John Waters and Jeff Koons onstage at the Orpheum Theatre

John Waters in conversation with Jeff Koons at the Orpheum Theatre for the Broad museum's "Un-Private Collection" lecture series. (Deborah Vankin / Los Angeles Times / February 24, 2014)

Art talks typically don’t draw stadium concert-like crowds. On Monday night, however, almost 2,000 people crowded into downtown L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre to hear filmmaker-actor-artist John Waters interview contemporary artist Jeff Koons. The event was part of the Broad museum's “Un-Private Collection” lecture series, which pairs artists from the Broad’s collection with pop cultural figures.

The Pope of Trash in conversation with the King of Kitsch is undoubtedly a hot ticket. The sidewalk in front of the theater, bathed in neon from the Orpheum’s marquee, was thick with mingling showgoers.

Inside the theater, the first four rows offered a who’s who of the Los Angeles art world. Within eyeshot: artists Paul McCarthy and Ed Ruscha; former Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch, who’d flown in from New York; director Gus Van Sant, former MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, and art book publisher Benedikt Taschen.

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So what did the two actually have to say?

“Wow, that was a very presidential debate entrance,” Waters said, settling into his seat onstage after introductions by Joanne Heyler, founding director of The Broad.

Waters cleared his throat, pursed his lips and adjusted the clipboard on his lap; then he launched right into what he called “a very Freudian question,” asking Koons whether he had a secret art life as a child.

“It started around the age of 3 … I remember drawing at a desk and my parents coming up behind me and really kind of patting me on the back,” Koons said. “I finally felt I could do something better than my sister. It gave me a sense of self.”  

Waters shared his own secret art life as a kid growing up in Baltimore: “I remember when I first went to the Baltimore museum and bought a little Miró print and brought it home. All the other kids said ‘Ugh, that’s ugly, why would you put that ugly thing on your wall?!’ I thought: ‘Ah, the power of art!’ It really made me feel glad everyone hated it.”

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The conversation spanned early art inspirations, family, religion, sex, self acceptance, death and even lawn ornaments. Koons was thoughtful, introspective, earnest; Waters -- a.k.a. the Sultan of Sleaze -- was full of quick witticisms.

On Koons’ “Chainlink Fence, 2003,” projected onto a screen above the stage, Waters quipped: “It reminds me of a playroom in a prison.”

On Koons’ famous electric blue “Balloon Dog (Blue), 1994-2000,” Waters said: “Is this sexual? Because basically, the dog is neutered. I mean, the only way it’s gonna reproduce is on a plate.”  

On Koons' oil painting “Girl with Dolphin and Monkey Triple Popeye (Seascape), 2010,” Waters joked: “I’m against people riding dolphins. Get your lardy [backside] off that thing.”

Koons sparked a big laugh toward the end of the talk. When Waters pointed out that, for better or worse, Koons was a brand at this point in his career, drawing mega-high prices for his work, Koons admitted: “I have to say, John, I prefer it that way.”  

There were serious moments, however. Koons mentioned one of his eight children had been the victim of a parental abduction. He used his art, he said, to get through that dark period. Waters mentioned one of his favorite authors was Jane Bowles; Koons said he enjoyed reading Plato and Kierkegaard. Koons talked about following your instincts and true interests in life as the only path toward enlightenment. “It takes you to a metaphysical place,” he said.

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Still, the talk inevitably ended on one of Waters’ one-liners. To the audience member question, “What would Divine have to say about Jeff Koons?” Waters answered: “He’d be mad he did Lady Gaga’s album cover and not his!”

At the VIP reception after the talk, MTV “Jackass” star Johnny Knoxville – who appeared in Waters’ 2004 movie “A Dirty Shame” -- said Waters and Koons looked like “the new odd couple” up on stage together. “I wat to do a buddy comedy with them,” he said.

Wait staff passed trays of appetizers from the restaurant Animal; the laughter and champagne flowed. Eli Broad was in the brightest of spirits.

“I thought it was a very entertaining event,” he said. “I don’t think there’s ever been an art event with this kind of a turnout -- it’s been a real happening!

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