Baby with Jeff Koons Balloon Dog
The art world, illustrated.
Judy Fiskin, the American artist and professor of photography and media at the California Institute of the Arts, stands on stage before an auditorium three-quarters full.
Judy Fiskin: “Madeline, your work has been described as both satire and critique, and yet your most recent interview in Artforum hinted at an unbridled sincerity; a reflection on motherhood and its loss, and the trials of a contemporary marriage. For those of us here, unfamiliar with the events leading up to your installations, Baby with Jeff Koons Balloon Dog and Saint Sebastian, Our Abandoned Child, would you be willing to provide some context? In other words, what was the inspiration for your work with Mr. Alvarez?”
Madeline Hart, the American artist, coughs and speaks into the microphone perched atop her podium.
Madeline Hart: “Please show the first slide.”
The projection screen lights up: an image of a woman with child.
Madeline Hart: “You’ll see, on the screen, a picture of my friend, Vanessa, and her firstborn, Ambrosia.
Vanessa was like many of my friends, pregnant by her late twenties and transformed into a mother by her early thirties. At the time this picture was taken, I’d say she was interested mostly in the tasks that nurtured and occupied children.
I, on the other hand, enjoyed my time without offspring. Without other people’s too.
But I loved my friend and wished the best for her, and felt bad about skipping her baby shower, and for ignoring all requests to spend time with her during the six months after Ambrosia was born. On month seven, I planned a visit. To make up for my avoidances.
The day before my scheduled visit, I thought about a gift for Vanessa’s baby. To make me look less horrible. In my friend’s eyes. I’d been on a Tinder date to the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles, and saw a Jeff Koons art book in the gift shop. I thought it would be colorful enough to keep Ambrosia’s attention, and a good enough joke for myself. I hoped Vanessa would find it amusing, because Koons had become so renowned and vilified, like an art world Kanye West. Because… I don’t know. We’d both attended a Kanye West concert, after he’d come out in support of Donald Trump, and we’d found it funny. Both the music and the fact that we had to hide our attendance from Facebook friends, or else.
I thought the Koons book would be another overpriced experience to laugh at and to hide on a shelf somewhere, behind a Dr. Seuss or Winsor McCay.
Anyway, Vanessa thanked me for the gift and bounced little Ambrosia on her lap, and pointed at pictures of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog. ‘She’d love one of these,’ said Vanessa, which seemed to mean that her baby would enjoy playing with a Koons’ sculpture.
No laughter. No, um, understanding.
I told her that an orange Balloon Dog had once sold for $58.4 million at auction.
She responded, “Oh.”
‘There are smaller versions,’ I said. ‘Attached to a plate. They cost about eight thousand dollars a piece.’
Next slide, please.”
A picture of Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Yellow) — lifted from the MOCA Los Angeles website, without permission — appears on the projection screen.
Madeline Hart: “Vanessa was quiet for a while, and so I assumed that I’d offended her.
‘Are they popular with children?’ asked Vanessa. ‘I’m sorry that I haven’t heard of them. I feel so uncultured.’
It was hard to tell whether she was serious. Most likely, we’d both become mean.
I said my goodbyes, because she’d guilted me, and because I knew she’d meant to strike at the way my life had failed most.
In short, I’d tried my hand at writing, photography, and mixed media sculpture. But I only lived above the poverty line because of my father. Without him, my annual income averaged about six hundred dollars.
Vanessa, despite no career of her own, had everything. Because of her husband, Ernst. Because she’d fucked him and given him a child.
I remember what Vanessa said to me as I left her house that afternoon: ‘I hope you can afford a dog for your little one some day.’
Next slide, please.”
A poster for the film, Nocturnal Animals, starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, appears on the projection screen.
Madeline Hart: “It was maybe six months later that I thought of the Balloon Dogs again.
I was on a Tinder date with Jordan, my husband, who’s here with me tonight.”
A short round of applause from the audience as Jordan Alvarez, the American artist, approaches the podium.
Jordan Alvarez: “Hello.”
Madeline and Jordan take turns with the microphone.
Madeline Hart: “I suggested that Jordan take me to the latest Tom Ford film, Nocturnal Animals.
We sat in the dark and occasionally glanced at each other. Jordan whispered his thoughts to me throughout the film. He was like a less amusing version of… What are they called? The robots from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. A less amusing version, if that’s possible.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I wasn’t trying to be amusing. Just conversational.”
Madeline Hart: “Within fifteen minutes of the opening credits, we were shown an exterior shot of the Amy Adams’ characters’ house. There was a small crane outside. Maybe a tractor. It was sitting next to a sculpture, a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog, as if to imply its recent addition to the property.
Jordan whispered at me, and said…”
Jordan Alvarez: “I found it unrealistic at the time, given my experience of the world, that a woman who lived in that kind of house, a woman with that kind of money, would put an inflatable dog in her back yard.
It looked inflatable to me.”
Madeline Hart: “He said, ‘If that’s supposed to be classy, then my apartment’s a goddamn palace of fine art.’
I didn’t think much of his comment, other than that it was douchey or whatever, until later in the film, when the Amy Adams character was shown walking through her art gallery, and came across a young bull, suspended in formaldehyde and pierced by arrows — what was obviously Damien Hirst’s Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain.
Jordan nudged me and rolled his eyes. He said, ‘My uncle’s got one of those in his garage.’”
Jordan Alvarez: “My uncle is a huntsman from West Virginia. He’d collected dead animals since he was a kid. I’d stayed a week with him when I was fifteen, so that I could learn to shoot a bow and arrow. He’d showed me a fox in a jar that had a twig shoved through its mouth.”
Madeline Hart: “By the time we left the theatre, I’d crafted a fantasy that I’d hoped would be fulfilled:
Jordan came from money,
from an art background,
and from a family whose
relatives could afford a
I asked him, after dinner and before my Uber arrived, because I’d had just enough to drink and found the courage… I asked him how much he was worth.”
Jordan Alvarez: “If my memory serves me right, Madeline, you told me that you would sleep with me if I answered correctly.”
Madeline Hart: “Next slide, please.”
An iPhone picture of Madeline Hart, heavily intoxicated, appears on the projection screen.
Jordan Alvarez: “You were hot, but I wasn’t planning to see you again, based on your movie recommendation and the ninety dollars worth of wine you’d ordered with dinner, and asked… I mean, demanded that I pay for. So I thought I’d hit it while I had the chance.”
Madeline Hart: “By ‘it,’ he means me.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I thought that having sex with you would be the best possible outcome of the night. So I suggested a number that might have exceeded my net worth.”
Madeline Hart: “He told me that he was worth $2 million, and that he planned to earn more. Much more. In the coming years.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I’d just launched a vape cartridge delivery app called Vape Cartridge Delivery App. I thought, with California’s recent — at the time — legalization of marijuana, that a 200,000% increase in sales wouldn’t be that unrealistic. I mean, it was exciting to imagine: slinging THC-infused cartridges to every vape head with an iPhone.”
Madeline Hart: “He was, at the time, a bartender. By profession.”
Jordan Alvarez: “You were unemployed. By profession.”
Madeline Hart: “I believed Jordan, because… I don’t know. I was drunk, and poor, and had big dreams, and I’d been horny enough to fuck him, no matter what he’d said. Even though he insisted that we go back to my place, because his ‘estate was in the midst of renovation.’ Even though he’d previously mentioned that he lived in an apartment.
And no, I wasn’t on birth control.
And yes, I let him cum inside me.
And I don’t remember whether I’d planned that out or not.
Next slide, please.”
A picture of a sonogram appears on the projection screen.
Madeline Hart: “Two months later, I was pregnant.
I knew that Jordan was the only man I’d slept with, all year, without protection.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I told you to get an abortion. Even if I wasn’t the father. Because of global warming, right? Because of Donald Trump, right? Because of our responsibility to the planet, which you didn’t seem to care about.”
Madeline Hart: “I told him that my family was very conservative, and that they’d expect us to be wed. I presented several options. The sham marriage, I believe, was my favorite.
I gave him the option of buying me a house, on the west side, on the opposite side of town, so that we wouldn’t have to see each other, and of allowing me a monthly stipend for the baby.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I’d gotten a kind of slutty vibe from you on our first night together, and felt one hundred percent confident in telling you to fuck off. I was sure I wasn’t the father.”
Madeline Hart: “A prenatal paternity test proved him wrong.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I told you that my family was ultra conservative. More than yours. More than any I’d met. I said that they’d cut me off from the will, and from all the money you wanted, if they found out how I’d knocked you up out of wedlock.
Of course, it was all a lie. But I’d meant to force your hand.
I recommended an abortion. A second time. Fully paid for.”
Madeline Hart: “I proposed that we be married right away.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I stopped answering your calls.”
Madeline Hart: “I stalked his Facebook page, and found each of his family members, and cross-referenced their names with physical addresses that I’d dug up online. I sent them each an invitation to our wedding, which had yet to be arranged.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I went to the police.”
Madeline Hart: “I told the officers who showed up at my front door that the father of my child… That the father of my future child was trying to shirk his responsibilities.”
Jordan Alvarez: “Finally, I admitted that I’d lied on our first date; that I wasn’t a millionaire, or even close.”
Madeline Hart: “I was, by that point, in my third trimester, and beyond the legal requirements for terminating my pregnancy.
I asked for a bank statement to be sure that Jordan wasn’t lying. To find out for myself whether or not he was broke.
Then I spent two weeks in bed, crying. Because I’d gone through so much effort, and to have a middle-class child; a liability; a pest.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I spent a lot of time vaping and meditating in my favorite gaming chair, and considering how my life would change forever.
‘Why not be a father,’ I said to myself, ‘if I’m going to have a kid?’”
Madeline Hart: “Where I come from, a father — a good one — supports his child. Jordan’s ability to offer support was inherently compromised.
The Vape Cartridge Delivery App was only the 1,507th business in Los Angeles to attempt to sell marijunana, in vape form, to the local consumer. Competition had killed his business before he’d even opened shop.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I was still a bartender, and made my wage and tips from that.
Plenty of people had raised their children on less.”
Madeline Hart: “Next slide, please.”
A picture of a Madeline Hart, on a hospital bed, red faced and sweating, appears on the projection screen.
Madeline Hart: “The image you see here was taken by my husband, Jordan Alvarez.
You’ll notice the blurriness and poor composition, and how he’s chosen the less flattering side of my face.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I was under a lot of pressure. You were screaming at me to leave.”
Madeline Hart: “I was giving birth.”
Jordan Alvarez: “To our child.”
Madeline Hart: “In the midst of my suffering… And yes, childbirth is made up entirely of suffering… I made a promise.”
Jordan Alvarez: “It hasn’t quite turned out true. But yes, as our child, Penelope, stuck her head out from your cunt, you promised to ruin me.”
Madeline Hart: “Next slide, please.”
A picture of Madeline (in a wedding dress) and Jordan (in a tuxedo), standing together in a courthouse, appears on the projection screen.
Jordan Alvarez: “I received a call one night from your father. God knows how he’d gotten my number.”
Madeline Alvarez: “Another example of my husband’s stupidity. I obviously told my father how to reach him.”
Jordan Alvarez: “Your father talked about the responsibility I’d taken on, and asked if I was willing to ‘step up to the plate.’
I said that I’d given it some thought, and that I would do the right thing. After all, my dad had disappeared shortly after I was born. I knew how it had affected me. No matter how I felt about you, I didn’t want to be a deadbeat.
Your father asked what I planned to do.
I said that I would ask for your hand in marriage, and that I would do my best to provide for our child.
He seemed pleased to know that we were on the same page.”
Madeline Hart: “My father called me the next day, and said that he would no longer be supporting me. Financially.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I bought an engagement ring at the mall, and made reservations for two-and-a-half at the Outback Steakhouse.
You agreed to come to dinner with me, and to bring along Penelope. As long as I paid.”
Madeline Hart: “What could I say? I was hungry.”
Jordan Alvarez: “After appetizers, I got down on one knee and asked for your hand in marriage.
You didn’t give the answer I was hoping for. But it was close enough.”
Madeline Hart: “I don’t know what more he could have expected from me. I said, ‘Yes,’ but with conditions.
For fuck’s sake, I was proposed to by a man with blooming onion dip on his shirt.”
Jordan Alvarez: “You asked if you would be able to stay at home, with Penelope, and work on your art career, and whether I would provide for our family. You also asked to keep your last name.”
Madeline Hart: “I felt that I was making real progress with an abstract photo series of Penelope’s dirty diapers. My friend… Well, my acquaintance, who I think worked as an art dealer, said that they had potential.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I told you that I would do the best with what we had. As long as you would too.”
Madeline Hart: “Next slide, please.”
A picture of Vanessa, with her two-year-old child in lap, holding a small Jeff Koons Balloon Dog, affixed to a porcelain plate.
Madeline Hart: “My friend, Vanessa, who I hadn’t spoken to since before my pregnancy, texted me a picture of herself, and her ugly daughter, Ambrosia, and a real-life Jeff Koons sculpture. One of the small ones that comes attached to a plate.
The text read, ‘Finally bought one of those balloons dogs. Ernst thinks it’s wonderful, and Ambrosia can’t stop staring at it! Thanks for the recommendation ❤ ❤ ❤.’
This was right after my marriage to Jordan.
Needless to say, I was furious.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I didn’t know what you were up to at the time.
On the eve of Penelope’s first birthday, you asked if you could borrow my debit card. You said that you wanted to buy Penelope some presents.”
Madeline Hart: “I hadn’t forgotten my promise, and I hadn’t given up on my life just yet.
I waited for Jordan to come home from work, so that he could watch our daughter open gifts.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I’d just purchased a Canon XC10 4K prosumer camcorder, so that I could start making social media content for my Vape Cartridge Delivery App, and so that I could capture a few quality moments of our daughter growing up.”
Madeline Hart: “I knew that Jordan had taken out a small, $10,000 loan to help reignite his business, and that he’d spent $2,000 on the video camera.
I spent the rest on a Jeff Koons Ballon Dog plate for Penelope.
Well, the dog was more for Jordan. To ruin him, of course.
Next slide, please.”
A still frame from the video installation, Baby with Jeff Koons Balloon Dog, appears on the projection screen.
Madeline Hart: “You’ll see, on the screen, Penelope with a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog in her mouth, like a pacifier. I’d removed it from the plate and allowed her to play with it. So yes, it was my idea.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I thought it was just a regular toy. Until you told me that you’d spent $8,000. As a joke.”
Madeline Hart: “It was near perfect timing. Jordan was holding the video camera. His face turned white. Penelope bit into the head of the Balloon Dog, and its body fell and shattered on the floor.
I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Jordan Alvarez: “You grabbed a bag of luggage and headed towards the door. You said that you’d met a man on the internet, and that you’d planned a weekend get-away together.”
Madeline Hart: “Yes, I found a man named Richard on SugarDaddy.com, and he’d offered to take me to a Mexican resort. Tinder had become useless for my affairs. I needed an upper class man if I was going to expand my sense of worth.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I didn’t even know you were having affairs.”
Madeline Hart: “Of course he didn’t.”
Jordan Alvarez: “That weekend was probably the worst of my entire life.”
Madeline Hart: “Not because of me.”
Jordan Alvarez: “Not entirely because of you. I hadn’t fallen in love, exactly. But I enjoyed your company. At least when you were naked and asleep.”
Madeline Hart: “Can you imagine him a father? A creep who talks like that?”
Jordan Alvarez: “I was wrecked, okay? Distraught. Depressed. Whatever you want to call it.
I ignored Penelope longer than I should have. I didn’t notice the piece of Jeff Koons’ Ballon Dog lodged inside her throat.”
Madeline Hart: “Penelope died on Jordan’s watch. That’s an important part of the story.
And he was crass enough to turn her into this.
Next slide, please.”
A picture of the one-year-old child, Penelope, stuck with arrows, and submerged in a tank of formaldehyde, appears on the projection screen.
Jordan Alvarez: “You have to understand. It was meant to be sentimental. Even sweet.
Come on… I grieved all day, and while you were fucking some fat, old man.”
Madeline Hart: “I was probably on an airplane most of that time. Richard took a Xanax and fell asleep. So there was definitely no fucking. Not on the plane.”
Jordan Alvarez: “You wouldn’t answer your phone. Not for the entire weekend.”
Madeline Hart: “Should I have expected him to kill our daughter?”
Jordan Alvarez: “I’d lost the most important person in my life, and didn’t want to lose another.
It seemed that you were gone because I’d stopped paying attention. Because I’d never shown an interest in anything you liked.”
Madeline Hart: “He pretends that we had a past worth saving.”
Jordan Alvarez: “I looked at your desk, and the books you’d stacked on top of it — all of them by artists I’d never heard the names of.
I recognized a piece from one of them. It had been in the film you took me to see on our first date.”
Madeline Hart: “Our only date.”
Jordan Alvarez: “It was that Damien Hirst with the young bull shot by arrows. Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain. I was wrong to make fun of it.”
Madeline Hart: “I fucking hate Damien Hirst.”
Jordan Alvarez: “You can’t judge someone by the way he chooses to grieve. That’s what our therapist says.”
Madeline Hart: “No one on earth would shoot their dead child full of arrows.”
Jordan Alvarez: “No one but me.”
Madeline Hart: “Right.”
Jordan Alvarez: “Which is why I’m the artist and you’re a hack.”
Madeline Hart removes her shoe — a Stuart Weitzman stiletto — and swings it, like a hammer, at Jordan Alvarez’s head.
California Institute of the Arts campus security rush to separate the spouses.
Judy Fiskin, the American artist and professor of photography and media at the California Institute of the Arts, returns to the stage and to the microphone.
Judy Fiskin: “A round of applause for our guests, Madeline Hart and Jordan Alvarez. Their works, Baby with Jeff Koons Balloon Dog and Saint Sebastian, Our Abandoned Child, are currently on display at The Geffen Contemporary. And Madeline Hart’s solo exhibition, A Scatological Examination of Infancy: birth to one-years-old, opens this November at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles.”
Madeline Hart fights her way back to the microphone.
Madeline Hart: “I’d like you all to know that Jordan’s presence here tonight is a result of contractual obligations, and that we’re quite far along in our divorce proceedings, and that…”
The microphone cuts out before Madeline can finish her sentence.
The house lights turn on.
There’s a slow clap from the audience, and a standing ovation from at least two in the crowd.
This story first appeared in the Split Lips anthology.