At Work


When I was 26, I applied for a job in Jeff Koonss studio. In response to an advertisement he’d placed in the New York Times seeking an assistant, I hammered out a cover letter on my typewriter and mailed in my CV. I’d worked for three different painters during college and also in the conservation and restoration department of a commercial painting studio after I graduated with a literature degree.

"I bet I’ll get this job," I told my boyfriend.

I had a long interview with Koons’s studio manager, Gary, who questioned me gently but exhaustively about art, my interest in the art world, and my familiarity with Koons’s work. He gave me a tour of the vast studio, then on Broadway and Houston in SoHo. It was divided roughly into thirds: office, sculpture, painting. Each area was dominated by the larger-than-life "Celebration" works. About two dozen assistants were working full-time on the paintings and scale models for sculptures. The effect of the place was dramatic — magical and bizarre. Sculptors in Tyvek suits, safety goggles, and respirators ran buzzing palm sanders, ladders and scaffolds were crammed together in front of massive canvases, and two or three painters worked on the same picture. No one looked up as I passed through; these people were accustomed to being observed while they worked. And Koons wasn’t even there. He was in Europe visiting family.

"I’m going to meet Jeff Koons," I told my boyfriend a week later, on my way out the door.

Outside the studio, I met a neighbor who worked for Richard Prince.

"We’ll be able to eat lunch together," I offered.

"I’m quitting. I’ve been doing this long enough," she said. She was bored by the idea of either of us being an assistant. She’d been building her own career as a photographer since she graduated from art school. Facilitating another artist’s work no longer held any romance. She’d learned plenty about the business from Prince, and it was time to move on.

But she didn’t succeed in dampening my enthusiasm for Jeff Koons. I’d seen his "Banality" and "Made in Heaven" exhibitions at Sonnabend Gallery. I’d heard the stories about his past on Wall Street and at MoMA’s membership desk, how he’d returned to his family in Pennsylvania after spending every penny making his art. The boldness and polish of his work attracted me, as did the upset his naked ambition and kooky idealism caused. Koons exploded that dusty cliché from the Romantic era of the solitary artist working and suffering alone.

My first memory of Koons is of him in a blue Hawaiian shirt. The memory is vivid, but I never saw him wear the shirt again, and it doesn’t seem like something he would own. It may have been a transitional period. The thrill of meeting him was tempered by the surprise of being treated as though I knew I’d already been hired.

My desk was beneath the 10-foot-high scale model of Balloon Dog. I had a Macintosh computer, a telephone, and the Yellow Pages with which to do my research. I also served as liaison between Koons and his dealers, collectors, curators, and editors. I kept his catalogue raisonné, library, and bibliography current. I arranged interviews and reproduction permissions and did my best to fulfill Koons’s unique demands:

He told me to find 70,000 live flowering plants for Puppy at the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao.

He told me to find a fabricator for an inflatable edition he did with Parkett.

He told me to find the discontinued Little Tikes toys that had inspired his Split-Rocker.

When I suggested it might not be possible to procure spare pieces of black trim for his "Equilibrium Tanks" because the manufacturer had gone out of business, he gave me a withering glance.

"They must have done something with all their leftover stock, Samantha."

He was right. I found extra trim in Canada.

Koons had a sixth sense about materials no one had invented and about ways to use them no one had conceived. Laser-cut stainless steel coated with a transparent hologram finish? Most of his requests seemed impossible at the outset, and satisfying them was like a competitive sport. I learned to love defying the odds. The words no and It doesn’t exist or It’ll never work became an inspiration to me.

When Helmut Newton came to photograph Koons at the studio, there was a flurry of preparation. Koons, in a spirit of playfulness and hilarity, hopped onto the plinth of his Kiepenkerl. The sculpture, a nearly six-foot stainless-steel cast from 1987 of the popular medieval German figure of the peddler, or traveling salesman, was briefly in the studio en route from one show to another. Koons had a roll of paper towels in one hand and a bottle of spray cleaner in the other. "Indoor outdoor!" he exclaimed, laughing, as he swabbed the sculpture until it gleamed. Newton was as transfixed by the art as he was by Koons himself, who was by turns eager and inscrutable, hospitable and remote. The published portrait shows Koons in front of the enormous plaster model of Balloon Flower holding an electric drill, biceps flexed, a sly look in his eyes.

Koons was not able to pass a morning without having an idea, or 10 ideas, for projects. As he plotted aloud, he decided whether or not to continue a plan in two or three dimensions. Koons’s ideas came rapid-fire. He might have a bee in his bonnet about the attention his work was, or was not, receiving, but the ideas flowed. He was unstoppable. Often he walked to the studio from his home on the Upper East Side. I spent those days chasing him. He would be so charged up it was impossible to keep pace.

The art market wasn’t booming during the years I worked for Koons, whose trademarks were fickleness and impatience. Those qualities were at odds with how I learned to work in his studio, where we took the long and loyal view. Koons was navigating the perilous waters of an international cadre of dealers and collectors to get the "Celebration" series made, overcoming — some would say overlooking — now-legendary time and budget problems. He frowned on shortcuts and shoddiness of any stripe, and over and over his ethos paid off. He had unwavering faith in his work. Many of these pieces were exhibited on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum and at the Château de Versailles.

Like my neighbor who worked for Richard Prince, I developed an itch to be making my own work. I moved to Chicago, got an MFA, wrote a novel about a studio assistant: The American Painter Emma Dial (W. W. Norton, 2009). It’s not autobiographical. Koons was too hardworking and not salacious enough to make good fiction. Now I live in California. I married that boyfriend. I’m writing another novel, about a pair of inventive bohemians in Los Angeles and their disastrous misadventures trying to build a home under the radar.

Working for Koons, I learned firsthand that patience and determination are strengths for any artist. Not that Koons’s studio was inhabited by monks. We smoked and drank and cursed like sailors and behaved, at times, even worse. But Koons demanded the best of his assistants (he fired anyone who didn’t pass muster tout de suite), and that turned out to be the most gratifying part of the job: He raised the bar for what my best could be.

The day to which I return for inspiration was a quiet one: Koons was making drawings for a project with Edition Schellmann. His desk was covered with colorful silhouettes of animal faces — a pony, a sheep, a monkey. I found fresh markers and more paper and cleared space on all the adjacent flat surfaces. It was as exciting to watch him work as it was to see how bold and graceful the pictures turned out. Each image was a single-line drawing that mostly filled the sheet. The enormous room was stunning, with yards and yards of his drawings. Then Koons began collecting some of them in a pile. He talked about the qualities of the line, how the color changed as the line changed, how the face was situated on the paper. He ascribed human and emotional qualities to these details. Not all the attributes were positive, and these drawings he collected and firmly set aside. As he described each picture, his choices became clearer to me. Quite soon I anticipated which drawings would be edited, and I moved toward them myself. He never returned to a drawing he’d rejected. The dozen that remained were obviously the best. In seconds he’d selected the three that would go to Schellmann and become the 1998 triptych Fun. It’s this image of him — decisive, articulate, insightful, brimming with good humor and bright from the pleasure of making art — that I remember. That gets me working.

"At Work" originally appeared in the December 2009 / January 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' December 2009 / January 2010 Table of Contents.