Top Ten ARTnews Stories: How Jeff Koons Became a Superstar

Kelly Devine Thomas tracked the way an artist shaped his own career.

Sotheby’s auctioned Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, for $5.6 million in 1999.


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To stay at the top of the art game today, some would argue, an artist needs not just talent and a good track record but also a flair for publicity and the support of a powerful consortium of dealers and collectors. Even critical opinion may not count for much, as is amply demonstrated by Jeff Koons, who has been sharply attacked by some of the most respected names since he started showing his work in the early 1980s.

Despite personal and financial setbacks, Koons has somehow stayed afloat—like one of the basketballs suspended in aquariums that he made in the mid-’80s. His longevity may in large measure be due to his curious position as a marketing phenomenon—a situation unique to our times and one that was thoroughly explored by Kelly Devine Thomas in “The Selling of Jeff Koons” (May 2005). She reported that the artist is surrounded and supported by a group of high-octane movers and shakers that includes dealers Matthew Marks, Larry Gagosian, and Robert Mnuchin and collectors Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou, and Peter Brant. It is in their interest to keep Koons’s reputation polished and his prices high, and the artist is a gleeful participant in the process. At least in terms of dollar value, the collaboration works: Koons’s prices have soared at auction, topping off at $5.6 million.

How did an artist who sold his works for relatively modest prices two decades ago reach such peaks? Thomas anatomizes the intriguing twists and turns of Koons’s career, observing that the artist, a former Wall Street commodities broker, “masterminded his fame and fortune through a combination of charm, guile, and a talent for creating expensive art that inspires critical debate.”

Thomas describes how Koons over the years has persuaded patrons to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the fabrication of his sculptures. He has produced works whose “seductive surfaces, expensive scale and quality, and flawless execution” cast them frankly as luxury consumer objects, and he has limited supply by placing these works with collectors who are unlikely to sell them.

Although Koons declined to be interviewed for the article, Thomas managed to create a full-blooded portrait. She elicited telling anecdotes about the artist from early collectors and former assistants. She revealed that Koons’s payroll spiraled to more than $1 million before he laid off most of his staff in 1997, and that his backers at one point were “hemorrhaging money left and right.”

From his associates, Thomas gleaned observations about Koons’s attitudes and character, like this assessment from Antonio Homem, director of the Sonnabend gallery: “Jeff is an extremely romantic artist. He is ready to ruin himself and anyone involved with him for an artwork to be what he wants it to be.” Chicago dealer Donald Young described Koons as very conscious of his market, which consists of extremely wealthy people. At the same time, Young said, Koons sees himself as “carrying a torch in terms of his importance within his generation and within the hierarchy of the history of contemporary art.” As the artist himself put it in The Jeff Koons Handbook, a slim volume published by Rizzoli in 1992, “I have my finger on the Eternal.”

May 2005The Selling of Jeff Koons

He made banality blue chip, pornography avant-garde, and tchotchkes into trophy art. How Jeff Koons, with the support of a small circle of dealers and collectors, masterminded his fame and fortune

by Kelly Devine Thomas

Earlier this year some of the most powerful players in the art world attended a 50th birthday party for Jeff Koons, the controversial art star who rose to fame in the 1980s. Jeffrey Deitch, who helped bankroll Koons’s ambitious and outsize “Celebration” series and nearly went bankrupt for it in the 1990s, hosted the party at his SoHo gallery, where examples from Koons’s oeuvre were projected on large screens and miniature versions of Balloon Dog, an iconic work, were handed out as party favors.

Among the high-profile museum directors, curators, artists, and collectors in the room that night were Koons’s longtime New York dealer Ileana Sonnabend, with whom he has worked on and off since 1986; Larry Gagosian, who recently began showing Koons’s new works and is now producing his “Celebration” sculptures; Robert Mnuchin, chairman of C&M Arts, which hosted a comprehensive Koons exhibition last May; and dealer William Acquavella.

The deep-pocketed gathering was indicative of the level of support currently invested in Koons, the former Wall Street commodities broker who has polarized opinion in the art world for more than two decades and whose pieces have fetched as much as $5.6 million at auction. Koons disappeared from the art-world radar for much of the 1990s, when he went through a messy divorce and struggled to deliver his “Celebration” series—sculptures and paintings depicting toys and childhood themes blown up to fantastical proportions, such as the ten-foot-tall, stainless-steel Balloon Dog that weighs more than a ton. “He has a vision that goes beyond his collectors,” says Gagosian. “It’s a huge vision, and it’s out there. But he connects the dots in one of the more interesting ways I’ve seen.”

Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international cohead for postwar and contemporary art, points to the number of dealers who have recently aligned themselves with Koons as proof of the “feeding frenzy” surrounding him. In the past five years, his market has become “almost hysterical,” says art adviser and longtime Koons collector Estelle Schwartz.

How did an artist who sold his works for relatively modest prices two decades ago reach such peaks? Collectors, dealers, curators, and auction specialists who spoke with ARTnews say that Koons has masterminded his fame and fortune through a combination of charm, guile, and a talent for creating expensive art that inspires critical debate. Despite repeated requests, Koons declined to be interviewed for this article.

“As Koons likes to point out, someone in every generation has to be held up as a shining example of what is wrong with current art,” Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, once observed. “It is a dirty job, but Koons, who has the single-mindedness of a missile, has taken on the duty. Koons’s conceptual strategy is to reveal his ambition.”

Koons has achieved his ambition, sources say, with the help of a close circle of dealers, including Sonnabend, Deitch, Gagosian, and, more recently, Mnuchin, as well as a core group of collectors, among them, Los Angeles real estate developer Eli Broad, Greek construction tycoon Dakis Joannou, Chicago collector Stephan Edlis, newsprint magnate Peter Brant, and Christie’s owner Franí§ois Pinault, who have made him a cornerstone of their collections and continue to acquire many of the new works that come out of his studio.

Over the years, Koons has persuaded patrons to pay for the fabrication of his sculptures, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has limited supply by placing these works with important private and public collections from which they are unlikely to be sold; and he has created artworks whose seductive surfaces, expensive scale and quality, and flawless execution cast them as luxury consumer objects. “He is a trophy artist,” says Chicago dealer Donald Young, who worked with Koons on his 1988 “Banality” series. “And he isn’t against being a trophy artist.”

With his eye on such artistic forebears as Duchamp, Dalí­, Warhol, and Lichtenstein, Koons combines money, art, and publicity in a provocative mix that has landed him in the pages of Time, People, Newsweek, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. From the start he has promoted himself as a celebrity. In the late 1970s, when he first moved to New York and worked at the Museum of Modern Art, he attracted attention with his clothes—sequins, polka dots, and bow ties, an inflatable flower occasionally wrapped around his neck. Later, in advertisements for his 1988 “Banality” exhibition, he posed beside bikini-clad women like a rock star.

“From early on Jeff saw himself as carrying a torch in terms of his importance within his generation and within the hierarchy of the history of contemporary art,” says Young. “He thinks very clearly about how he puts his work out. He’s very conscious of his market. He thinks about where his work appeals and whom it appeals to.” To whom does Koons’s work appeal? Young responds, “The very wealthy.”

While artists typically separate art and money, Koons’s art addresses market forces head on. Says art historian Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, “Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’”

As Dan Cameron, chief curator at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, notes, “If all you want is a good time, he won’t let you down. But underneath the primitive thirst for delight and pleasure in his works, I think he is deeply engaged in some philosophical questions. Both Marxists and kids can enjoy it.”

Critical response to Koons’s encased vacuum cleaners, floating basketballs, gilded celebrities, and stainless-steel and porcelain tchotchkes has been extreme. “In 1939 Clement Greenberg wrote his famous denunciation of kitsch, but it is unlikely that even in his wildest nightmares he could have envisioned Jeff Koons,” wrote Eleanor Heartney in ARTnews in 1989. “Koons’s great claim to fame is his capacity to make the vulgar chic.” Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz has written that no one has “straddled the cosmic divide between innocence and cunning, hilarity and insidiousness, as effectively as Koons.” Time critic Robert Hughes has called his works “syrupy, gross, and numbing.” Even his fans have had trouble reconciling their love-hate relationship with him. Peter Schjeldahl, now an art critic for the New Yorker, once proclaimed, “Jeff Koons makes me sick. He may be the definitive artist of this moment, and that makes me the sickest. I’m interested in my response, which includes excitement and helpless pleasure along with alienation and disgust… I love it, and pardon me while I throw up.”

Koons, who lives in a 13-room town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, came of age as an artist during a decade when contemporaries like Julian Schnabel were aggressively promoting themselves, eager to expand their markets to the level of music and movie legends. Koons’s breakthrough exhibition took place in 1985 at International with Monument, in the East Village, when the neighborhood was the haunt of collectors like British advertising mogul Charles Saatchi on the hunt for young talent.

Over the past two decades, Koons, who has been quoted as saying that the “great artists of the future are going to be the great negotiators,” has built what he describes as a power base. “I have a platform now,” he told an interviewer in 1990. “I have all the support possible, as far as a stage for Jeff Koons to do his work.”

In addition to an increasing number of dealers who compete to handle his new works and buy those that appear at auction, Koons convinced collectors Joannou, Brant, and Broad, along with dealers Deitch, London’s Anthony d’Offay, and Cologne’s Max Hetzler, to invest heavily in the fabrication of the “Celebration” series, whose slow production during much of the l990s caused what Gorvy describes as a “cloud of confusion to hang over his market.”

Koons’s auction prices skyrocketed in 1999, when Brant paid a then record $1.8 million at Christie’s for Pink Panther (1988), a sculpture of the cartoon character hugging a buxom blonde, which was the first of Koons’s major porcelain works to appear at auction. Before 1999, his highest auction price was $288,500. Since the Pink Panther sale, more than 15 works have been auctioned for more than $1 million each. Last May financier Thomas H. Lee paid $5.5 million for Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train (1986), which was originally priced at $75,000 in 1986. Sources say that current interest in Koons extends to collectors such as Lee; Barnes & Noble founder Leonard Riggio; fashion designer Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli; New York real estate developer Aby Rosen; and Norwegian shipping magnate Hans Rasmus Astrup, who bought Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) at Sotheby’s.

Today Koons’s inner circle of collectors own many of the same sculptures, say sources, which are typically made in editions of three plus one artist’s proof. Sotheby’s noted in its sales catalogue for Michael Jackson and Bubbles—originally priced at $250,000 in 1988, it sold for a record $5.6 million in 2001—that Joannou, Broad, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art owned the remaining works in the edition. When Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train came up for sale, Christie’s advertised that Broad, Joannou, and Edlis owned the other examples.

The issuance of new works in the past five years has often coincided with the appearance of high-profile works at auction. Most of the art in the C&M Arts show last May—the same month as Christie’s well-publicized sale of Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train—was on loan from Brant, Edlis, Sonnabend, and other public and private lenders. Few of the works were for sale, but the exhibition set new price levels for those that were available. Mnuchin, according to sources, sold Wall Relief with Bird (1991) for about $2 million, three times the price it sold for at Sotheby’s five years ago. “When you are practically a Frank Sinatra in the first place,” Mnuchin says of Koons, “you don’t need a heck of a lot of help.”

Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955. In The Jeff Koons Handbook, a monograph published in 1992 in association with d’Offay, his dealer in London at the time, Koons claims, “I was always an artist. I’ve been an artist since I was born.” He took art lessons from the age of seven. His father showed and sold the Watteau-style works Koons painted when he was nine to customers at his furniture store. He later attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and spent a year at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In his handbook a section called “Phrases and Philosophies by Jeff Koons” reinforces his persona as an existential art shaman whose contradictions run deep. Koons states, for example: “Art has always been a way for me to define my own parameters, to externalize myself. I have no perception of Jeff Koons, absolutely not. Your perception of Jeff Koons is probably much more realistic than mine, because to me I am nonexistent.”

Koons moved to New York in 1977 and got a job selling memberships at the Museum of Modern Art, where, he claims in his handbook, “I was the most successful salesman in the museum’s history.” His earliest supporter was dealer Mary Boone, who met him in 1979 when she bought his green Mercedes as a birthday gift for Schnabel. Boone recalls visiting Koons’s studio, which was covered in mirrored tiles to which inflatable toys were affixed. “The experience was overwhelming,” she says. “Even 25 years later, it’s vivid in my memory.” She sold one of Koons’s early works, a vacuum cleaner and a fluorescent light mounted on a wall, for around $700, but Koons left her gallery after a year for Annina Nosei because, Boone says, she was able to sell only two works—to Saatchi and collectors Donald and Mera Rubell—during that time. His relationship with Nosei was also short-lived because sales of his work proved slow through her gallery as well.

In 1980 Koons installed a stand-up Hoover vacuum cleaner in a vitrine in a window of the New Museum and called it The New. Struck by the work, the Rubells visited Koons’s apartment. “We thought it was fantastic,” says Donald Rubell of the ready-made appliances Koons had displayed in his living room. “We bought a vacuum cleaner. We wanted to get a great refrigerator he had, but we couldn’t figure out how to get it out of there. It was a walk-up.”

The Rubells struck up a friendship with Koons and invited him to their Whitney Biennial opening party. Rubell says that Koons showed up unexpectedly a day late, the night after the party. The Rubells made dinner for him, and they talked until past midnight. “The next day, he sent us ‘flowers,’” says Rubell, who owns about ten works by Koons. “They were actually two of his mirrored pieces, one with a blow-up flower, the other with an old-fashioned black telephone.”

Still, Koons’s work, with its roots in Pop, Conceptual, and Minimalist art, was out of step with the brash Neo-Expressionist style of artists like Schnabel and David Salle, which was in favor at the time. Frustrated by a lack of sales, Koons moved to Florida in the summer of 1982 to live with his parents and save enough money to move back to New York in the fall.

For the next few years, he personally financed his art by working as a Wall Street commodities broker and exhibited works such as The New Jeff Koons, a black-and-white portrait of himself as a child with a crayon and a coloring book, in group shows. Koons has said he spent a lot of his time at Smith Barney consumed with a new series of sculptures, calling physicists to help him figure out how to suspend basketballs in water. “Equilibrium,” his groundbreaking 1985 show at International with Monument, included basketballs floating in aquariums, lifesaving devices cast in bronze, and reproductions of Nike advertisements featuring black basketball stars.

The basketball tanks, in editions of two, originally sold for $3,000, and the lifeboats, in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof, sold for $8,000, but those prices doubled within a matter of months. In recent years a lifeboat and an aqualung have sold for about $2 million each at auction. Less in demand are the basketball tanks, whose top price at auction is $244,500, because, sources say, they are difficult to maintain and the balls deteriorate.

“With Jeff Koons, I was absolutely obsessed,” says Estelle Schwartz, who placed about a dozen works from “Equilibrium” with clients. “I was a more voracious collector than even my clients. I remember saying to a collector, ‘If I’m buying a snorkel vest, you should be buying an aqualung.’”

One of the things that made Koons’s work appealing, according to Schwartz, was the material. “He was making these accessible yet radical works in a material my collectors could put on their tables,” she says. “I was able to turn to a collector and say, ‘Look at it—it’s bronze!’ And I could sell it on those grounds.”

“Equilibrium” set off a whirlwind of exhibitions by Koons. Between 1985 and 1991, he showed five distinct but often overlapping series of works at galleries across the country and overseas. He also began to work with multiple dealers, including Daniel Weinberg of Los Angeles, who, like other dealers who have worked with Koons, helped the artist fund his ideas in exchange for a share of the profits.

The “Luxury and Degradation” series—alcohol accoutrements such as a traveling bar and a Baccarat crystal decanter, cast in stainless steel—was shown at Weinberg’s gallery and at International with Monument in 1986. The most expensive pieces in the show, the bourbon-filled Jim Beam trains (made in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof), sold for $75,000 each. Saatchi bought one. So did Mnuchin, a high-profile Wall Street equity trader and a major art collector before he opened C&M Arts.

Also in 1986, Koons and three other International with Monument artists—Meyer Vaisman, Ashley Bickerton, and Peter Halley—were given a group show at the esteemed Sonnabend gallery. Bickerton has been quoted as saying, “Jeff was always just Jeff, gone off and away into Jeffdom. To him, we were all just a blur.” Koons exhibited his “Statuary” series, which included stainless-steel renditions of pop-culture personalities like Bob Hope, historical figures like Louis XIV, and his now iconic Rabbit (1986), a 41-inch-tall, stainless-steel sculpture of an inflatable bunny, originally priced at around $40,000. The late Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe called Rabbit “one of those very rare hits at the exact center of the target.” Today the four highly coveted examples are owned by Sonnabend, Edlis, Broad, and publisher S. I. Newhouse Jr., whose version has been publicized as a promised gift to the Museum of Modern Art, where Newhouse was once a trustee. It is no longer a promised gift to the institution, according to a museum spokesperson.

For “Banality”—a series of objects inspired by souvenirs and pornography, rendered in porcelain, ceramic, and wood by German and Italian craftsmen—Koons began to work with Donald Young in Chicago and Max Hetzler in Cologne, along with Sonnabend, who showed the works in a three-city exhibition in 1988. “The idea was to have as much impact as possible,” says Young, who placed works with Chicago collectors Lewis Manilow, Gerald Elliott, and Edlis.

Prices ranged from $50,000 to $250,000 for Michael Jackson and Bubbles, which Koons claimed at the time was the largest porcelain—more than three feet tall and about six feet long—ever made. “They were meant to be expensive luxury objects,” says Young. Koons was “taking the most banal objects and making them luxurious.”

In 1989 Koons met Ilona Staller, known as La Cicciolina, a Hungarian-born porn star in Italy, who became his wife two years later and inspired his “Made in Heaven” series, consisting of sculptures and paintings depicting the two in blissful conjugation. They were previewed at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and shown at Sonnabend in 1991.

The series prompted some of Koons’s most scathing reviews. “Just when it looked as if the ’80s were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Koons hit a home run with Puppy (1992)—his 43-foot-high, 44-ton topiary terrier—which debuted at an 18th-century castle outside Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany, in 1992 and was shown to widespread acclaim at New York’s Rockefeller Center five years ago. One of two versions of the work was acquired by the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997. Brant owns the other.

Koons began his “Celebration” series after Staller left him in 1993, taking their son, Ludwig, to Italy and sparking a long-running custody fight. Koons, who has said that the series was an attempt to communicate with his estranged son, has spent nearly $4 million trying to regain custody, directing his lawyers to “leave no stones unturned,” and destroying all of the “Made in Heaven” works in his possession.

Koons, who has since remarried and has two additional children, later tried to contest his attorney’s fees as excessive, but a judge ruled last May that he had to pay the outstanding $1.87 million. He also fought a well-publicized lawsuit in the early 1990s that accused him of violating copyright law when he appropriated a greeting-card image for his 1988 sculpture String of Puppies. Koons defended his work as fair use, but a U.S. appeals court ruled in 1992 that he was guilty not only of copyright infringement but also of “arrogance” and “greed.” According to his lawyer at the time, Koons reached a confidential financial settlement with the photographer of the image and also settled pending lawsuits involving his appropriation of images for three other “Banality” works, including Pink Panther.

Koons has always acted as the head of a complicated operation that requires the cooperation and support of many people, but never before on the scale required by “Celebration.” In order to finance the series, Koons began working with Deitch, Hetzler, and d’Offay, who funded the project in part by selling works to collectors before they were fabricated. But the sculptures, which were sold for between $1 million and $2 million in the late 1990s, proved more difficult and expensive to fabricate than anticipated.

Eli Broad paid for Balloon Dog (1994–2001) and Cat on a Clothesline (1994–2001) in 1996, but he didn’t receive them until 2001. “Jeff won’t let go of a work until he thinks it’s perfect,” Broad says. The delays tested his patience and required more money from Broad, who declined to specify what he paid for them. He says he didn’t threaten to take legal action against Deitch, Hetzler, and d’Offay but did make his expectations clear. “These were three responsible dealers, and we had a contract where they had to perform.”

At one point, more than 75 artists were working for Koons around the clock as he tried to finish the project in time for a “Celebration” exhibition at the Guggenheim, originally scheduled for 1996 but repeatedly postponed and ultimately canceled. “It was a pure panic situation,” says an artist who worked for Koons at the time. “I would get a call from a manager saying that they’d run out of money and were going to have to shut down the studio for a week or so.”

Another former assistant, who says he made more than $30,000 a year, estimated that Koons’s payroll spiraled up to more than $1 million before he laid off most of his staff in 1997. It was no secret around the downtown Manhattan studio, says the source, that Deitch, Hetzler, and d’Offay, who would bring collectors and celebrities like Mick Jagger to look at the works, were displeased with how things were going. “Everything was backed up,” says the former assistant. “They hadn’t sold anything in a while, and they were hemorrhaging money left and right.”

In the mid-1990s, Koons sold most of his artist’s proofs to Broad and others to help finance his work and pay his bills. Broad bought three: Rabbit, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, and St. John the Baptist (1988). Koons’s money troubles continued throughout much of the 1990s: the IRS filed a lien against him in 1999, claiming that he had underpaid his taxes by nearly $3 million in 1996 and 1997. (Koons settled the judgment against him last year.) Says Sonnabend director Antonio Homem, “Jeff is an extremely romantic artist. He is ready to ruin himself and anyone involved with him for an artwork to be what he wants it to be. He wants it to be beyond perfection. He wants it to be a miracle.”

Koons’s perfectionism is well known. He tweaks his works up to, during, and after openings. He showed up at Christie’s to shine his Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train twice before the auction house sold it last May. In an extreme example of his attention to detail, he insisted about two years ago that Broad’s Balloon Dog, which had been exhibited at several major museums, be repainted a different shade of blue, at Koons’s expense.

After a five-year hiatus, Koons reappeared on the art scene in 1997, with a small retrospective at the Galerie Jérí´me de Noirmont in Paris. Then he produced a series called “EasyFun,” consisting of cartoonish mirrors and photorealistic paintings of surrealistic scenarios—a saint paired with a deli sandwich and swirls of hot chocolate, for example—priced between $100,000 and $200,000, for a solo show at Sonnabend in 1999, the same year that two of his major works appeared at auction.

When the nearly life-size Buster Keaton (1988) was offered at Christie’s in May 1999, it ignited a bidding duel between d’Offay, who bought the work for $409,500, and Philippe Ségalot, head of Christie’s contemporary-art department at the time, who was bidding on behalf of an anonymous client. The competition for Pink Panther was even more intense six months later, when it doubled its estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.

In 2001 Gagosian showed new “EasyFun-Ethereal” paintings—which included collaged images of parted lips, bikini bottoms, auto bodies, and mashed potatoes—at his Los Angeles gallery. Two years ago Sonnabend showed “Popeye,” a series of cartoon-laden paintings and sculptures of inflatable-looking creatures, like caterpillars, juxtaposed with ready-made objects, like ladders, which sold for $500,000 to $650,000 each.

Some of Koons’s recent paintings now sell for more than double their initial price. Saint Benedict (2000), from the “EasyFun” series, sold for $1.68 million last May, and the “Celebration” painting Bracelet (1995–98) sold for $2.25 million last November.

Koons’s works have prompted some tongue-in-cheek marketing ploys. When Christie’s offered the 1991 Red Butt (Distance), a 90-by-60-inch silk-screen painting of Koons engaged in anal sex with his soon-to-be wife, which sold for $369,000 in 2000, the sale catalogue coyly hid the work behind a foldout panel proclaiming “Warning: The Following Image Contains Graphic Sexual Content.”

Koons has cooperated with the auction houses on occasion. He posed for publicity photos promoting Sotheby’s sale of Michael Jackson and Bubbles and sat for a promotional interview with Brett Gorvy when Christie’s offered his Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train last May. “Some artists can be very suspicious of the auction process, but Jeff embraces it,” says Gorvy. “He is very aware of how a high price at auction can generate sales.”

A 1993 retrospective at SFMOMA was Koons’s last major museum exhibition in the United States. Sources say that Pinault—who has been approached about financing a new sculpture of an intermittently chugging train engine suspended by a 150-foot crane—plans to open his art foundation in Paris in about three years with a major Koons exhibition. But the Guggenheim’s desire to present a retrospective of his works has so far been thwarted.

“The question of a retrospective is still ongoing,” says Guggenheim deputy director and chief curator Lisa Dennison. “Determining the point when you want a retrospective that sums up your career is a tough one for any artist. I think it’s particularly tough for Jeff.”

The “Celebration” series, most of which went directly into private hands, has yet to be shown as a group. All of the paintings in the series—large-scale renditions of Play-Doh, birthday cakes, pink bows, and other embodiments of childhood joy—have been made and sold. D’Offay laid claim to at least five of them in liens he filed with the New York City department of finance. One of the works, Cake (1996), is being offered this month at Sotheby’s, where it is estimated to fetch between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. But some of the sculptures are still being produced and financed by Gagosian, who has been selling them for $2 million to $6 million.

A much-delayed exhibition of the “Celebration” sculptures is at least 18 months away, says Gagosian, who plans to show new paintings and sculptures by Koons—a continuation of his “Popeye” series—at his London gallery in the coming year.

While critics over the past 20 years have faulted Koons for debasing art with consumer fetishism, his supporters say they believe he is one of the most important artists of his generation.

“I think it was hard in the 1980s to take seriously a man who was saying that banality is the white elephant of our culture
,” says the New Museum’s Dan Cameron. “But I think in 2005 we’re moving closer to Jeff. I think we’ll look back and say that he had it right on the money.”

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