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august 21, 2012
As a 21-year-old art student, I answered a help-wanted ad at the SoHo studio of Jeff Koons. During the interview, the studio manager set my slides on a light box and leaned over them with a loupe, inspecting each one like a jeweler with a tray of semiprecious stones. The head painter was consulted, a tall and taciturn man who eventually came over to shake my hand.
“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.” He paid me $14 an hour, doubling my previous salary as an undergrad shelf-stocker at the Columbia library. I worked three nights a week and every Saturday. It was a welcome break from school. The other artists treated me like a professional, and I was happier than I’d been in a long time.
It was October 1995. Koons was making the “Celebration” series. Produced by dozens of assistants, the group of paintings and sculptures were snapshots of a child’s party, a colorful bonanza of balloon dogs, frosted cake and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. He was a perfectionist who promptly fired assistants whenever they failed to meet his standards. I never had to worry. I’d always had a careful eye and steady hand.
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.
After five long months, the painting — my painting — was nearly complete. Silvery blue reflections of the empty egg glimmered across the canvas like mercury. But one Saturday morning, the 10-foot-high painting unexpectedly slipped free from the wall. The stretchers were rigged to a pulley system so the paintings could be raised and lowered, and I was cranking the winch when the top edge tipped forward. The painting crashed toward the center of the room. One of the other assistants turned in time to catch it. She was wearing nitrile gloves covered with cadmium, smearing the white egg with red handprints.
Everybody seemed to agree it wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t built the frame that was supposed to hold the stretcher, and nobody else had thought to tighten the screws. Koons was, if anything, sympathetic. A conservator was rushed to the studio. The canvas was laid on a bed of sawhorses and tended to like a wealthy, but terminal, patient. The surface had fractured from the fall, leaving a large spider web of cracked paint, and there was no way to restore the immaculate, machine-grade smoothness.
The painting was torn down and rolled up. Fresh canvas was laid out for a second version, and I traced the familiar image of the egg and its thousand jagged reflections by hand, in pencil, still in shock. A few weeks later, I quit.
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.
John Powers is a private investigator. He is working on a novel.
via: the new york times
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