Few metals have had such an influential role in human history as gold. The first metal widely known to our species, gold has always been imbued with a complex spiritual context. The precious metal has consumed alchemists, compelled explorers, decided the fate of civilizations, and dominated the world’s economy, but also captivated artists for millennia.
Ancient narratives about the material have persevered into modernity, securing the idea of gold as a potent symbol of authority, sacred power and prosperity. Gold has found many applications in modern and contemporary art. Gustav Klimt regularly used gold leaf as a background for his paintings. An extremely thin sheet of gold used for gilding, gold leaf has been used for decorating as early as Antiquity.
Further into the 20th century, the interest in working with gold was revived after WW II. In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg started working on his Elemental Paintings series to which The Gold Paintings belong, applying gold leaf to produce small scale mixed media works. Ten years later, Yves Klein used a similar approach to his paintings, calling to mind gold's use as a symbol of power and commerce. Among artists who used gold in their works are also Donald Judd, Louise Bourgeois, Orlan, Jan Fabre and Matthew Barney.
Featured image: Paul McCarthy - Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1997-99.
Completed between 1903 and 1907, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was commissioned by the sitter's husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish banker and sugar producer. Adele Bloch-Bauer, who was also the big supporter of Klimt’s art, was the only model painted by Gustav Klimt twice. She was also depicted in the well-known Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II.
The final and most fully representative painting of Klimt's golden phase, the work was produced by an elaborate technique of using gold and silver leaf and then adding decorative motifs in bas-relief using gesso, a paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk or gypsum. This phase was inspired by the artist's visit to Ravenna in 1903, where he saw Byzantine mosaics of San Vitale. He started producing works featuring pronounced planes and delicate detailing made of gold leaf, at the same time reflecting the metalwork of his father and younger brother Ernst.
In 1941, the canvas was stolen by the Nazis and displayed at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. Following eight years of efforts by the Bloch-Bauer heirs, the painting was returned to the family and sold for $135 million at Christie’s New York in 2006, the highest sum ever paid for a painting at the time.
Featured image: Gustav Klimt - Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, via Creative Commons.
One of Jeff Koons' most iconic and controversial pieces, Michael Jackson and Bubbles is a larger-than-life gilded porcelain sculpture of the King of Pop and his beloved pet chimpanzee. Jackson was very supportive of the project, even sending over press photographs at Koons' request. Koons chose one of the musician and Bubbles fresh off the Bad world tour, taking artistic license with some of the details and shifting Jackson's position slightly so that it echoed the historical art tradition of the Madonna and child.
In the work, the pop star is reimagined as a god-like creature, highlighting the essence and culture of celebrity worship in the pop space. He is surrounded by flowers that may be offerings from adoring fans or religious devotees. Many of Jackson’s fans were offended by how the porcelain made Jackson appear white and feminine. Koons however, explained the art transcends gender, describing Jackson as the contemporary Apollo.
Featured image: Jeff Koons - Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, via Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.
Paul McCarthy's Michael Jackson and Bubbles reveals the artist's ongoing engagement with popular culture as well as art-historical narratives. It is one of a series of take-offs that McCarthy has created from Jeff Koons’s aforementioned sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988).
While Koons' flawless porcelain depiction of the pop superstar and his beloved chimpanzee was a celebration of fame and the highly stylized mechanisms used to generate such celebrity, McCarthy’s first spin-off presented a mutant portrait with cartoonish large heads and feet. Appropriating an already appropriated form, the artist enacts a near dizzying spiral of quotation and further manipulates the figures into nearly grotesque representations. This piece led to the development of a series of sculptures that have pushed the limits of abstraction and exaggeration.
Featured image: Paul McCarthy - Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1997-99, via tomislav medak.
Created in 2008, Marc Quinn's Siren is the epitome of luxury and desirability and the spectacular apex of the artist’s output. Made of 18-carat gold, it represents the world’s most famous supermodel Kate Moss struck in the ultimate material of prosperity and affluence.
Presented in a contorted yoga pose, the work explores the idea of Moss as an abstraction, an idealised figure who is more of a cultural hallucination than an actual person of flesh and blood. In one interview, the artist himself explained:
It’s called Siren, because in a sense it represents everything that lures people to wreck themselves on the rocks: money, perfection, unattainable images — all these things.
Constituting the very quintessence of Quinn’s dialectic concern with identity, human embodiment and representation, the work also reminds us that we can become controlled by the images and fantasies that we collectively create.
Featured image: Marc Quinn - Siren, 2008, via Marc Quinn.
An 18-karat solid gold toilet, Maurizio Cattelan's America first debuted at the Guggenheim Museum in 2016, taking up residence in a standard pre-existing restroom on the museum’s fifth-floor ramp, allowing the visitors to use the toilet in much the same way as they would use a normal one.
An extravagantly luxurious object made available for public use, America can be seen as a witty comment on the social, political and economic disparities in the United States, described by the artist himself as “1% art for the 99%”. Emblematic of Cattelan’s practice in its mixture of irreverent humor and astute social commentary, the piece also reminds us of the inescapable physical realities of our shared humanity.
The piece was stolen in 2019 from The Blenheim Palace during the artist's solo show after a successful burglary carried out overnight. In a statement of his own, Cattelan praised the burglary, calling the thieves “great performers.”
Featured image: Maurizio Cattelan - America, 2016, via Guggenheim.