Breaking Point: Life Working in the Studio of Jeff Koons

Bullet Shih Aug, 2012 0
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The New York Times Magazine has an interesting piece written by a former studio assistant John Powers who worked for pop artist Jeff Koons in NYC.  Koons like other headline artists such as Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami employ a small army to bring their often large scale works to fruition.  Koons is reported to employ as many as 120 assistants while Hirst has recently pared his staff to about 70 after swelling to over 150.  In fact you can see Hirst’s dedicated staff hard at work here on his studio cam.    So what is it like to work for one of these glamorous headline grabbing artists?  Well the title of Power’s piece gives a clue, “I Was Jeff Koons’s Studio Serf”. Working for $14 an hour in 1995, Powers describes Koon’s process and life on the production line.

“I’m basically the idea person,” Jeff Koons once told an interviewer. “I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities, so I go to the top people.”…

I was assigned a new work, a painting called “Cracked Egg.” The cleaved halves of an empty eggshell were photographed against a backdrop of reflective Mylar. The photo was projected onto a blank 80-square-foot canvas and traced by hand. In the center of the room was a glass-topped table surrounded by spotlights, staffed by four painters whose sole responsibility was mixing hundreds of colors to match the original image. Each custom-mixed hue and tint was assigned a name, like cool cyan magenta nine or warm cobalt blue four. Once the drawing was complete, the sections were coded accordingly with abbreviations like CCM9 and WCB4, a taxonomy of color.

My job was simple: Paint by numbers. The most intricate sections required miniature brushes, sizes 0 and 00, their bristles no longer than an eyelash. The goal was to hand-fashion a flat, seamless surface that appeared to have been manufactured by machine, which meant there could be no visible brush strokes, no blending, no mistakes…

The following year, I left school without a degree. In my final critique, my professors piled into my tiny studio and ripped me to pieces. I’ll admit I had it coming. My work exhibited every bad habit they’d tried and failed to break. It was too tight, too constrained, too controlled. And it was too late to start over. I punched out a window on my way out the door.

“Cracked Egg” sold at Christie’s in London in 2003 for $501,933. At the time it was Koons’s most expensive painting. Everything else I made in college ended up in a Dumpster on West 115th Street.

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