Jeff Koons' Controversial Michael Jackson Sculpture: The Story Behind It

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1998
Jeff Koons/courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1998. Porcelain; 42 inches by 70.5 inches by 32.5 inches.  Private Collection. 

As a major retrospective of the artist's work rolls into New York, the artist talks about the making of one of his most iconic pieces: a larger-than-life rendering of the King of Pop and his beloved pet chimpanzee.

Weeks after Michael Jackson's virtual performance at the Billboard Music Awards, another surreal - and controversial - avatar of the King of Pop will embark on a world tour of sorts.

On June 27, Jeff Koons' "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," the larger-than-life gilded porcelain sculpture of the late artist and his cherished pet chimpanzee, returned to New York as one of the highlights of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective," the largest solo exhibition of an artist ever mounted at the Whitney Museum, and the last the institution will mount before moving downtown. Come October, the exhibit travels to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain.

Like Jackson, Koons, 59, has a knack for genre-bending. His message of acceptance and tolerance for all aspects of culture has garnered him more than a few celebrity fans: Lady Gaga commissioned Koons to create artwork for her 2013 album, "Artpop"; Pharrell Williams collects his work; Jay Z name-checked him in "Picasso Baby"; and Kim Kardashian posted an Instagram photo of the artist with her and Kanye West's infant daughter, North, at Art Basel Miami Beach in December. The caption read: "Art Lessons!"

The 1 percent like him, too. Last November, Koons' 10-foot-tall, stainless steel "Balloon Dog (Orange)" brought in $58.4 million, setting the record for the most expensive work by a living artist.

The son of an interior designer father and seamstress mother, Koons, who grew up in York, Pa., never apologized for wanting to be rich and famous. "If I could be anyone," he repeatedly proclaimed, "it would be Michael Jackson." It made sense, then, that Koons would choose a portrait of the entertainer as the centerpiece for his 1988 exhibition "Banality." "For me, Michael Jackson served as a kind of spiritual authority who could help people feel secure in embracing their culture, whatever it was," says the artist.

Michael Jackson with Bubbles

In a recent public conversation with Koons, filmmaker John Waters referred to the sculpture as the artist's "scariest piece," but Jackson himself was "very supportive" of the project, even sending over press photographs at Koons' request. The artist opted for one of the musician and Bubbles fresh off the Bad world tour, wearing matching red jackets on the singer's lawn. "This was a time when Michael was going through a lot of plastic surgery, so I had to use multiple pictures to keep up with it," says Koons.

Koons took artistic license with some of the details, shifting Jackson's position slightly so that it echoed the historical art tradition of the Madonna and child. When the sculpture was first revealed - four editions were produced, including an artist's proof - fans took offense at how the glazed porcelain made Jackson appear white-skinned and very feminine, with heavily lined eyes and sensuous red lips. Koons shrugs off the complaints over Jackson's androgynous appearance with a nod to the ancient world. "When Apollo played music, he inspired a transformation that transcended gender, so that the male became more female. Michael is the modern Apollo."

The artist and Jackson never did meet, although they had a number of near misses. Once, when Jackson was heading to New York to play Madison Square Garden, says Koons, "I received a call that he wanted to visit the studio. I was actually in Northern Italy, where we were still in the process of making the sculpture, but I had images I could show him. So, I flew back to New York to meet him." But Jackson's health problems led to the get-together being canceled.

The artist did get to work with Bubbles, however, when he hired photographer Greg Gorman to shoot a series of tongue-in-cheek ads to publicize "Banality." One never-before-seen outtake from these sessions features a leather-jacketed Bubbles, posing with Koons and 1980s "it" girl Katie Wagner. "I remember I was more excited about working with Bubbles than about working with Jeff," recalls Wagner. "I really just didn't know anything about who Jeff was at the time, other than that we were both young and hot."

Now approaching 60, Koons may be young only at heart, but he's certainly hot. This past year he had simultaneous shows at two of New York's biggest galleries - Gagosian and David Zwirner - taking time to pose naked for Vanity Fair. In November, Koons revealed a sculpture of Gaga, which fits into a series of works juxtaposing nude sculptures of classical figures like Apollo and Venus with blue gazing balls.

Koons' Gaga is naked, cupping her breasts, with a giant blue orb between her legs. The sculpture cannot be viewed without being confronted with one's own reflection. Gaga describes its effect in her song "Applause": "One second I'm a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me." Fitting that the artist who dreamed of becoming the King of Pop would come to embody transcendence for those who would seek the throne.