American Heroes. Sotheby’s New York Evening Auction of Contemporary Art will offer Jeff Koons’s most accomplished and major work of recent years: an immaculate, gleaming, seven-foot tall statue of the cartoon character and American pop culture icon Popeye. The sculpture is one of an edition of three, from which no example has appeared at auction until now. The present Popeye has never been exhibited publicly, and will make its debut in Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries on 2 May 2014. The work will carry an estimate in the region of $25 million at auction on 14 May.
Alex Rotter, Co-Head of Sotheby’s Worldwide Contemporary Art Department, commented: “The history of Pop Art begins and ends with Popeye. From his first representations by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol in the 1960s, to the present three-dimensional crescendo by Jeff Koons a half century later, this ultimate American hero and self-made man has remained a true icon of both art history and popular culture.”
Originally conceived in 1929 as part of a newspaper comic-strip, Popeye grew to the status of cultural phenomenon amidst the adversities of the Great Depression. Resolutely ordinary, yet tough, resilient, confident and super-strong, Popeye personified the American dream in a time of worldwide hardship, which helped propel the character to national fame and popularity. Though now over 80 years old, the all-American cartoon hero remains universally famous across the globe.
While Koons began referencing Popeye in his work in the early 2000s, it was not until 2009 – amidst a new financial crisis nearly a century following the Great Depression – that Koons would re-appropriate this American champion in heroic sculptural form, as an icon for the new millennium. Herculean in stance, with outrageously proportioned muscles and a proud cleft-chin, the resulting Popeye is three-dimensional and over-life-size, incarnated in Koons’s signature material: stainless steel.
Flawlessly finished in kaleidoscopic, jewel-like glazes, Popeye stands at the culmination of a long line of monumental sculptures and statues in which Jeff Koons has sought to re-frame the terms of high art for the masses. The seminal stainless steel Rabbit from the Statuary series of 1986, the porcelain sculptures Pink Panther and Michael Jackson and Bubbles from Banality in 1986, the erotically charged yet Disneyesque flowers from Made in Heaven in 1991, and the colossal stainless steel Balloon Dog and Hanging Heart that comprise Celebration from 1994, together form the Koonsian arena within which Popeye, resolutely tied to the 21st century, now takes center stage.
Sotheby’s New York. Contemporary Art Evening Auction. 14 May 2014.