Jeff Koons' Disappointed Filmmaker: "I Won't Say I Think He's a Con Artist"

Lady Gaga Jeff Koons - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

Lady Gaga Jeff Koons - H 2014

'Jeff, Embrace Your Past' captures the artist during his first retrospective in San Francisco in 1992

Like few others, Jeff, Embrace Your Past filmmaker Roger Teich withheld his opinion of Jeff Koons at the worldwide premiere of his time-capsule film on Wednesday night, and the audience at the Film Society of Lincoln Center screening wanted to know: What does he think of the divisive pop artist whose sleek sculptures have elicited gargantuan price tags and scathing criticism? What does he think of the man currently burrowed into the mainstream art consciousness, thanks to a thorough retrospective currently ongoing at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City?

Seated next to the film's producer, Henry S. Rosenthal, the attorney turned filmmaker chose his words carefully, focusing rather on Koons' silence on the work. "I think he's a fascinating guy — I won't say I think he's a con artist," he explained. "I am very proud of the film, and to that extent, I have this affection for him. I haven't seen the retrospective. I think, in a way, I've kind of moved on. My feelings are a little bruised because I want to be liked, and so I am disappointed that he doesn't want to see the film."

Jeff, Embrace Your Past is a 40-minute collection of footage from Koons' first retrospective in San Francisco in 1992. The exhibit featured such works as Rabbit and Two Ball Equilibrium Tank, and came on the heels of his Made in Heaven series, which depicted himself and his then-wife, adult film star Ilona Staller aka La Cicciolina, in explicit, photorealistic paintings. Teich's film crew captured a young Koons — 37 years old at the time — setting up his installations with trademark precision.

"I remember the curator, the late, great John Caldwell, saying, when we were filming the vacuum cleaner installation, 'You're filming art history,' " Teich recalled. "And [I was] just thinking, 'Yes and no.' "

The project, which Teich and Rosenthal make a point not to call a documentary, sat dormant for more than a decade, in large part waiting for a program such as Final Cut to emerge to correct many of its syncing issues.

"I, as a producer, approached this film much like Jeff does, as a ready-made," Rosenthal said, crediting Teich entirely for the film's inception. Unlike Teich, Rosenthal had spent the day at the Whitney retrospective, drawing mental comparisons to what is captured in their film. Many of the stories and anecdotes attached to Koons' pieces are the same, though he noted one story that is neither in the film nor being told at the Whitney — something they learned through two Koons collectors, Norman and Norah Stone.

"They told us how Jeff met Cicciolina," said Rosenthal. "[Jeff] tells the story that he hired her to do this work, and they began flirting and fell in love and married. The Stones told the story that Koons had written to her, saying, 'I am a famous American artist and I would like you to do this work," and she ignored his letters. He was then forced to go and a buy a ticket into the champagne room at the club where she was appearing live, and he went in, as any patron would. And it was at that point that he made personal contact with her the first time."

Cicciolina is not interviewed in the film, though she is shown touring the retrospective hand-in-hand with Koons. The film makes no comment on the interplay between art and commerce that was beginning to define Koons' work at the time, and more so now than ever before: In 2013, Koons designed the album artwork for Lady Gaga's Artpop, and earlier this year, he collaborated with H&M to feature his iconic Balloon Dog on a handbag retailing for $49.50.

"I don't think you can talk about Jeff Koons without talking about money," Rosenthal said. "Money is mentioned several times in the film, and if anything, it shows a 360-degree view on the cabal and how value is created in the art world."

The Koons mythology has certainly grown in the time since his '92 retrospective, and with the unearthing of this time-capsule film, the conversation surrounding Koons and his legitimacy is given an added perspective. The mosaic of who and what Jeff Koons is grows.

"The goal was to make the most entertaining film out of that footage possible," Rosenthal said, as the chat neared its end. "In retrospect, it was a historic turning point in the career of a major artist, whatever you think of him. And Roger had the foresight to be there."