Tonight in New York City, Sotheby’s will auction a stainless steel, 2000-pound, six-and-a-half-foot-tall Popeye sculpture by Jeff Koons that is estimated to sell for between $25-35 million. Koons, who is already among the top three richest living American artists not to mention an avowed lover of Croods, made three of these Popeye sculptures, which probably represents the number of people who he thinks are dumb enough to pay between $25-35 million for a Popeye sculpture.
Here’s what Sotheby’s has to say about the piece:
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.
Note that the subtitles on the auction video above are in Chinese. Sotheby’s and Koons, who is a celebrity in China, are targeting nouveau riche Chinese as buyers for the piece. Everything from the incongruous Dixieland music at the end of the video to the curator’s comments trumps up the notion that Popeye is a 100% American symbol:
“He’s the David that challenges Goliath so it was very easy to associate yourself with the little guy that becomes very powerful and beats up the big guy and saves the girl. He’s the ultimate American hero; it’s the ultimate American dream.”
The underlying subtext is, of course, highly anti-American. To a potential Chinese buyer who views himself as the David of the world, he sees Popeye ephemera as the opportunity to take symbolic ownership of the American dream. A cartoon hunting trophy, if you will. When you think of it that way, the price of the sculpture is actually quite reasonable; Koons is selling off the American dream for a mere $25 million.
Let’s just hope the buyer doesn’t find out that Popeye hates Asians.
Here’s a few more close-up views of the piece:
UPDATE #1: Popeye was kept out of Chinese hands by casino owner and art destroyer Steve Wynn who paid $28.2 million for the Koons sculpture. He was the sole bidder and plans to display the piece at one of his Las Vegas hotels.