The film that Jeff Koons doesn’t want you to see

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Why was “Jeff, Embrace Your Past”, which follows the artist installing his 1992 retrospective at SFMoMA, not included in the Whitney’s programming?

Koons and his then-wife Ilona Staller at the opening of his 1992 exhibition at SFMoMA

As the Whitney Museum prepares for the end of its Jeff Koons retrospective with a 36-hour viewing marathon, merchandise is flying off the shelf of the improvised gift shop, evoking the jabs at consumerism echoed in much of Koons’s work in the galleries. The objects include a plate designed by the artist, and DVDs on Koons, including a French documentary about the artist packaged in a gleaming container designed by Koons himself, in an edition of 2,000, selling for $3,800 a piece. Another film about Koons from 2004 by Alison Chernick, “The Jeff Koons Show”, has sold hundreds of copies. Absent from the offerings is a recently unearthed documentary portrait of Koons, that follows the artist at the beginning of his fame, when he installed the 1992 retrospective of his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA). The 40-minute “Jeff, Embrace Your Past” is directed by Roger Teich, who since has become a lawyer specialising in death penalty defense cases.

For Koons’s fans and his critics, Teich’s documentary is a revealing time capsule. On camera, Koons installs his trademark vacuum cleaners and other objects with fastidious concentration. The collectors who funded the show, Norah and Norman Stone, and the art consultant Thea Westreich discuss Koons’s effect in the marketplace at the moment when the artist was just starting to command huge prices. Koons, attentive to maintaining his boyish image, sits for a haircut. His then-wife Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina, tours the exhibition, which included then-new sculptures and paintings of her in sexual positions with her then-husband. Koons’s father, in his last filmed interview, answered Teich’s questions about his son’s celebrity at the entrance to the men’s toilet, while the door swung open and shut, and men inside combed their hair and did other things.

Like most observational documentaries, “Jeff, Embrace Your Past” contains spontaneous humor and glimpses of its subject that aren’t rehearsed or stage-managed. The film’s scenes in hallways and taxis give the footage the impromptu feel of D.A. Pennebaker’s influential portrait of Bob Dylan on tour in 1965, “Don’t Look Back”. Chernick called the sequence with the artist’s father at the lavatory door “genius.” Programmers at Lincoln Center in New York compared the film to the work of Frederick Wiseman, the director of a new documentary on the National Gallery of Art in London.

Few have seen the documentary, which was shown at Lincoln Center in New York on 17 September. (The sparsely attended screening took place during a week packed with New York Film Festival press viewings.) And few are likely to see it anytime soon, since the film has no commercial distribution.

Its omission from the Whitney exhibition was explained to Teich and the film’s producer, Henry Rosenthal, in an email from an assistant to Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the curator of the retrospective. He wrote that the film “is a truly incredible resource. The footage is really wonderful, and a time capsule of so many moments. However, we imagine Jeff would not be enthusiastic about the film, and we don’t feel that we could plan a programme around something that he was not supportive of.” A later email read: “We have shared the film with Jeff, but unless we hear a positive response from him we are not planning on screening the film as part of the retrospective.” A Whitney spokesman noted in an email to The Art Newspaper that “there isn’t any film programme as part of the Koons retrospective”.

Rosenthal says that he has received requests for other bookings after the Lincoln Center screening. “The original conception was to edition the piece, and to make it available with a very restricted contract to museums, institutions and collectors. It could be exhibited, but within the confines of a museum… It wouldn’t be available on the internet, for download or on DVD, it wouldn’t be broadcast on television, it would be something that you would have to go to see,” Rosenthal says, “but that was before I knew that the art world was going to close ranks around Koons, and bow before his scary power.”

The producer also offered a “collaboration” to Koons, which would include a donation to the artist’s Koons Family Institute on International Law & Policy. He also proposed selling the film to Koons, allowing the artist to do anything he wished with the documentary, including destroying it. “I’ve hit a stone wall to date,” Rosenthal says. SFMoMA, which Rosenthal also approached, declined to acquire the film.

Is Rosenthal seeking Koons’s cooperation just to make money? “I wouldn’t deny that. It would be the optimal way to monetise the piece,” he says. “If Koons were to embrace it and bring it into his body of work, then it would have incalculably more value. We have a personal investment in the film, and we would like to recover that.”

It’s not clear whether Koons has watched the film, but people close to Koons told Rosenthal that the artist might have been uncomfortable seeing Cicciolina on screen (they separated a year after the SFMoMA show and waged a bitter custody battle over their son Ludwig), or watching the long interview with his father, or with any project that he did not fully control. The artist’s studio did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

It may be that Koons has just moved on from those early days. But “if you think Jeff Koons is a major and important artist, this is a pivotal moment in his career, captured in a way that is never to be repeated,” Rosenthal says.

“I’d like to the think of [the film] as if you’re up on the scaffold with Michelangelo as he’s painting Adam’s penis in the Sistine Chapel—you’re interviewing him, and you’re interviewing the Medicis, and you’re interviewing the Pope and all the apprentices who were down there mixing the paint on the floor. You’ve got the whole thing there. What is that document worth?” Rosenthal says. “That’s what we have here.”

Staller tours the exhibition, which included then-new sculptures and paintings of her in sexual positions with her then-husband

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