Jeff Koons' World

By Ingrid Sischy

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In 1992 Koons was at the height of his celebrity—or rather, his notoriety. Following the controversial Made in Heaven exhibitions, he had enjoyed a tremendous success with Puppy in Arolsen. Major U.S. and European retrospectives toured from 1992 through 1993, and were greeted with passionate criticism as well as acclaim.When his divorce from Ilona Staller turned into an extremely unpleasant and public custody battle, reaching its height (or nadir) when Staller abducted their son Ludwig, mainstream newspapers as well as the art magazines followed all of the developments. Koons had become one of the few contemporary artists to break into general public consciousness. But despite all the attention, at this very moment Koons vanished from sight as an artist for several years.

Of course, Koons hadn't stopped working; he was planning what would become his most ambitious series ever, in terms of logistics and the scale of production...


The almost decade-long tale of actually completing some of the Celebration pieces is now legendary. Obstacles included the impossibility of producing the stainless-steel sculptures the way Koons believed they needed to be done. Wobbles kept creeping in and the color was not perfect. That led to more trials and higher costs, and the cycle continued. The paintings fared better at first, but eventually overall problems held up their completion, too. To cut to the main themes: He didn`t have the right manufacturers, and apart from a few committed collectors, he didn`t have the patronage or money behind him necessary to simultaneously solve technical issues and produce enough work so he could get out of the hole. (He`d left Sonnabend Gallery by then.) It got hairy. Some of the work had been presold by dealers for way less than it was costing him, and the heat was on to finish it. "I could have made 30 dirt balls and delivered 30 dirt balls," says Koons ruefully. Of course, he didn`t compromise the work. He held his ground about the non-negotiable importance of getting the sculptures right, and he continued to insist that the paintings live up to his, and the viewers`, expectations. It was only a matter of time that the whole enterprise went kaput. No one explains it better than Koons. He says: "It`s a tough period to talk about. I had my divorce custody going on. I was terrified of my son`s position. I felt like a dog chasing his tail, dealing with the injustice we were receiving. It was very hard to go through. It went on for years. Between the lawyers` fees, the costs of fighting the Italian courts, and the problems with Celebration, I went completely broke. I needed to let everybody go. I had to liquidate my holdings. I was very, very depressed. I developed a reputation for being a perfectionist, for letting things linger, and for not delivering the works. But I was a realist."

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Jeff Koons
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Jeff Koons

Eckhard Schneider, Katy Siegel, Ingrid Sischy, Hans Werner Holzwarth
Hardcover in clamshell box, 13.0 x 17.3 in., 606 pages, $ 4,500
Jeff Koons in front of Popeye at his Chelsea studio, New York 2003. Photo: Catarina Åström.