Hand on Breast is a key work in Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven series, which has been regarded by one curator as “his most important body of work—the most radical, the most risky, the most sincere.” This work features the superstar artist entwined with then-wife and popular Italian adult-film star and parliamentarian Ilona Staller on a pink satin bed surrounded by gossamer butterflies (A. Gingeras quoted in R. Wolff, “A Townhouse Full of High-Art Smut”, New York Magazine, 1 October 2010, n.p.). Hand on Breast reads like a dream, located in the luscious, visually seductive haze between a fantasy world and the Rococo. It vacillates between theatrical soft-core imagery, self-portraiture, and a depiction of heavenly, idyllic love. “What makes these queer pictures still so riveting is their scrambling of normal social codes and their status not as porn but as self-portraiture—all in the name of a self-acceptance that no normal viewer could ever truly share” (S. Rothkopf, “No Limits” in S. Rothkopf (ed.), Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, p. 25).
Koons took a theme that artists have depicted since the beginning of time—sex—and made it groundbreaking and freshly provocative as he intermingled the erotic, the public, and the personal; curator Scott Rothkopf has in fact suggested that the Made in Heaven body of work predicted today’s reality culture. Koons’s steamy series destabilized widely held distinctions between art and mass media and turned the avant-garde’s fusion of art and life inside out, “blurr[ing] the lines between art, life and the media to such an extent that the then ubiquitous theorizing on the relationships among them seemed suddenly beside the point” (S. Rothkopf, “No Limits” in S. Rothkopf (ed.), Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, p. 24). In a manner characteristic of Koons’s most compelling works, Hand on Breast boldly subverts divisions between high and low, public and personal, and art and commerce. In Hand on Breast, a naked Koons presents a visual exaggeration of his sexual relations with Cicciolina (the stage name “La Cicciolina” roughly translates to “Cuddles”) against the saturated backdrop of one of her sets. The work shocks with its subject matter portrayed with such sweetness. A crown of flowers is perched atop Cicciolina’s blonde hair. Her skin is luminescent. Calvin Tomkins wrote that “there was an unexpected sweetness about her, a delicacy that Koons had responded to… [with] flowers, birds, butterflies, and rosy colors” (C. Tomkins, “The Turnaround Artist Jeff Koons, Up From Banality,” The New Yorker, April 23, 2007, p. 59). Indeed, Koons viewed the innocent-looking Cicciolina as an “eternal virgin” because she publicly accepted her sexuality without shame. Hand on Breast questions dominant cultural judgments and hegemonic aesthetic tastes, engaging with a highly provocative and distinctly Koonsian dialogue.
The major catalyst for the Made in Heaven series occurred in 1989. That year, the Whitney Museum of American Art and its guest curator Marvin Heiferman commissioned Koons to make an outdoor billboard for Image World, a landmark exhibition exploring the relationship between the media and contemporary art. Koons decided to create a billboard advertisement for a feature film, entitled Made in Heaven, that he intended to make with Staller. The artist had been eying the beautiful Cicciolina for a while: he referenced a photograph of her mesh covered torso from a magazine as the basis for his 1988 Banality sculpture Fait d’hiver. In 1989, he arranged to meet her and contracted Staller to pose on her own sets, where she was photographed by her oft-photographer and manager Riccardo Schicchi, in Italy. The Made in Heaven billboard featured Koons and Staller “set against a tempestuous backdrop atop a glistening boulder, a naked Koons clutch[ing] his costar’s lingerie-clad body while staring at the camera and, he seems to imagine, his legions of adoring fans” (S. Rothkopf (ed.), Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, p. 24). Koons outwitted and outpaced the public relations machine by casting himself as a handsome star worthy of mass attention (by this point, he was already a fixture in the popular media).
While the film never came to fruition, Koons produced a body of work that rewrote the biblical story of Adam and Eve: the 1989-91 Made in Heaven series of oil inks on canvas and sculptures of various symbols of fidelity and affection created in glass, wood, and marble. The series debuted at the 1990 Venice Biennale, where the couple regularly stopped by to kiss in front of the installation and pose for paparazzi. The spectacle of the work and the media frenzy that frothed around it are inextricable, the latter ensuring the series’ “enduring relevance and vexing charge” (S. Rothkopf, “No Limits” in S. Rothkopf (ed.), Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, p. 25). The works in the group ranged from suggestive and sensuous—Hand on Breast, while featuring nudity, is somewhat akin to a glamor shot, lightly Edenic—to highly explicit depictions, as presented simultaneously at Ileana Sonnabend in New York and Max Hetzler in Cologne. Koons and Staller married in 1991—a move that generated an unprecedented international media blitz from Helsinki to Akron.
Within two years of the Made in Heaven series, Koons’s relationship with Staller had ended and even today Koons finds the Made in Heaven images very culturally relevant, he explained, “And I was really embracing the philosophy of my work, which tries to tell the viewer that everybody’s cultural history is perfect, and should be accepted without embarrassment” (J. Koons quoted in C. Tomkins, “The Turnaround Artist Jeff Koons, Up From Banality,” The New Yorker, April 23, 2007, p. 59).
“If art is ever delivered from the grip of postmodern irony, a large share of the credit will go to Jeff Koons,” wrote New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins (Ibid., p. 58). Popular and populist, Koons has rerouted the contemporary art dialogue. The artist was most recently the subject of a major touring retrospective that traveled from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the Centre Pompidou in Paris (where it broke daily records for attendance) to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Of the impetus for work like Hand on Breast, the artist has explained: “What inspires me is feeling. I’m talking about a sense of excitement, of awe and wonder. As a child, you have a kind of openness. As you grow, that openness turns to sexual excitement, toward an expansion of parameters and territory, possibilities and sensations—a wider range of feeling” (J. Koons, “’What Inspires Me Is Feeling’: Jeff Koons,” Art in America, 18 June 2014, n.p.).