I was walking down Fifth Avenue, and I saw in a liquor store this train that was made out of plastic and porcelain. It was a Jim Beam train. What caught my interest was the possibility to transform it and to cast it in stainless steel and bring it to a mirror finish, but to also maintain the soul of the piece, which was the liquor inside.
— J. Koons, quoted in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco, 1992, p. 65
A brilliant proclamation of the artist’s Luxury and Degradation series, Jeff Koons’s Jim Beam—Box Car addresses many of the fundamental concerns of the artist’s oeuvre, from the readymades of Marcel Duchamp to the concept of newness and its underlying currents of sexuality and desire. Created in 1986, a related work was included in the artist’s pivotal exhibition at the International with Monument Gallery in New York’s East Village, in which he used stainless steel for the first time—a watershed moment that changed the direction of his career forever. In Jim Beam—Box Car, Koons replicates a vintage Jim Beam novelty decanter down to the smallest details. Like its original source, the box car contains a fifth of bourbon along with the tax stamp applied by the Jim Beam company. According to Koons, the sanctity of the hidden alcohol sealed within each train car is the “soul” of the piece: unbroken, the work exists in a perpetual state of newness, a pristine embodiment of the artist’s desire to create a “perfect” object.
Looking back on the series, Koons recalls, “I did Luxury and Degradation immediately after the Equilibrium series. I remember I was walking along 5th Avenue and at the corner of 22nd Street I saw a liquor store. In the window was a Jim Beam train with an engine, seven cars and rails. And I thought, “What a wonderful readymade object!” But how to turn it into something connected with alcohol? That’s when I used stainless steel for the first time. The idea was that to create something visually intoxicating, you had to keep the spirit of alcohol. And then I understood that it would be a piece of art—you could cast the car that Jim Beam filled with alcohol and close its roof, and the work would keep its purity and honesty. They agreed. And that’s how the first object came to be” (J. Koons, quoted in an interview with Naomi Campbell, “Jeff Koons: Abstraction is a Powerful Weapon,” Interview Russia, November 2012, n.p.).
Though it issues a rich nostalgia for the industrial railroad era that shaped the American landscape, Koons’s Jim Beam—Box Car embodies the fundamental characteristics of the artist’s continued search for a perfect object that exists in a perpetual state of “newness.” The tax stamp affixed by the Jim Beam company seals the bourbon up, preserving it for as long as the sculpture lasts. “You can drink it and enjoy the bourbon, but you have killed the work of art because you’ve destroyed the soul of the piece when you break the tax-stamp seal” (J. Koons, quoted in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, n.p.).
The steam engine proves to be an important recurring motif in Koons’s oeuvre. In referencing his large-scale public sculpture Train, which is a work in progress, the artist describes with animation his fascination with the steam engine: “Everything that a real train does this train will do—but it’s hanging, you know, facing straight down to the ground. It’ll start heating up and steam will leak from one valve and then you’ll hear, like, a ca-chunk and it’ll go into a gear. And then when finally it gets close to performance time you’ll hear a ding, ding, ding, and all the patterns of a bell ringing that a real train would do before pulling out of a station. Then the wheels will slowly start turning, building a moment like an orgasmic plateau, woo, woo, woo—the same curve, acceleration, every second going faster than the moment before until it’s at full speed going 80 miles an hour, then it will decline until the last drippage of smoke comes. … [T]here are other powers that have replaced steam, but still it’s a magnificent machine”(J. Koons, quoted in D. Colman, “Jeff Koons,” Interview Magazine, 2009).