24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988

Jeff Koons, one of the best known and wealthiest artists working today, has created a lot of controversy with his artwork. His style of art includes sculptures or readymades, that are vivid, bright, and shiny. He started producing art at the age of eight and managed to sell a few of his artworks in his father’s antique store. Although Koons has stated that his work has no hidden symbols or meaning, that it is only what you see, everyone is trying to come up with their own meaning for it. One of his pieces, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, (1988), has caught the public’s eye, wondering what he is trying to convey. 

The authors of the SFMOMA exhibition catalog have compared his artwork to that of two other famous artists, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Marcel Duchamp started with paintings then later moved onto making readymades. Readymades are when the artist takes regular objects and modifies them into what they call art, by tilting or joining different pieces. Most viewers would be quick to judge Duchamp’s work because it did not make sense to them; and have a “defensive reaction”[1]. Jeff Koons is compared to Duchamp because of his readymades, which also make the audience mad. However, his readymades are also more complex than Duchamp’s, which makes people think that his work carries more messages, even though Jeff Koons says there is none. Andy Warhol, the other famous artist to whom he is compared, played a big part in the visual art movement which is now known as Pop art. Koons is compared to Warhol because both of their work “touch a deeper reality and raise unhappy questions about contemporary life, our loves, and they way we live now”[2]. This relates to the Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculpture because many people were unhappy since it raises upsetting thoughts. The public’s reception of Jeff Koons has created many different views on most of his work. 

In Jeff Koons, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, Koons’ work has been connected to early childhood and adolescence. His earliest sculpture was called Inflatable Flowers,(1979). The author writes that this sculpture could be compared to a vacuum cleaner. This already shows from the beginning of his career, that many people already did not like his work. Another big piece that he had made was of the flower and the rabbit. This made people very mad. They said that this sculpture would appeal very young children because it is enormous and shiny, and would make them want to buy it, although it is too big for them to play with, crushing their dreams. The leaves on the flower also “commercialized sexuality”[3]. Now knowing that Jeff Koons work is worth a lot of money, people try and come up with a reason why his art is worth so much, but at the same time they judge it.  

One of his strongest and scariest work he has made was of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a porcelain sculpture. There are many different ways that viewers can interpret this piece, but none of them will be the same. This piece captured the public’s attention because it “embodies some of the most difficult and important issues of our culture⎯celebrity and race, and sex and desire”[4]. SFMOMA exhibition critics say that this sculpture addresses the question of who Michael Jackson was (and is) and what we all wanted from him as a person. After this sculpture came out, many other celebrities like Lady Gaga and Pharrell Williams wanted a sculpture of themselves, produced by Koons. 

Jeff Koons claimed that his motivation for this piece was to bring a larger audience to his work, so he came up with the idea of using someone who was well known in pop culture, Michael Jackson. Jackson was very well-known by people across the world; his face and music were known from Paris to New Mexico, to Tokyo. Koons was also a very big fan of Michael Jackson. After Jackson heard that Koons wanted to make a sculpture of him and Bubbles, Jackson would constantly send over pictures of himself. A setback that Koons faced was that Michael’s face was constantly changing over time because of the plastic surgery, so he had to go to most of his concerts so that he could get an accurate picture of Michael’s face. 

Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, is a life-sized sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles sitting on top of a flower bed. Bubbles was Michael Jackson’s pet chimp that he had adopted, but was later taken away after he was physically abused. After Jackson adopted Bubbles, it became very well-known by the public. He is sitting on Michael’s lap with the singer’s arm wrapped around him. Both of them are wearing the same outfit and painted in the same two colors which are gold and white. Since this sculpture is painted gold and white, some viewers say that it has a religious meaning because it is so similar to sculpture of the Catholic Saints since they are made with gold leaf and porcelain. If looking at the sculpture as a whole, in a geometric sense, they are shaped as a triangle, which made critics turn to the idea of the sculpture Pietà, created by Michelangelo. 

According to SFMOMAMichael Jackson and Bubbles has attracted so much attention because of the questions it raises about race and gender. Koons had painted both Michael’s and Bubble’s faces white even though Michael was black. Viewers also talked about how Michael’s facial features are a mixture of male and female which makes them question what gender he could be. In this sculpture, he has very bright lipstick on his lips and his eyes are heavily lined with eyeliner. “We cannot help but experience racism in one of its most troubling forms, as expressed in the body of one of its victims”[5]. This means that most people who look at this sculpture feel very uncomfortable because they do not know what to feel. 

Another issue that this sculpture presents the viewer with, is how Michael Jackson is sitting with his arm wrapped around Bubbles. Although Michael is supposedly known to “love” him, an idea that was brought up was that they are posed like “man and wife”[6]. This then leads to the thought of beastiality; sexual intercourse between a human and an animal. Just the thought of that is very discomforting because now it raises new thoughts of what Michael could have done with Bubbles because it is so lifelike. As I stood in front of this sculpture at The Broad Museum, it seemed very lifelike to me because it is around the same size as an average human. Even though it seemed lifelike, however, I would not think they were right in front of me because of the way they were painted which was a scary thing to look at. After reading about this issue with the sculpture, it raised another question of whether Michael did do anything to Bubbles. Sadly, he did.

Michael Jackson was accused of assaulting Bubbles. Shortly after, Bubbles was taken away from Michael. Jane Goodall, an anthropologist and primatologist, who was well known for her work with monkeys, said that Bubbles was at least punched in the face once. Just from the public’s point of view, it may have seemed like Bubbles was living a luxurious life, but that was not the case. An idea that popped up was that Michael could have been taking his anger out on Bubbles by “abusing”[7] him. There is no real evidence of Michael beating up Bubbles, but there are some witnesses that have seen him beating him up in person. There was a man named Jack Gordan, and he stated “I saw Michael Jackson punch Bubbles in the face, kick him in the stomach.” In the end, Michael’s family ended up dismissing both of the claims. After hearing that Michael had beaten up Bubbles adds yet another meaning to this sculpture. Just by looking at it, it seems as if they were best friends but now we feel as if their relationship is broken. Bubbles did not deserve this type of treatment from his owner, but now he is still alive and thriving. 

This sculpture’s imagery, like a lot of Koon’s work, comes from the television, comics, and advertising, what is called mass culture. Another really big idea of this sculpture is the way we have grown up in America. Most children usually grow up watching television and in these TV shows, movies, or even advertisements, there seductive images that show up so that the children can see. At this time of our lives, young and naive, this is when we are more receptive and open to these types of ideas like sex. Later on as we get older in the adolescence stage, it shows that we want that because we were exposed to it at a young age, like how toys were something we always wanted as a kid. These are very interesting thoughts, although we do not have to accept it if we do not feel entirely comfortable thinking about it.[8]

Because Koons’ work attracts young children, it makes them want his work because it is so shiny and playful looking. It shows that children also have desires. “It takes wishes and turns them into desires, and then takes desires and turns them into obsessions”[9]. This means that we wish for something, but if we do not get our wish granted, we desire it because our want for this thing grows stronger. If you desire something for long enough, this turns our desires into our obsession. We are so obsessed with his work that we cannot stop thinking about what it is and how we want to touch it so bad even though we cannot. Even though we want to buy his work, we are not able to because it is just worth so much money that we cannot afford it. For example, in 1994, Jeff Koons made another piece in his readymade series depicting an inflatable dog. It looks like a balloon animal which is blue and looks like something a child could get at a carnival or fair. When the piece was sold for 91.1 million dollars, Koons broke the record as a living artist who had sold his work at an auction for that much money. I feel that if no one knew who had bought it at the auction, maybe a child was at the auction with their very rich mom or dad. This sculpture just looks so appealing because it is very enormous and shiny that every kid just wants to play with it and touch it. The child could have begged their parents to buy it so that they could play with it. I feel like his audience would tend to be mad that his work is worth so much money because when you look at it, all you can envision is dollar signs. Maybe it was Jeff Koons idea all along, to show us how crazy our culture is through this sculpture, as if we were looking at ourselves in a mirror. 

With all of these ideas about the Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculpture, “our confusion is compounded by the fact that as Koons’s career progresses the question of what he means or does not mean is beginning to become moot”[10]. After all of this research on Michael Jackson and Bubbles and how critics have interpreted it, I have a deeper understanding of what Jeff Koons had made. There are so many messages that lie beneath the surface. I want others to learn how to appreciate art and to not judge by first glance. Viewers should take a step back and just connect with what they are looking at so that they are able to come up with a meaning, a purpose. His work may seem empty, but this sculpture deals with a controversial celebrity figure. Even though Jeff Koons stated that his art has no meaning, critics will always find a way around it and come up with what it truly means. 

[1]Koons, Jeff. Jeff Koons. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, 9.
[2] Koons, 12.
[3] Koons, 11.
[4] Koons, 12.
[5] Koons, 14.
[6] Koons, 12.
[7] Reilly, Nick. “Michael Jackson Accused of Assaulting Bubbles The Chimp.”
[8] Koons, 13
[9] Koons, 15
[10] Koons, 16.


Koons, Jeff. Jeff Koons. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992.

L, Mary. “Jeff Koons Controversial Sculpture of Michael Jackson & Bubbles.” Public Delivery, 18 Oct. 2019, publicdelivery.ord/jeff-koons-michael-jackson-bubbles-1988/.

Reilly, Nick. “Michael Jackson Accused of Assaulting Bubbles The Chimp.” NME, NME, 1 Feb. 2019, www.nme.com/news/mucis/animal-expert-accuses-michael-jackson-of-assaulting-bubbles-the-chimp-2441802

Stoller-Lindsey, Nina. “The Science behind the Art of Jeff Koons.” Quartz, Quartz, 29 July 2014, qz.com/235891/the-science-behind-the-art-of-jeff-koons/.

Sutton, Kate. “The Story behind Jeff Koons’ Controversial Michael Jackson Sculpture: As a Major Retrospective of the Artist’s Work-- Which Has Shattered Auction Records-- Rolls Into New York’s Whitney Museum, the Artist Talks about the Making of One of His Most Iconic Pieces: A Larger-than-Life Rendering of the King of Pop and His Beloved Pet Chimpanzee Bubbles.” Billboard, no. 21, 2014, p.26. EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=ture&AuthType=ip,uid&db=edsggo&AN=edsgcl.372958394&site=eds-live.

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