Whatever Happened To Jeff Koons’ $25m NYC Steam Engine?
When artist Jeff Koons conceived a life-size replica of a 1943 steam engine, the hope was it would dangle above visitors to NYC's High Line. But the engine never came to be.
Since it reopened to the public as an outdoor park in 2009, the High Line has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in New York City. The former elevated railroad tracks are now a verdant swath of green in the otherwise concrete grey sea of Manhattan, and its nearly two miles of pathways are studded with art and design installations.
But if one of America’s most popular modern artists had his way, the last stretch of the city park would have been capped by an even more stunning display of artistic and technological prowess than anything the park has seen to date, one that would have paid homage to its original mission.
In 2007, Jeff Koons came up with a plan to build a life-size replica of a 1943 Baldwin 2900 steam engine.
He envisioned the 70-foot engine would be suspended hanging nose down from a 161-foot crane positioned so that the train would dangle over the throngs of visitors who had reached the final stop of the High Line—the newly opened Hudson Yards.
This awe-inspiring—and yes, admittedly terrifying—sight would have been classic Koons.
Since he began practicing art in the 1970s, the artist from York, Pennsylvania hasn’t been known for modesty when it comes to his artistic ambitions and ideas.
Koons has been striving for nothing less than perfection from day one when it comes to his riot of pop art, and this pursuit has often entailed intricate designs, cutting-edge technological processes that he has helped pioneer, and lots and lots of money.
In a display of his precision, Koons has said that he averages 6.75 paintings a year and 15 to 20 sculptures.
This perfectionism has paid off. Koons is critically acclaimed for his bright and shiny—and, yes, flawless—sculptures that take the form of impeccable stainless steel balloon animals, giant puppies made of living flowers, and a myriad of other recognized and celebrated objects and characters that comprise our modern culture.
Often called the “Warhol of his time,” the artist was honored with a career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2014, one that took over 27,000 square feet of the museum’s former home in the Marcel Breuer building—all except one floor reserved for the permanent collection. It was the first and only time the Whitney had dedicated that much space to the work of a single artist.
His multi-million-dollar price tags at auction don’t hurt, either. In 2013, Koons set a record when “Balloon Dog (Orange)” became the most expensive piece by a living artist ever sold at auction. The price—$54.5 million.
But despite his status as something of royalty in the elite world of art, Koons’s vision for his work is democratic.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of is making work that lets viewers not feel intimidated by art, but feel that they can emotionally participate in it through their senses and their intellect and be fully engaged,” Koons told Vanity Fair.
And what’s more universally engaging than a giant gleaming steel train with all the attendant wheel spinning, steam spouting, and horn blowing of the real thing?
In Koons’s dream scenario, “Train” would be an exact replica of the Baldwin engine down to every last rivet (although it would be a bit lighter than the original’s 500,000 pounds).
It would crank to life three times a day—for five minutes each at noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.—in a performance that would kick off with the “ding, ding, ding, and all the patterns of a bell ringing that a real train would do before pulling out of a station.
“Then the wheels will slowly start turning, building a moment like an orgasmic plateau, woo, woo, woo—the same curve, acceleration, every second going faster than the moment before until it's at full speed going 80 miles an hour, then it will decline until the last drippage of smoke comes out.”
“Kids will want to lie down under it. Nothing has ever been more powerful than the image of a steam engine,” Koons told The New Yorker. “This will not be an amusement-park spectacle—it will be a visceral, realistic experience.”
As Koons’s description of the project indicates, “Train” was titled with a simplicity that belied its difficulty of execution. Originally, the piece was conceived in the early aughts as a showpiece for a new museum planned by Francois Pinault. But when the site of the museum moved from the Seine to Venice, where “Train’s” installation was unfeasible, the piece found itself out of a home.
In 2007, Koons turned to a different coastal mecca as a possible port for his engine. That year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) announced a donation of $1 million from the Annenberg Foundation for the purpose of studying the feasibility of creating and funding the train as the centerpiece of the museum’s campus courtyard. The project had no bigger proponent than LACMA director Michael Govan, who in several instances compared the possible impact of “Train” in L.A. to that of the Eiffel Tower.
In a Los Angeles Times article, Govan described the work as “a kind of a dream. It’s this beautiful, beautiful image that means many things and could serve the purpose of marking this place as a center of the city, a large metropolis.”
Despite Govan’s high expectations, the results of the study were daunting. It was estimated that the project would cost a staggering $25 million to complete, not to mention the additional costs of regular maintenance, and that it would be “safe, possible and more complicated than anyone thought,” to bring “Train” to life.
But as of 2008, the project seemed to be on track. LACMA had completed all the necessary reproductions and renderings to prove that it was feasible, and, according to Koons, the engineering kinks had been worked out. He estimated that patrons of the museum could be standing under the hulking, steaming train in as few as three years.
The missing piece of the puzzle, however, was funding. With a project this size, the museum couldn’t move forward until donations specifically earmarked for “Train” had been secured. But Govan was hopeful.
And then the market crashed.
When banks were being bailed out and even the rich were battening down the hatches waiting to see if—not to mention when—the financial world would stabilize, it was hard to justify spending $25 million to create a replica of every young child’s favorite toy.
To make matters worse, the company who had done the original study closed up shop, so Koons had to scrounge to find a new company capable of carrying out the feat of engineering and precise construction that “Train” and his exactly standards required.
But all hope was not lost. In 2012, word started to spread that the High Line in New York was also considering the project.
“We’ve had a crush on the ‘Train’ for a while now,” Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, told The New York Times. “To me, it looks very industrial and sculptural. The craftsmanship that went into these industrial engines is quite beautiful.”
The High Line had gone so far as to consider locations for the sculpture; the original proposal of 18th Street and 10th Avenue was thrown out after the piece was determined to be too big for the site.
It was determined that the final section of the High Line in the former railroad yard, which was then under construction, would be just right. Finding the funds was still an issue, but who could dispute how appropriate “Train” would be in the spot where the real things once plied their trade?
“Like any Jeff Koons work, it is strikingly simple, ingenious and probably one of the most amazing things you’ll ever see,” Tom Eccles, former director of the Public Art Fund told The New York Times. “It’s like picking up a dog by its tail, with the legs still running. In some ways, it’s suspended between the past and the future. Were one to commission a site-specific work for the High Line, you probably couldn’t have come up with a better piece.”
The enthusiasm around the project was so high that LACMA and the High Line even considered making it a joint project.
One can only imagine the costs of transporting the gigantic sculpture across the country in this time-share version of “Train,” but never mind that; the optics would be phenomenal. You can’t beat the symbolism of a simulation of a real-life train undertaking its own transcontinental journey between the two coasts of America.
But this was one American dream that wasn’t destined to come true. After 2012, talk of “Train” slowly petered out in the daunting face of the $25 million price tag.
“In 2012, Friends of the High Line announced that we would examine the feasibility of bringing Train, a work by Jeff Koons, to the High Line. After a careful study, we concluded that it would not be possible to install the work on the High Line for myriad reasons. As a result, we did not pursue the project,” the High Line Art Communications Manager wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
A LACMA statement to the Daily Beast read: "No definitive decisions were ever made, but it's true that LACMA wasn't able this far to make it work. However, we believe it will be realized in the future somewhere, be it LA or elsewhere. Many art projects are pursued for decades."
Today, in the era of transcontinental air travel, “Train” has once again been stranded. But that doesn’t mean one day, someone with a spare $25 million will come along and make Jeff Koons’ dream come true. And maybe yours, too. That is, if your dream is to stand under a giant, dangling steam engine as it slowly chugs to life.