7-Foot-Tall Stainless Steel Popeye could Rake in $25 million worth of Spinach

Jeff Koons’ “Popeye,” a seven-foot-tall stainless steel statue will be offered at Sotheby’s on May 14 and could realize a huge pile of spinach… some $25 million worth.

NEW YORK – “I yam what I yam.”

And what he is, is a seven-foot-tall metallic sculptural representation of the American pop culture icon, Popeye. Considered artist Jeff Koons’ most accomplished and major work of recent years, “Popeye” will be among the offerings at the Sotheby’s New York Evening Auction of Contemporary Art sale on May 14. The statue carries a blow-me-down estimate of $25 million.

This Popeye is from an edition of three, of which none have come to auction before. This particular Popeye has never been shown publicly, but will be on display prior to the auction, beginning on May 2 at Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries.

“The history of Pop Art begins and ends with Popeye,” said Alex Rotter, co-head of Sotheby’s Worldwide Contemporary Art Department. “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.”

Popeye was originally conceived in 1929 by Elzie Crisler Segar as side character for the daily strip “The Thimble Theatre,” which featured a group of odd characters, including a skinny, gangly old maid named Olive Oyl, her boyfriend Ham Gravy and her harebrained brother Castor Oyl. 

Roy Lichtenstein’s 1961 version of Popeye.

Andy Warhol took a crack at the all-American sailor as well.

The character was embraced by the American public as a sort of everyman struggling through the hardships of the Great Depression. Strong, buoyant and supremely self-assured, Popeye stood up to and, ultimately, overcame the hardships thrown in his way. It was his gumption and resourcefulness, and tendency to stand up to and defeat bullies, that helped propel the sailor man to national fame.

Though he is now 85 years old, the all-American cartoon hero is still renowned the world over. 

This “Popeye” is signed, dated 2009-2011 and numbered 3/3 on the underside of Popeye’s right foot. It is made of high-chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating.

“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,” according to the Sotheby’s release. “Herculean in stance, with outrageously proportioned forearms and a proud cleft-chin, the resulting Popeye is three-dimensional and over-life-size, incarnated in Koons’s signature material: stainless steel.

“Flawlessly finished in kaleidoscopic, jewel-like glazes, Popeye stands at the culmination of a long line of monumental sculptures and statues in which Koons has sought to re-frame the terms of high art for the masses. The seminal stainless steel Rabbit from the Statuary series of 1986, the porcelain sculptures Pink Panther and Michael Jackson and Bubbles from Banality in 1986, the erotically charged yet Disneyesque flowers from Made in Heaven in 1991, and the colossal stainless steel Balloon Dog and Hanging Heart that comprise Celebration from 1994, together form the Koonsian arena within which Popeye, resolutely tied to the 21st century, now takes center stage.”

Popeye’s Humble Origins
Segar was hired by the New York Evening Journal in 1919 and tasked with writing and drawing a new comic strip to be called the “Thimble Theater.” That was all the supervision he received, so with a free hand, he created the cast, mainly surrounding the Oyl family, headed by father and mother Cole and Nana Oyl, and rounded out with Olive and Castor.

Starting with the four-panel template in which the joke paid off in panel four, Segar eventually began writing story arcs that ran for weeks or months. In 1929, Segar started writing a story in which Ham and Castor hatch a plan to find and capture the fabled Whiffle Hen. Since the two adventurers knew nothing about sailing, they head to the wharf to recruit someone who could handle their boat. On June 17, 1929, Castor walks up to a squinty-eyed, slope-shouldered man with a pipe in his mouth and an anchor tattoo on his huge forearm and asks, “Are you a sailor?”

“Ja think I’m a cowboy!” The birth of Popeye the Sailor Man.

The sailor answered back, “Ja think I’m a cowboy?” and thus, Popeye the Sailor Man was born.

Popeye was never supposed to last longer than the Whiffle Hen story. But when the sailor man disappeared from the strip, readers wrote their newspapers, insisting that Popeye should become a regular member of the “The Thimble Theater” cast. Eventually, Olive Oyl gave Ham Gravy the old heave-ho and began dating Popeye, who also soon received top billing in the newly renamed “Thimble Theater, Starring Popeye.”

For more information about this or other auctions at Sotheby’s, visit the firm’s website.

Gregory Watkins is the executive editor of WorthPoint. You can e-mail him at greg.watkins@worthpoint.com

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