Jeff Koons’s $25 million sculpture for Lacma

Life-size train replica may be most expensive work ever commissioned by a museum

NEW YORK. Jeff Koons is working on the largest and most ambitious project of his career: a towering sculpture consisting of a life-size motorised replica of a locomotive dangling from a crane. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) is funding the awesome work that will rise above the entrance plaza like a memorial to the Industrial Age technology that fuelled America’s westward expansion. The project, in development for two years, is about to move into the fabrication stage. The price tag? “We’re talking about a $25m work,” said the artist, speaking to The Art Newspaper at The National Arts Club in New York, which recently awarded him the organisation’s Gold Medal of Honour. “That’s a number we used going into the project,” confirms Lacma director Michael Govan in a telephone interview, adding that he will not begin raising the money until fabrication costs are calculated. The projected cost would make Train the most expensive artwork ever commissioned by a museum, surpassing Richard Serra’s $20m sculptural array, The matter of time, 2005, in the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Lacma has already spent about $1.75m of $2m pledged by trustee Wallis Annenberg for preliminary studies. “It’s chugging along,” Mr Govan quips of the complex and demanding process of realisation, which must adhere to Koons’s exacting production standards.

The artist envisions hanging a full-scale 70-foot-long steel-and-aluminium replica of a 1943 Baldwin 2900 steam locomotive from a 160-foot-tall Liebherr LR 1750 lattice-boom crane. The train’s wheels will spin, its funnel belch smoke and the whistle blow at appointed times. “A real train was not meant to hang vertically and would have all sorts of environmental problems,” explains Mr Govan, adding that preliminary design and engineering studies were completed by Los Angeles-based fabricator Carlson & Co. “The next stage is 3D scanning of the parts to get the data necessary to recreate the train,” he says. Scanning began late last month at the New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society—the Albuquerque museum that owns the original train serving as the model. “No manufacture can analyse it until we have all the data,” he says, adding that the scanning will be finished in May. “We have to get a crane,” he continues. “They were tough to come by in the old economy—you used to have to get on a waiting list—but it’s getting easier,” he notes. “It’s really architecture, like building a campanile or bell tower,” he says, “and that’s almost exactly how it functions in the urban environment. It’s the architecture around which the museum campus will function, and the campus is a town square for LA.” When will the landmark be completed? A date will not be set until manufacturer begins, but Mr Govan says he and the artist anticipate it will take about four years.

Lacma has another daunting commission on the more immediate horizon: a sculpture by land artist Michael Heizer that incorporates a granite boulder weighing hundreds of tonnes. The 22-foot-high pyramidal rock will rest on reinforced concrete rails above a ramp that cuts into the ground to allow visitors to walk ominously beneath. Levitated/slot mass will be installed at the north edge of the campus near the parking garage entrance at 6th Street, says Mr Govan, adding that the cost of the work will be determined in coming months, and prospective sponsors have expressed interest. He would like to unveil it in a year, but a truck must be specially designed to transport the colossus from a quarry in Riverside, California, about 70 miles away. “Its arrival in LA will be quite a ceremony,” says Mr Govan. He wants Lacma’s new large-scale sculptures to “define the architectonics of the campus. They hover between sculpture and architecture and become the focal points”, he says, “so the defining experience outside is not of giant buildings but of artworks.”

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