For his fans, Jeff Koons is a pop artist icon, the heir to Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, or legendary “anti-artist” Marcel Duchamp. His often oversized sculptures using toys, ornaments and ordinary objects, are among the most recognizable, and sought-after works on the market. His “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold for $58.4 million in 2013, “Rabbit” for $91.1 million in 2019, both at the time record auction prices for a living artist.
Koons himself often seems larger than life. In 1991, at the height of his celebrity, the American artist married Ilona Staller, a Hungarian porn star, better known as known by her Italian stage name Cicciolina. The union produced a series of sculptures, the “Made in Heaven” collection featuring the two of them having sex in a bucolic fairy landscape, surrounded by flowers, plants and colorful butterflies. Staller, who divorced Koons in 1994, is also famously the only porn star to be elected to the Italian Parliament, where she served from 1987 to 1992.
But the image of Jeff Koons that emerges from Jeff Koons. A Private Portrait is far less radical. The film, from director Italian director Pappi Corsicato, depicts the 68-year-old artist as a family man living a more-or-less ordinary middle-class life, working at his office during the week, and relaxing in the countryside on weekends with his large family, playing billiards with his kids, or frolicking around his farm in a vintage carriage. “It’s an old model with an intercom to communicate outside with the coachman, it’s called the Rockaway and it belonged to actor Jack Palance,” Koons says in the film.
But Corsicato, who directed a similar, behind-the-scenes documentary on Julian Schnabel in 2017 (Julian Schnabel. A Private Portrait), is also interested in the art. The documentary, for which the director spent a year with the artist, delves into Jeff Koons’ family history, but also into the genesis of his early works. Every recreated object is charged with an emotional meaning, like the electric toy train he often played with at Christmas with his beloved father, from whom he learned his aesthetic sense. Koons’ first exhibition consisted of a series of objects from this childhood home: Vacuum cleaners in transparent plexiglass boxes, basketballs dipped in water, and a reproduction of a travel cocktail set that his parents used on vacation.
The doc is full of gems for Koons fanatics, including the story of how the artist decided to move to New York from his native Pennsylvania, after hearing Patti Smith’s album Horses at a party, and how, once in the Big Apple, he worked on Wall Street to finance his dream of becoming an artist.
Jeff Koons. A Private Portrait premiered at the Rome Film Festival and is bowing in the U.S. this month via alternative content distributor BY Experience. It rolls out worldwide next year.
THR Rome spoke to Corsicato about the real man behind the balloon dogs. The following interview was edited for space and content.
How did your relationship with Jeff Koons come about?
It started many years ago, in 2003, on the occasion of an exhibition of his at the Archaeological Museum of Naples on which I made a documentary. I met him again in 2016 because I interviewed him for the documentary on Julian Schnabel. On that occasion, Jeff told me about how Julian had helped him as a young man to sell his first works and we discussed many things.
Was he the one who asked you to make your documentary?
In 2017 the documentary on Julian Schnabel came out and Jeff told me he really liked it at which point I asked him if we could do one on him, in the same style and I must say to my surprise he immediately said yes.
What did you discover by spending time with him?
I discovered a very different person. Much more cheerful, light-hearted and sympathetic than he had appeared to me and also very generous. My documentaries are very personal, they are based on people and not characters. I never go into filming with a preconceived idea because I really want to understand their business, their life the most private aspects of it.
How much is captured reality in the documentary and how much is constructed?
There is always some manipulation, that’s normal. Nobody reveals themselves fully in the presence of a camera of course, however, what comes out, even through the stories, is very real. For example, Jeff describes that for his art he draws a lot on his childhood memories. What he does is basically inspired by objects he had in his house, like the toy train he played with as a child rather than the dog made out of the inflatable balloons. They are childhood memories repurposed on a giant scale, so through his work, he tells truths, he reveals himself.
You also show the controversial “Made in Heaven” exhibit created with Ilona Staller
The series of works with Staller was seen as something scandalous, provocative, and almost pornographic, while from his point of view, it was just showing naked bodies in an act of sex where there were no taboos. It was just something liberating, not unnatural at all.
Staller is a major absence in this documentary.
Because of personal problems between them, I could not interview her. I don’t think she wanted to be involved, and I frankly didn’t care about the gossipy side of the story. In the documentary, Jeff talks about his love affair with Staller, how he involved her in his work, and how they lost each other. Everything else about the affair is already out there. Just go to YouTube and you can find it all.
Your portrait of Jeff Koons is of a kind of homebody. It’s all about work and homelife.
It is as the title says: it is a private portrait. You have to separate that from the appearance of the artist who used to dress strangely or have a “transgressive” personality. Like Julian Schnabel, he is a world-famous artist. But I am exclusively interested in their real private lives. How and where they live, their family, children, relatives.
What did you find that Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel have in common?
Basically, they both have a very clear focus on what they want to do in life. From a very young age, they were very sure of their talent. They went all the way despite many failures and disappointments. They are both very determined. There’s a great lesson there for everyone who thinks they have talent. These two artists make it clear what a strong vocation means: A complete dedication to your art.
At one point in the documentary Koons says “Art eliminates prejudice.” Do you agree?
Of course! It should at least! The interesting thing about his work is it speaks to everyone. The big balloon dog is a good example. Who doesn’t remember playing with balloons or having a dog as a child? Who hasn’t had similar experiences? Jeff Koons’ art keeps a boyish side of life alive even as adults.
How long did it take to make this documentary?
We shot everything in one year. We spent 10 days in Greece, three weeks in New York, then in his country house and in Doha.
Did he censor you in any way?
Absolutely not. I was free to do whatever I wanted. Jeff provided me with all the stock footage he had, all his home movies and private photographs, and I picked what I thought was most relevant to the story.
Schnabel, Koons, who’s next?
I don’t know if I want to do another portrait of an artist. Maybe I’ll shift to another field, something about fashion, design or architecture. So long as it’s a subject that reflects something in me and I feel a personal connection to.