Popeye: The Ultimate Neo-Pop Hero

Whether you consider the artwork of Jeff Koons to be a massive durable monument or cheap and self-promotional, there’s no denying it gives an awesome visual impact. Steve Wynn, the billionaire and casino mogul, seems to agree that the visual impact of Popeye will enhance his Las Vegas casino-hotel.

Sotheby’s was auctioning several works of art at its Contemporary Art Evening Auction on May 14, 2014, and Popeye, the world-famous cartoon character recreated by Jeff Koons in larger-than-life, colorful stainless steel was one of them. It was expected to bring $25 million, but was sold for $28 million. The statue had never before been exhibited publicly and never offered at action.

Considered an American pop culture icon, Popeye the Sailor Man is one of Koons’s most recent major works. Popeye saw his debut in contemporary art in the 1960s with representations by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. A half century later, he is still the ultimate American hero even though he is 80 years old.

Debuting in 1929 in a newspaper comic strip, his super strength from his perpetual can of spinach won him a place in the hearts of people suffering from the Great Depression. The qualities of resilience, confidence and resoluteness were needed by people at that time, and he is still one of the most recognizable all-American cartoon heroes all over the world.

Koons included images of Popeye in his work in the early 2000s, but after the new financial crisis of 2008, Popeye again became an icon as the undefeated.

The statue has a defiant stance and massive, disproportionate muscles as well as the famous cleft-chin, ever-present pipe and can of spinach. The brilliant stainless steel shine and jewel-like glaze give the statue its awesome visual impact. In 2002, Koons began his Popeye Series with realistic paintings of Popeye holding his can of spinach or smoking his pipe and with a red lobster over his head, which is homage to Salvador Dali and his lobster phone. Koons said at that time that Popeye always reminded him of his father who was a very optimistic and self-created man. The paintings are huge, some eight feet by seven feet.

Koons has completed many life-size figures from Michael Jackson to figures from ancient art. He has created paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings. He uniquely combines the traditional and the radical and often creates dialogue between his paintings and sculptures.

The purchase of this colossal Popeye looks like a good investment. One of Koons’s Balloon Dog statues, of which there are five, sold for $58 million. This took the record for the largest amount paid for a work of art during the artist’s lifetime.

Popeye will feel right at home in Las Vegas where other iconic images attract millions to the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice to see images of Elvis and Hunter S. Thompson as well as Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s eraser sculpture. The Bellagio Hotel and Casino has hosted exhibits of Andy Warhol’s work, and now Popeye will take his rightful place in pop culture history. In America, popular culture is taken very seriously and is used for everything from reproductions of world icons to architectural design. The question of whether the commercial vernacular is a genuine expression of aesthetic sensibility has been definitively answered.


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