A Townhouse Full of High-Art Smut

Jeff Koons, Hand on Breast, 1990.Photo: Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York

It’s a beautiful Friday morning on the Upper East Side. Amalia Dayan, the former model and granddaughter of the legendary Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan, has welcomed me into the narrow 77th Street townhouse that she and Daniella Luxembourg have converted into a gallery. It’s where, on October 6, they will open “Jeff Koons: Made in Heaven Paintings,” a selection of pornographic oil ink silkscreens on canvas from the series that was first shown at the 1990 Venice Biennale, then at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1991.

“This one is called Red Butt,” Dayan says, showing me a tightly cropped picture of Koons penetrating his then-wife, Ilona Staller (a.k.a. the porn star and, later, member of the Italian Parliament, Cicciolina). “Ileana Sonnabend hung it over her desk in her office. She must have been 70 at the time.”

We continue flipping through the images—Staller, dressed in metallic heels and bottomless lingerie, posing, pleasuring herself, and closing her eyes in apparent ecstasy. We stop at a close-up of Staller holding Koons’s ejaculating penis against her tongue. It’s called Exaltation. “This one,” Dayan says, “belongs to Damien Hirst.”

“I’m immune to it,” she adds, studying the composition intently, her gentle Israeli accent becoming more pronounced. “I see less of the shock value than I do other things. It is not an easy body of work to live with or be confronted with.”

The paintings and sculptures from “Made in Heaven” disappeared from public view for many years. The original show was slaughtered in the press. Times critic Michael Kimmelman called the work “cheap” and Koons “an opportunistic publicity monger whose conflation of himself and his work precipitated the self-destruction that already seems [his] fate.”

But there was also the matter that Koons and Staller split up in 1992, shortly after the birth of their son, Ludwig. Koons destroyed much of the work when Staller took Ludwig away to Italy. The two have been embroiled in legal battles ever since. (Staller got full custody and recently went after Koons for child-support back payments. Koons is still speaking out against her. His new collaboration with Kiehl’s cosmetics, for example, will benefit the Koons Family Institute on International Law & Policy, a subsidiary of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children.)

In 1997, curator Alison Gingeras worked closely with Koons on his ill-fated show at the Guggenheim (which was twice postponed and ultimately canceled). In those years, she says, Koons was “still very raw, from the divorce and the child-custody issues especially,” she says. “He would always acknowledge that this was his most important body of work—the most radical, the most risky, the most sincere—yet he was so conflicted about it because of what was unfolding in real life. He would change his mind every week about presenting it.”

Now it seems that Koons is finally making peace with the series. He gave Gingeras his blessing to include several “Made in Heaven” paintings and sculptures in the “Pop Life” group show that she co-curated for Tate Modern last year. He also okayed the Luxembourg & Dayan show.

Many of the works are monumental in scale. Several are available for sale. The gallery is technically private, though anyone can call up and arrange a visit to the townhouse.

“Nineteenth-century practices were so much about the private, domestic space,” Gingeras says. “People would commission works like Courbet’s Origin of the World”—an 1866 portrait of a woman’s genitals—“as these private pleasures and titillations. Walking off of the street into this little townhouse will have a similar effect.”

And as for Koons, his “conflation of himself and his work” did not, in the end, precipitate his self destruction after all.

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A Townhouse Full of High-Art Smut