Koons brings his 'toons to town

Inspired by Popeye, the multimillionaire King of Kitsch unveils his first ever solo show in the UK
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The Independent Culture

His artworks of dogs and rabbits made from giant balloons outraged the French when he installed them in the much revered rooms of the Versailles Palace. And his infamous "Made in Heaven" series featuring the artist in explicit sexual positions with his former porn star wife scandalised near enough the entire art world.

Now, after a lifetime of staging some of the most outrageous and hotly debated shows of the past 30 years, Jeff Koons, 54, who is often billed as the "King of Kitsch", has landed in London for his first ever solo show in the UK.

Koons, arguably America's most important living contemporary artist, and who is cited as a major influence on the Young British Artists of the 1990s, is bringing Popeye to the Serpentine Gallery. The series, originally conceived in 2002, is dedicated to the eponymous spinach-eating sailor created in the 1930s.

The exhibition, opening today, includes a number of old and new images of Popeye, as well as reproductions of inflatable children's toys – monkeys dangling from the ceiling, lobsters propped on a dustbin, seals and walruses lying on top of plastic deckchairs and a dolphin beneath kitchen pots and pans – and a small smattering of explicit images, reflecting the artist's enduring preoccupation with nudity and sex. The inflatable beach toys are cast in aluminium and their surfaces are painted to perfectly resemble children's toys.

"I watched Popeye when I was younger... it has a personal iconography. I always see a bit of my father in Popeye. He was a self-created and very optimistic man.

"Maybe the spinach is art, the ability that it has given me to change my life, to give it transcendence," he said.

His ouevre has included a series of three life-size gold-leaf plated porcelain statues of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles. Yesterday, he paid tribute to the singer's talents, but said he had no plans to create further sculptures in his memory.

"I'm saddened because Michael was a great artist. It's a tragedy to see someone who's so talented not being able to continue, or have the foundations to exercise all the creativity that was within him," he said.

Koons said the inflatable artworks represented a state of "optimism", adding: "In our own lives, we are inflatables. We take a breath in, which is a symbol of optimism, and take a breath out, which is a symbol of death."

Describing his formative years when he studied art, he admitted he didn't know much about it, even at art college. "I ended up in art school and I still didn't know what art was. I went to an art gallery and I didn't know about Braque and about Manet... Instead of not surviving that moment, I survived," he said.

Koons was at the vanguard of an era when artists were becoming stars. He, along with the likes of Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel, went to great lengths to cultivate his public persona. Koons is said to have employed an image consultant, placed advertisements in international art magazines of himself surrounded by the trappings of success and given interviews referring to himself in the third person.

Koons' works have sold for astronomical prices at auctions and privately. In November 2007, a magenta Hanging Heart, one of five in different colours, sold at Sotheby's New York for $23.6m becoming, at the time, the most expensive piece by a living artist ever auctioned.

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