Jeff Koons, pictured at his New York retrospective last month
Jeff Koons, pictured at his New York retrospective last month © Reuters

When Jeff Koons appeared on American TV satire The Colbert Report in 2012, the outlandishly narcissistic character played by Stephen Colbert knew he had found a soul mate. “A lot of them are shiny, you know,” Colbert observed about Koons’ sculptures. “So when I look at them I can see me, and then I’m really interested in it.” The satirical Colbert and cherubic Koons share a calling: to hold up a ruthless mirror to their viewers’ corruption, delusion, insecurity and desire.

Silvered surfaces beckon on all four floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s gargantuan Koons retrospective. The reflections come in giddy colours and queasy distortions. We see ourselves in the silhouettes of cartoon characters, and in the curved metallic surfaces of ice buckets, bottles, toy trains and aluminium balloons. Koons is a gleefully self-loving celebrity, posing naked and savouring his fame, but his point is surely that everyone else is narcissistic too. We’re all starring in our own movies.

He seduces through surface, gratifying viewers’ self-absorption on every scale, from the micro to the monumental. Yet his lustrous, perfect surfaces don’t show us only what we want to see. They reflect back at us the depths of our degradation. Like us, his art is by turns cute, cold, charming and repellent.

‘Lobster’ (2003)
‘Lobster’ (2003)

“I’ll be your mirror,” Nico croon-groaned in the Velvet Underground’s first classic recording, “reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” That lyric emerged from Andy Warhol’s tinfoil-lined Factory, which also cranked out the Koons-ian worldview. Warhol set the template for the artist as entrepreneur and public relations guru. He repackaged society’s obsessions with sex, money and fame, then sold them right back to the public as art. Like Koons, he cultivated a persona as cipher, the man who lacks irony and refuses to be deep. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it,’’ he deadpanned. Koons has adopted that bland façade, as seamless and unblemished as one of his metallic balloons. He describes his wares in a milky tone that never curdles.

Whether you love or loathe Koons’ art (or, more likely, both), there’s no question that he’s a genius salesman, making it impossible to separate the value of his art from its price. Expensiveness is what he does. Warhol ennobled the consumer product; Koons is in the business of making the ultimate luxury bauble. His sculptures cost a lot to fabricate, but they are almost unbeatable investments. In a transaction that boosted the outsized inflatable with outlandish inflation, “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold last year at Christies for $58.4m, setting a record for a living artist.

The money is crucial, even in a museum setting. This is the Whitney’s adieu to its old Marcel Breuer home, a solid, sombre thing of rough concrete and stone floors polished by millions of shuffling soles. The new building will be a bigger, far glossier structure in one of Manhattan’s highest-priced areas (the Meatpacking District), hard by the world’s costliest galleries. The museum has moved towards the market, which means that the Koons effect will linger long after the exhibition.

The retrospective, curated by Scott Rothkopf, is judiciously selected, limpidly organised, and beautifully displayed. But its greatest strength is that it offers a complicated portrait of a man who has always courted mockery as well as love. The introductory gallery, furnished with the cheap ready­mades from the 1970s, is a prescient microcosm of the decades to come. Here are the first mirrors, the psychedelic flowers that later transubstantiated into his giant floral “Puppy”, and the inflatable pink plastic bunny that a decade later rose again as the robotic “Rabbit”, looking as if a stainless steel armature were swollen with air. Soonthe illusions get funnier and more theatrical: the buoyant-looking but sinkable bronze lifeboat, the basketball magically suspended in a tank full of water, the ad posters printed on canvas.

‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’ (1988)
‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’ (1988)

At his best, Koons conflates religious and profane desire, amalgamating divine love and candied sentiment. When everything aligns, he fashions objects that resonate deeply even when they should by rights be awful. There’s something poignant and compelling about the white, gilded sculpture of Michael Jackson cradling Bubbles, his chimpanzee. Kitsch beyond belief, the piece nevertheless whispers to us about race in the US, about fame and its terrible cost. The composition echoes Michelangelo’s marble “Pietà”, but it’s hard to work out which figure plays the role of the felled saviour, the singer or the simian.

The retrospective abounds in ghastliness: photographs of a heavily made-up Koons posing in chilly erotic tableaux with his porn-star wife of the time; baroque statues reproduced in high-gloss metal and embellished with live plants; fussily complex and emotionally dead paintings; plaster casts of antique statues, each bedizened with a globular lawn ornament.

Much of this work lacks resonance or humour or depth; it’s just an exercise in vacuous technique. But what’s the good of expressing these reactions? There’s no opprobrium a critic can hurl at him that Koons himself hasn’t already pre-empted. Is his work in bad taste? Of course, but to him taste is a form of corruption, the accumulation of toxic prejudice. He’s the Pied Piper in reverse, leading adults back to discover the toddler’s joy in gaudy colours and glittering thingies.

The double-height fourth floor contains the best and biggest toys. The place of honour belongs to “Play-Doh”, a 10-foot mound of polychrome blobs that might have been lumped together by an immense child, except that it’s made of aluminium. Nearby romps a massive “Balloon Dog”, a steel version of the party clown’s stock-in-trade. With a knot for a nose and a sharp little tail, this fierce/friendly canine sums up Koons’ life-long obsession with pneumatic body parts, translated into a twisted kind of taxidermy.

‘Lifeboat’ (1985)
‘Lifeboat’ (1985)

Koons is our blithe prophet of decline, pumping up the art market with his swollen sculptures and ennobling the cult of Botoxed bodies and plastified faces. He forages among childhood’s bargain bins and plucks out a few items to transform into icons. His wizardry consists of dazzling technical perfection.

For “Gorilla” he started with a tiny souvenir from a Mold-A-Rama vending machine in the Los Angeles Zoo. The original wax figure was marred by a rough seam, but in Koons’ hands – or, to be precise, in the hands of his fabricators and assistants – manufacturing flaws become a precious topography to be reproduced in exacting detail. By the time the toy was scanned, enlarged, carved and polished, it had become a fearsome colossus: a granite King Kong.

His career has emulated the experience of an amusement-park ride, alternately exhilarating and nauseating. He has taken falls from which critics thought he would never recover and reached apotheoses of banal excess that seemed impossible to top. The trip’s not over. Koons is 59 now, and it will be fascinating, or possibly horrifying, to see what he does next.

Runs until October 19,

Main photograph: Reuters

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