Jeff Koons is one of the world’s most popular and polarizing artists. For more than four decades as a professional artist, Kuhn has reached a level of commercial success that few painters and sculptors could ever imagine. His works have become iconic: in 2019, one of his most recognizable sculptures, a stainless steel inflatable rabbit, Re-sold for $91 million. It set the record for the highest price paid at auction for a work by a living artist.
He is known for taking famous characters or works of art and playing with them – such as the Incredible Hulk and the Mona Lisa. He likes to enhance everyday objects, making them bigger, shinier or surreal versions. He says his work is inspired by childhood memories. He grew up in a rural community near York, Pennsylvania, and remembers being mesmerized as a child by the porcelain and ceramic figurines his grandparents owned. Today, Koons has collected hundreds of similar figurines, bought them on eBay and other online auctions, and used them as inspiration for some of his works.
Kuhn spent 12 years turning one of those figures, a $150 porcelain ballerina, into a multimillion-dollar, 8-foot-tall marble sculpture. He let Anderson Cooper begin the process of creating the sculpture, which he called the “Pink Ballerina”.
Koons began by placing the statue in a CAT scan machine and digitally mapping every detail, inside and out. It then took five years to figure out how to translate all the data from the scans into machine instructions for engraving the marble. The process was so complex that Kuhn consulted with scientists at MIT’s BITS and Nuclear Centers. The actual machining took the next seven years to complete, even with the milling machines running as close to 24/7 as possible.
The artist took Cooper to a stone workshop in Pennsylvania to check the progress. The ballerina was still being polished by hand. Ayami Awama, head of Koons’ hand finishing department, says 33,000 hours of handwork have already gone into creating the sculpture.
An extraordinary commitment to artwork is nothing new for Koon. He once spent 20 years figuring out how to make a mass of aluminum look like a 10-foot-tall pile of Play-Doh.
Cooper met at The Broad, a museum in Los Angeles that houses the largest collection of his artwork, and showed the reporter one of his other famous sculptures, a 10-foot-tall balloon dog. The “balloon dog” looks like it’s filled with air, but it’s made of stainless steel and weighs a ton.
“We had to build machines to do this. They didn’t exist,” Kuhn said.
Koon has always pushed the boundaries of technology. He once Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. enlisted the help of Feynman to create a series of basketballs that could float in a tank of water but appear as if they were suspended in air. For another project, he used more than 60,000 live flowers to create a 40-foot sculpture of a puppy. He created an indoor irrigation system to keep the flowers alive.
The first series that came to Coon’s attention in 1980 was called “The New”. It features approximately 20 new vacuums initially demonstrated in the case of fluorescent lights.
“I was showing them for their novelty, it’s a brand new object, it’s never been used, never been turned on,” Kuhn explained. “You can see that it’s clean, it’s pristine, it’s pure, you know? And it has some sensual side.”
But Kuhn himself doesn’t do much sculpting or painting. He comes up with ideas and sets standards but he has artisans who do the work. His studio is like an industrial factory, with painters carefully mixing thousands of colors and following his instructions. There are also dozens of digital assistants and sculptors and craftsmen around the world who help him create his intricate pieces.
This approach has led to criticism, including from late 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer. Thirty years ago, Sefer did a story criticizing contemporary art and comparing Koon to PT Barnum selling suckers.
“He doesn’t actually paint or sculpt, he commissions artisans to do it or he goes shopping for basketballs and vacuum cleaners,” Sefer said at the time.
Koons defended his process.
“I designed, worked on the systems, so that at the end of the day the whole process was as if each mark was made by itself,” he said.
Later this year, Coon hopes to launch his artwork to the moon aboard a SpaceX rocket. The project, called “Moon Phase,” consists of 125 small, stainless steel sculptures depicting different shades of the moon that are placed inside a protective case and mounted next to a lunar lander. If all goes according to plan, it will become a permanent art exhibit on the moon. It also created new challenges for Kun. For starters, space travel causes extreme vibrations and dramatic temperature changes on the moon’s surface.
“(It’s) one of the most inhospitable environments that, you know, you can imagine for a work of art,” Koons said.
Sculptures that go to the moon are for sale, along with a NFT, or non-fungible tokens, which will serve as digital proof that the artwork is actually there. There are also 125 large moon sculptures that will remain on Earth. Coon won’t say how much he’ll charge, but there’s a good chance the price tag will be out of this world.
Editor’s note: About 10 years ago, Anderson Cooper bought a work by Jeff Kuhn at a charity auction.