Seeing this Todd Eberle photo of Jeff Koons coming up for auction at Stair Galleries next week, I was reminded of huge blog post deep dive I’d worked on after the Whitney show and then bailed on, about the timeline for the Celebration series.
But if you look around enough, you can find that someone else has already laid a lot of the stuff out, even if they haven’t necessarily connected all the dots.
Starting in 1993-4, Koons worked intensely, to the point of insolvency, to realize the two dozen sculptures in his Celebration series at an extreme level of production and finish.
This was also when he was engaged in an international custody conflict with his ex-wife Ilona Staller, who spirited away their toddler son Ludwig to Rome in violation of a New York judge’s order. While Koons fought for years in Italian courts, he was allowed supervised visits with Ludwig several days each month, and on some special occasions, holidays, and in summer.
One of these visits with Ludwig, the story goes, provided the inspiration for Koons’ sculpture, Play-Doh, which took almost 20 years to realize:
“He made a mound of Play-Doh, and he said ‘Dad!’ And I turned, ‘What?’, and he went ‘Voilà!’ in front of this mound of Play-Doh. He was so proud. I looked at it, and I thought this is really what I try to do every day as an artist, to make objects that you can’t make any judgements about. That it’s perfect, that you just experience acceptance,” the [older] artist explained to Christie’s when one of the five unique versions of the sculpture sold for $22 million in 2018.
The Eberle photo is probably a little later than that. The Parkett edition on the left is from 1997, and the Puppy vase in the cabin window is from 1998. I can’t find it online, but Eberle shot photos for a James Reginato profile of Koons which appeared in W Magazine in April 2000.
The Celebration works were, among other things, Koons’s direct and all-consuming message to his increasingly estranged young son: “I was trying to make art that my son could look on in the future and would realize I was thinking about him very much during these times… that he can look and see my dad’s thinking about me, but to also embed in these things something that is bigger than all of us.”
Which is pretty damn dark, if you really step back for a minute. A year’s worth of parenting, the Greatest Birthday Party Ever, and a lifetime of memories crammed into a few supervised visits and two weeks in the summer–with bodyguards–but make it Art? What does spending years and all your money perfecting the tinted mirror finish on an 11-foot tall balloon dog provide a kid, parenting-wise? Or is it for the parent, a way to channel or manage the stress, disappointment, or trauma of international custody disputes? Did Ludwig even see these toys? Was this New York, which Ludwig left when he was barely two? Did Koons keep Ludwig’s Playroom as it was when Staller took him? (If Eberle shot this in 2000, Ludwig would’ve been 7, too old for tiny playhouses or rockers. In any case, he didn’t come back to it.)
Seeing Eberle’s picture of Koons embedded, not only in something called Ludwig’s Playroom, but also amidst the ur-objects of his oeuvre, makes me think Koons’ work could benefit from a biographical, psychographical reading, starting with Celebration. Or maybe now that it’s the future, someone could ask grown up Ludwig for his take on this body of work his father has created for (sic) him.
[10 minutes later update:] Even though I knew there’s awful lot going on here, I didn’t anticipate this. While looking for Ludwig Koons, I found a friend of his, an impressionable French artist named Vincent Faudemer, who makes Koonsed-out chrome fashion statues that look a lot like Babar. And who also recreated this Eberle photo with his own merch. I don’t think the 25-years-ago date holds up, necessarily, but I’m open to more information.