John Powers tells the crushing story of his time as a studio assistant working for Jeff Koons. Was Koons a monstrous abuser of his employee? No. It was the intensity of the work combined with a brief but frustrating mishap that pushed him over the edge:
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.
I Was Jeff Koons’s Studio Serf (New York Times Magazine)