. Koons presents his audience with various aspects of sensuousness and play, dangling childhood memories and sexual imagery before us, resulting in a manifesto that champions sexuality as something to be embraced, something innocent, something vital to our survival and crucially, something fun. “Sexuality is the principal object of art,” he has stated. “It’s about the preservation of the species. Procreation is a priority. But this also has a spiritual aspect for me. It’s about the way that we have children” (J. Koons, quoted in H. Bellet, “Jeff Koons: ‘La sexualité, c’est l’objet principal de l’art,’” in Le Monde, 30 August 2005, reproduced at www.lemonde.fr, trans. C.T. Downey).
Reproduction, he was saying, is part of the cycle of life; it is nothing to be ashamed of. Children are the result, and are likewise a part of that cycle. Yet so too is our inescapable mortality. Koons does not shy away from this issue in the Elvis paintings. Indeed, the background is essentially wallpapered with a painted reproduction of the American artist H. C. Westerman’s print The Dance of Death (San Pedro), 1975–76 from the Connecticut Ballroom Suite. The piece was created the same year that Koons studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Westermann himself had studied and subsequently left an indelible influence on the Chicago art scene. Koons has long admired and once met the elder artist, and has even collected a set of the Connecticut Ballroom prints himself. The Dance of Death shows Westermann’s dapper alter ego dancing on a rat-infested, moonlit pier with a listing warship floating nearby (another nautical theme appropriate to the Popeye series). These so-called ‘death-ships’ were a signature motif of Westermann’s and recall his wartime experiences as an aircraft carrier gunner witnessing kamikaze planes sinking American ships. Although a deeply ominous atmosphere surrounds them, the couple in Westermann’s picture dance defiantly and joyously, as if saying that life marches on, despite the inevitability of tragedy and death.
The multiple and varied inferences of Triple Elvis kaleidoscope into one another. They are born out of Koons’s personal interests and experiences but ultimately convey a universal message that encourages viewers to take pleasure in life’s natural cycle. Its imagery may even be taken as a contemporary rendition of the ancient ‘ages of man’ trope—tracing our passage from the wonderment of childhood, to the fecundity of adulthood, to our eventual demise. This conceptually complex and fundamentally playful painting asks us to focus on what’s truly important, to transcend our cares and worries and, above all, to celebrate our very existence.