Don’t Look Now : Jeff Koons and the Ownership of Images (updated, with end of Case?)

Posted: January 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

Balloon Dog Bookend

(Update I, II below)

The well known Artist Jeff Koons has had his Lawyers (on December 21st) send a Cease and Desist Letter calling for an “Immediate Cessation” for the San Francisco shop Park Life to stop selling balloon dog book-ends. It would appear that the letter makes the case that Koons, having produced a set of statues of balloon dogs which then have become Iconic Koons Signatures, now “owns” all further representations of balloon dogs which are “here and henceforth the image property of the artist”.

One of the important ways that artists have worked in the later 20th century up to the present is through the alternative use and development of imagery through its recontextualization and reevaluation. This transformative ability of the art piece is a means art and the artist use to critique and understand the representational structures of the social which ingrain themselves invisibly in the ideologies of the society and motivate the actions of the individual and their culture.  This move by Koons seems to wish to contain the openness to which we should regard social imagery, the ideas circulating around them, and our abilities to critique or develop these ideas and images. The Cease and Desist letter is an open call for closure of what a image means and would seem a attempt to restrict and control images-meanings by the means of the influx of money and law and highlights the “democratic” methodology by which members of a society having access to money and the system ensure that recontextualization and alterations of images do not give the members of the entire social body a full and flexible spectrum of ideas and thought.

Jeff Koons, early work Vacuum Cleaners

Born in York, Pennsylvania Koons went on to study painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Maryland Institute College of Art and  gained attention with a set of installations in the early 1980’s which was based on the use of ordinary, consumer items such as vacuum cleaners, shampooing apparatus, and the like.  These items of the commonplace were put into fluorescently infused Plexiglas cases which removed them from their ordinary usage producing a critique of a consumerist commodity culture which came to preference a sign value of objects over their purposeful and  ostensive use values.

Jeff Koons, Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) 1985

His Equilibrium series, which defined his first one-man show in 1985, made use of average basketballs suspended in water-filled glass tanks. On the walls of the gallery, and behind the tank-sculptures, Koons mounted posters of famous basketball players who were advertising, as well paid spokespeople, sports equipment. The series was later showcased at the Whitney Museum and brought Koons to American national attention.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Magenta), 1994

At this time Koons became more intrigued with the representation of low culture, and its accessible imaginary, and produced the Statuary series of large stainless-steel casts of blowup toys and ballon animals. This was followed by an intense mining of prosaic kitsch imagery with his Banality series which includes the infamous Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculptures.

Jeff Koons, Manet Soft, 1991

After marriage to Cicciolina (Ilona Staller), in 1991, Koons produced his controversial Made in Heaven series which included work in the mediums of painting, photograph, and sculpture, and were based on quasi-photographic images of the couple in explicit sexual congress of various sorts. Along with this series was a set published texts which related the couple and their many sexual acts to pre-original sin and the innocence of the Garden of Eden.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles 1988

During the period from the mid 80’s through the 90’s  Koons had simultaneously been cultivating, through public interviews and public relations releases, his own artistic persona making his artistic personhood a performative act.  At times this was counter to the prevalent artist mythos, as with his interview on “Good Morning America” where he talked about his wonderful childhood and his loving and loved parents, and, at other times, this was plied as ironic reaffirming of the “outsider genius” art folklore. Because of this honing of his own life as Aritstic Performance he was thought to be a continuation of the Warhol “fame” tradition and the idea of the artists life as art act.

Jeff Koons, Puppy 1992

In 1992 Koons was commissioned to produce a piece for an exhibition in Bad Arolsen, Germany and created the large flower and plant piece Puppy.  The sculpture was a 12.5 meter tall representation of a Terrier puppy formed from flowers and referencing the common spectacle society encapsulated in the Tournament of Roses parade which yearly winds its way through Pasadena.

Jeff Koons, Sandwiches 2003

In beginnings of the 21st century Koons moved to painting and produced the  Easyfun-Ethereal, series.  The paintings worked themes of painting and collage used by major artists of the 20th century from Picasso to Rauschenberg and was, as artistic act, meant to place Koons in the trajectory of great genius artists of the past.

Jeff Koons, Hanging Heart 2006

Hanging Heart, A multicolored series of high chrome hearts was exhibited in 2006 and sold one of the pieces of the series at Sothebys the following year for 23.6 million dollars, a record at the time.  The Celebration series of scultures, of which the Hanging Heart series is one, were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2008.

Jeff Koons Popeye 2003

Additionally, in the year the 2008,  Koons had a large retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, which was followed the next year by his first major solo show in London, at the Serpentine Gallery. The exhibition in London had appropriated figures from the Popeye cartoon series and included castings of children’s inflatable swimming toys (referencing both the livelihood of Popeye as Sailor and pop/kid Icon) and “dense, realist paintings of Popeye holding his can of spinach or smoking his pipe, a red lobster looming over his head.”

Because of his appropriation of images and objects produced by others, Koons has found himself the focus of numerous Copyright Infringement suits.

His “String of Puppies” sculpture was based on the Photo-postcard work of Art Rogers and resulted in the Case Rogers v. Koons in 1992.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made the judgment against Koons for his use of a photograph of puppies bundled in a couples arms and Koons was made to pay restitution and to give one of the sculptures (ironic definitely) to Rogers.

Rogers Photo and Koons "String of Puppies"

In 1993 Koons lost two cases for copyright infringement in the cases of  United Features Syndicate, Inc. v. Koons and Campbell v. Koons. But luck will out and more recently Koons has found he can win a copyright suit against him. In 2005, in the case of Blanch v. Koons, the court found in Koon’s favor (2006, a one year case) in regard to his appropriation of a advertisement into the painting, Niagara (2000). Interestingly the Court ruled in this way because they found that the painting had altered the original advertisement photograph in a sufficient way and could therefore be seen as fair use.

Jeff Koons, Niagra 2000

Given this, what are we to make of Koon’s Case?  Ironic displacement, or a Disneyesque (the Mickey Mouse Protection Act) attempt to control the meaning of a public image?

Update I:

This Brief of the Federal Complaint from the Courthouse News of San Francisco By Jeff Koons regarding his ownership of Balloon Dogs:

“As virtually any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog, and the shape created by twisting a balloon into a dog-like form is part of the public domain,” a gallery says in trying to head off a lawsuit from artist Jeff Koons. The San Francisco gallery, Park Life, says Koons has demanded that it stop selling its “Balloon Dog Bookend.” Park Life says Koons has no copyright or intellectual rights to balloon animals just because he made a “Balloon Dog Structure.”
“Having been threatened with legal action, Park Life seeks a declaration from this court that the Balloon Dog Bookend does not infringe on any copyrights or other purported intellectual property owned by Koons, because any similarities between the Balloon Dog Bookend compared with the Balloon Dog Structure are driven by the wholly unprotectable idea of depicting the shape of a balloon dog in a solid form,” the gallery says in its federal complaint. “This unprotectable idea will yield elements that naturally follow from the idea of such a form that cannot give rise to a copyright claim.”
Park Life seeks declaratory judgment, “so that there will be no controversy clouding the right of Park Life or others to continue distributing the Balloon Dog Bookend products.”
Koons, who is 65 today, is famous for his sculptures of banal objects in shiny stainless steel. His “Hanging Heart” sculpture sold for $23.6 million at Sotheby’s in 2007, which was a record haul for a living artist. His “Balloon Flower” then sold for $25.7 million at Christie’s in London, in 2008, before art prices crashed in the worldwide recession.

Emma Allen looks with an eye to the absurd at the summary and comes away with a few notes:

1. The document begins: “As virtually any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog, and the shape created by twisting a balloon into a dog-like form is part of the public domain.” I’d like to call to the stand the first expert witness. Dr. Bozo, will you please raise your right hand.

2. “Upon information and belief, Jeff Koons LLC purports to represent the intellectual property rights of Jeff Koons, a retired stockbroker whose sculptures and other works are well-known for copying pre-existing forms and images from popular culture.” Ouch. Translation: You are nothing but a retired stockbroker and a copycat, Mr. Koons. For shame. (In Koons’s defense, he was a commodities broker, not a stockbroker.)

3. “Park Life participates in fundraising and support for several Bay Area non-profit organizations and provides opportunities for lesser known artists to display and promote their work.” Translation: We, on the other hand, are saintly people who live in a part of the country where we grow our own food and share it with the less fortunate while all holding hands. Also, our artists aren’t 56, you mid-quinquagenarian, you.

6. “Today, balloon modeling has grown to include a large body of followers, many of whom are members of the National Association of Balloon Artists and who attend the International Balloon Arts Convention.” Koons has probably never even been to the International Balloon Arts Convention. Poser.

Update II:  End of Case?

As of January 5th the attorneys of Jeff Koons LLC. are rescinding their case against Park Life in the intellectual property dispute which entailed their odd attempt to monopolize the image (and therefore the conceptual directions) of the ubiquitous balloon dog.

Koon’s take on the image as the gleaning metal balloon dogs which sold directly off of the studio factory floor for millions, has agreed to halt the pursuit of the lawsuit against Park Life and the Toronto manufacturer imm Living who produces the Balloon Dog Bookend. The only thing is they cannot use the name of Koons in the selling of the item.  Lucky for them they hadn’t done this nor even considered the activity.   Park Life’s lawyer, Jedediah Wakefield of Fenwick & West will file for a dismissal of his declaratory judgment suit and the shop will return to the normal activities of selling the designed-priced home objects and Koons will have brought his name once more to the attention of the artworld and the public (after too long a Koons-attention hiatus).

  1. maaretta says:

    Koon’s idea of owning balloon Dogs is hilarious. Well, I guess sues the shop, magicians who have been making Balloon Dogs to little children as a part of there job can sue Jeff Coons. Kids who have gotten a Balloon Dog from a magician can as well. The have “owned” the image as well as concrete Balloon Dogs before Coons. 😀

  2. […] create art installations using the products to sell. Kind of like Duchamp’s ready-mades or Jeff Koons Vacuum Cleaners but with a twist… Actually do something with them instead of just displaying […]

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