If artist Jeff Koons had never said a word about himself or his work, he might not have developed a reputation as a huckster and a boor among so many in the art world. Then again, if Koons had clammed up, he also likely wouldn’t have been able to command a seven-figure payday for an explicit sculpture of himself having sex with his Italian porn-star wife. Alison Chernick’s documentary The Jeff Koons Show surveys Koons’ career to date, emphasizing the “show” part of her title. She begins with a 1992 Koons interview in which he claims that only Picasso and Marcel Duchamp are in his league as 20th-century artists, adding “I’m ending the 20th century. There’s no one out there doing what I’m doing.” Then she cuts to one of his works: a set of inflatable monkeys cast in aluminum. As arresting as the sculpture is—and it does undeniably catch the eye—it’s also so garish that it prompts viewers to wonder how much Koons’ ability to sell himself has played a role in his success.
But Chernick, who made the similar documentary Matthew Barney: No Restraint, isn’t out to damn Koons. If anything, The Jeff Koons Show serves as an explication of the soft-spoken, polite, well-dressed Koons, and evidence of how an artist’s personal story can be integral to understanding his art. Chernick interviews curators, critics, and other artists along with Koons himself, all of whom walk viewers through the arc of Koons’ work, from the show where he placed brand-new vacuum cleaners in plastic cases to the one where he suspended basketballs in water (surrounded by Nike posters), and beyond. Chernick’s point seems to be that it’s impossible to understand Koons’ appropriation of heartland kitsch—or his apparent raging narcissism—without seeing how each new piece built and commented on what came before, while always working in reaction to what other artists were doing.
So while Koons may say that his inflatable monkeys are a comment on “systems,” or that he uses recognizable brands so people will see those brands in the future and think of Jeff Koons, critics with more perspective can note that Koons’ interest in using colorful children’s toys corresponds with a time when he was separated from his son. And for those who don’t buy the argument that a piece of art needs to be more than what we can see with our eyes, painter Julian Schnabel offers a more prosaic defense of Koons: “What does an artist do? He points and says ‘Look at this.’”
Key features: A fascinating, too-short five-minute look at an art show Koons curated from the collection of an offbeat Greek art-lover.