Before He Was Picture Perfect, Early Jeff Koons at SF DocFest

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Still from Jeff, Embrace Your Past. (Photo courtesy SF DocFest)

The idea that everything and everyone is a commodity, with a price tag, is scarcely an original insight. But it seems an inescapable fact of life in present-day America, where we are reminded that any meaningful act of spontaneous human behavior “inspires” a platoon of publicists, agents, image consultants and programming executives.

This is the world in which Jeff Koons lives and rules. The creative act is secondary to the marketing campaign; in fact, the former might as well not exist without the latter. Hide your light under a bushel? Ha. Design, art-direct and focus-group the bushel, flog the brand, license the logo -- and then, and only then, give some thought to the lighting.

The San Francisco premiere of Jeff, Embrace Your Past in SF DocFest (screening Jun. 13 and 17 at the Roxie) provides the occasion for this rumination, although as the record-holder for the highest price ever paid for an artwork by a living artist, Koons is perennially noteworthy. The film comprises 40 minutes of scenes that local filmmaker Roger Teich shot during the installation and opening of Koons' 1992 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective, offering an intriguing portrait of a self-conscious enigma.

Jeff Koons with Ilona Staller in front of a Koons floral sculpture, 1992. (Photo by Patrick PIEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Jeff Koons with Ilona Staller in front of a Koons floral sculpture, 1992. (Photo by Patrick PIEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

An observational work without a tangible critical perspective beyond bemusement, Jeff, Embrace Your Past gives us sequences of a polite, clean-cut Koons focused on the precise positioning of his pieces, notably a set of vacuum cleaners enclosed in glass. We’re privy to several opening night activities, as well as Koons guiding his then-wife, porn star and Italian parliament member Ilona Staller, through the exhibit -- and past his paintings of the couple in flagrante delicto.

“Roger approached it very much as a Koons skeptic at that time,” says longtime Bay Area film producer Henry Rosenthal, who was invited by Teich to collaborate on shaping and editing the original raw footage. “It was the outrageousness and notoriety of the subject that attracted him. This was the show where Koons transitioned from an art star to an art superstar. Roger had the foresight and interest to gain unprecedented access to Koons, to the museum, to the collectors, to the whole milieu surrounding him.”

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Koons supporters and detractors are certain to come away with different interpretations of Jeff, Embrace Your Past. What is inarguable is that Koons, then 37, doesn’t quite have his shtick down; he’s still grappling with the proper mix of philosophical visionary, obsessive professional, boy genius, price-hiking celebrity and regular guy.

We’re left, above all, with a sense of distance, and of a man who makes a practice of cultivating distance. The most deadpan hilarious scene in the film is an interview with Koons’ father on opening night in the cramped men’s room as people enter and leave, the door repeatedly blocking our view.

It’s fair to assume that Koons, who was a willing participant in the filming in 1992, wishes the movie didn’t exist. Rosenthal says the curator of last year’s Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective wanted to show Jeff, Embrace Your Past, but Koons vetoed it.

“His reluctance to include the film alongside his body of work is a testament to the kind of paranoia and obsessive control issues that come with extreme celebrity,” Rosenthal asserts. “He manicures his image and his press fastidiously, and this film shows the frayed edges.”

Rosenthal calls himself a Koons fan, by the way. “I see him as the spiritual descendant of Warhol.” Rosenthal says. "They both have art factories with minions producing their work... Koons markets himself relentlessly, as Warhol did and does to this day. It’s that the machine behind Koons is so much more sophisticated than the one behind Warhol when he was alive. They took all the lessons learned from Warhol and refined it into a global venture.”

It took me a very long time to get and appreciate Warhol, and to reach the point now where I’m charmed, challenged, seduced and touched by a great deal of his work. So it’s conceivable I’ll discover insight and humanity in Jeff Koons. However, I might not hold my breath, and I’d caution you against holding yours.