What’s Hidden in Jeff Koons’s Silver Rabbit Is Unforgettable
Koons’s record-breaking statue holds a mirror to our times. It is also, literally, a mirror.
Jeff Koons poses before his work, 'Rabbit.'
Light reflects off a surface. You see your reflection on a pond. Images appear in a Koons.
It’s stale news that Jeff Koons’s lustrous lupine statue, Rabbit, of 1986, just went for a hair over $91 million at Christie’s. That’s a record for a work by a living artist and way more than Koons’s own goliath inflated dogs have ever fetched. Even before this triumph, though, the chance to own an edition of Rabbit (there are just three, plus one artist’s proof) was going to be an event. It is arguably Koons’s first masterpiece, the star of his “Statuary” series and the harbinger of his ubiquitous balloon menagerie. Christie’s hyped up the lot with its own trailers. One version features words such as “SILVER” and “ILLUSION” dripping down the screen. Then the tagline, “OWN THE CONTROVERSY,” pops up over an image of Rabbit, photographed head-on, alone in a chilly white room. The sculpture is front and center, unavoidable. Reflected in its head and tummy is a camera on its tripod.
Indeed, you can run, you can hide—but if you can see Rabbit, you can also see what’s seeing it. The rabbit’s bulbous face and belly throw back an image of everything around them, which is why exactly every documentary image of Rabbit includes, more or less obviously, one or more reflections of whoever or whatever took the picture. Every pic of Rabbit is a selfie. Often, the photographer accepts their fate. It’s a bit grounding to see a wire photographer from the Associated Press, dressed in blue jeans and an untucked blue button-down, crouching in the Christie’s archway to get their shot. Another, in a checkered ankle-length skirt, tries a couple novel angles, putting Rabbit in three-quarters profile, or sneaking up from behind, so that the five-legged form of the photographer and her tripod is interrupted by the detail of the sculpture’s steel butterfly valve. Christie’s own pre-auction photos appear to have been made in a different room altogether, one without an obvious entrance—a documentary nowhere of white panels. There’s no photographer there, either, only a spindly black tripod and camera, tilted vertically, remotely triggered.
A camera is a jarring detail, and hard to unsee. A high-sheen Koons is supposed to transcend brute objecthood in the way of something your kid (your id?) actually could never do. It is resonant, ideally, beyond belief—without a single flake of dust to break the illusion of, for example, a menacing blue balloon monkey made of pure light. On the other hand, such a Koons wraps itself in its surroundings, including the viewer and their camera. The sculptures incorporate the viewer that completes them. They also absorb whatever context has made their appearance possible. Gaze into the pages of a Koons catalog and find, revealed in the shiny margins, everything from the halls of Versailles (the camera apparently resting on a white rectangle, as if an innocent little sculpture on a nearby plinth) to a glorified storage unit (in a photo of Cracked Egg, taken by a couple from the doorway with a smartphone).
Jeff, too, loves to pose with his masterpieces—showing his tongue next to a row of carved puppies, doing jazz hands around one of his big cracked eggs—but there is something about Rabbit that really brings out his inner ham. There are as many pictures of it with him as without. Maybe that’s because Rabbit is unique among Koonses—uniquely shiny, that is: it’s the most silver, the most reflective, it gives the clearest image. Some of the “Celebration” sculptures act like functional looking glasses, too—the round mylar balloon, for example, or the flat animal-shaped cutouts—but they come in a range of colors, and the picture is a bit dim. The balloons and the eggs, meanwhile—the more widely known works—stretch out their surroundings or fold over them, so that professional cameraperson and Sunday selfie-taker alike are pulled into colorful strands.
The reflections in Rabbit are so thorough, so ubiquitous, that it’s eerie when they’re not there. That’s the insight at the core of Mark Leckey’s 2004 video Made in ‘Eaven. A camera pans and jukes around Rabbit, on a plinth in the center of a small room. But something’s not right—the room is a little too dumpy, too domestic. What’s more, as the camera floats on, you notice there’s no camera. This Rabbit bears only the distended image of the room around its plinth, the faintly facelike red panels and fireplace on the opposite wall, but there’s no lens, no photographer—no you—to be found. That’s how you know it’s a rendering—a Leckey fake.
Rabbit conveys a sort of “fun” infinity. It throws back your image but, unlike the mirror in the Christie’s restroom, does so without judgment. Gaze into a Koons and see yourself gazing into a Koons. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes, of course, to see yourself in the world in a Koons, frankly and without flaw, will cost $91 million.
- Jeff Koons