The Traveling King

by Melisa Durkee / Collections Registrar / Nasher Sculpture Center
As a Collections Registrar, I am seldom able to form relationships with the pieces I care for in the same manner as a curator, artist, or patron. The stories that I learn about an individual artwork are typically not revealed to the public, and a relationship forms through a particular level of intimacy. 

Provenance, condition history, installation requirements, and logistical details are the backbones of this bond. Knowing a sculpture’s physical dimensions is like knowing a person’s height, its medium like one’s eye color. Since I began at the Nasher Sculpture Center over two years ago, a shining (literally) star has emerged from our collection as one of our most globally popular pieces, though this surely isn’t surprising to most Nasher patrons.

Many recognize Jeff Koons’ Louis XIV , or as I affectionately call him, ‘King Louie,” but there’s so much more to him than what meets your reflected eye. Raymond and Patsy Nasher acquired Louis XIV from New York’s Sonnabend Gallery in 1987, and I often wonder if the Nashers understood at the time how truly captivating this piece would become to audiences across the globe. The sculpture has been the road warrior of our collection—traveling to London, Italy, New York, and Pittsburgh (not to mention the various loan requests that we must respectfully decline on his behalf due to much-needed respite). Part of my job is to act as a vigilant courier for works on loan from the collection, and I credit “King Louie” for my amassed frequent-flyer miles. Perhaps it was jet lag or the 2 a.m. Customs appointment in a Milan airport cargo, but I began to relate to how a member of King Louis XIV’s court must have felt during his reign.

Much like a passport riddled with Customs stamps, the crate that Louis XIV travels in is plastered with shipping labels and each one tells a story. Though the attention of a typical museum visitor may be focused on the sculpture’s luminous exterior, the attention of most art handlers is focused on the piece’s surprising heft. Weighing in at nearly 500 pounds, “King Louie” can be a bit tricky to install, each institution using its own method to handle and install the hefty sculpture. During the Postmodernism exhibition’s stop at the Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto (MART) in Italy, the art handlers were slightly befuddled by “King Louie’s” weight. Through sheer physical strength, some classic Italian ingenuity, and a few choice words, Louis XIV took his rightful place in a prime spot within the gallery. When installing for the Regarding Warhol exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the art handlers relied on a more efficient method by using a counterweight material lift and Teflon skids. The variation of these behind-the-scenes methods and interactions are like chapters in my story with “King Louie,” adding new facets to our understanding of the sculpture.

Once the crate is opened and “King Louie” is revealed in all of his splendor, the reactions of art handlers and curators alike are of pure admiration. The subsequent sounds, comments, and physical expressions transcend any language barrier, and pave the way for a multidimensional dialogue—or an unexpected change to its placement within the gallery space. As a fortunate witness to these moments of wonderment and inspiration, I am reminded yet again of the importance of this work of art in our culture and its connection to the wider world.

The next stop on “King Louie’s” world tour will be to New York for The Whitney’s Jeff Koons Retrospective from June 27 – November 2, 2014.

Stainless steel, 46 x 27 x 15 in. (116.8 x 68.6 x 38.1 cm.) Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas