POPEYE THE EYE-POPPER ; Just When You Thought He'd Run out of Ideas, Jeff Koons, One of the Biggest Celebrity Artists of Our Age, Comes Up with a Whole New Fantasy

Article excerpt


JEFF KOONS: POPEYE SERIES Serpentine Gallery, W2

IREALLY wanted to dislike this exhibition. It seemed high time to turn against Jeff Koons, one of the three biggest celebrity artists of the credit-fuelled boom years (along with Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst) whose prices were driven up past the Pounds 10 million barrier by Russian oligarchs, New York hedge-funders and Greek shipping billionaires, competing to buy his glossy super-sized trophies of childhood nostalgia. I thought it would be easy to dismiss the new work: at first sight, it looked like Jeff was playing his old tricks with a handful of replicas of children's toys.

The Serpentine show of his latest series, Popeye, which he's been adding to since 2003, is full of colourful swimming pool inflatables, blow-up cartoony walruses and dolphins, and safety rings in bright colours with cutesy animal heads, perfectly re- created in aluminium. These are combined in daft sculptural arrangements with furniture from homes, pools and recreation grounds, of which an inflatable lobster doing a handstand on an upturned trash can and restaurant chair takes the biscuit.

On the walls, there are photorealist paintings (composed on Photoshop by the artist, then painted by his small army of assistants on to canvas). They are collages of unsurprising images and items from suburban America: topless women, stepladders, more inflatables and figures of Popeye with bulging muscles and cans of spinach. To a cynical art critic, these paintings look too much like the work of American pop artist James Rosenquist, who has been using the imagery of advertising billboards since the Sixties. The new inflatable sculptures don't seem to have the indisputable originality, iconic power or art historical wit of Koons's kitsch masterpieces -- the 12-metre high flower Puppy (1992) outside the Bilbao's Guggenheim, his huge twisted balloon dogs, or the shiny hanging heart that sold for $23.6 million in 2007 from his Celebration series.

Koons, 54 this year, has been recognised since the Eighties as the successor to Andy Warhol. Both iconised popular culture but while Warhol did pop celebrity, Koons did suburban banality. Warhol did rough; Koons did immaculate, taking consumer products as ready- mades such as the neat rows of pristine Hoovers, in Perspex cases, which he said was about the allure of novelty. And there were the basket-balls floating in water, symbols of what he called "equilibrium". He went on to collide baroque opulence with pop culture in a succession of unforgettable sculptures, including an oversized Michael Jackson and his monkey, Bubbles, in the style of an 18th-century porcelain figure.

Art critics called this kind of work "appropriation art", "simulationism" and "Neo-Geo". Artists had moved on from critiquing capitalist culture to imitating and celebrating it. The idea was to make something so enthusiastically uncritical, exaggerated in its embrace of consumer culture, that it became more critical than conventional criticism. But it didn't work too well, as was confirmed by the world's richest capitalists who loved Koons's souped-up toys and shiny objects of veneration. Now the billionaires have had their day, however, Koons prices have crashed -- for the moment at least -- by more than 50 per cent (a supersized shiny Easter egg, Baroque Egg with Bow, sold for a measly $5.5 million).

BUT the more I wandered around this new exhibition, the more I realised how visually and conceptually interesting Koons's work is - - it's only superficially superficial. …