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Art superstar Koons unveils lifetime work in New York

NEW YORK -- Jeff Koons, one of world's highest paid artists, unveils his life work in New York on Friday, a chance to understand why his art is so celebrated, so loathed and so expensive.

The Whitney Museum has devoted its entire four-floor premises to the city's first retrospective of a 35-year career that sent Koons, the “king of kitsch,” into the celebrity stratosphere.

Famous for his short-lived marriage to an Italian porn star and for channeling their sex life into explicit art, he is often compared to Andy Warhol and has even been lauded as a new Michelangelo.

His ex-wife is Ilona Staller, a former Italian lawmaker known in the porn world as “Cicciolina,” who once offered to have sex with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to avert the 1990 Gulf War.

Today Koons is married to a former assistant and divides his time between a farm in Pennsylvania and New York where an army of staff help produce his giant, ultra-expensive sculptures.

Last year his Balloon Dog (Orange) smashed world auction records by selling for US$58.4 million — the most money for any work by a living artist and the most for a contemporary sculpture.

His fame resonates well beyond the art world, helped in part by collaborations with celebrities such as Lady Gaga, who made his art a centerpiece of her most recent album launch.

Koons, sun-tanned and dressed in a sharp suit with his piercing eyes, reveled in the rock-star reception at the press preview for his retrospective, mobbed by TV cameras and photographers.

“I'm enjoying every moment of this,” he said. “I believe completely in the work that we have here, and I hope other people can find meaning in it.”

The 59-year-old said he hopes to have another three decades, “maybe more,” to create art — which many will interpret as a clear nod to his hero Pablo Picasso, who worked until his death in his 90s.

“I really believe in art, I really believe in the transcendence it's given me ... and it's taught me how to enjoy ideas and also experience this very ephemeral realm of ideas,” he said.

The retrospective of 150 works opens Friday and runs until October 19, when it will pack up and move to Paris.

It is the American art museum's last exhibition before moves downtown to gleaming new premises.

Transcendent Kitsch or 'dreadful'?

The intention is to view his art as a whole, trace its evolution and gain a deeper understanding of how the iconic pieces, such as “Made in Heaven” and “Balloon Dog,” fit into the whole.

More than 20 years after its creation, “Made in Heaven” remains his most controversial work.

Stepping out of the Whitney elevator, visitors are hit by the enormous lithograph of a fresh-faced, naked Koons embracing a writhing Staller, dressed in fish net stockings and white lace lingerie.

Koons intended the graphic, kitsch depictions of the couple having sex to foster emancipation from shame, but they were slammed at the time and branded “dreadful” by The Guardian newspaper this week.

The Whitney heaped praise on their star. Director Adam Weinberg said Koons “redefined what art and an artist can be.”

Yet the retrospective is unlikely to quieten his detractors.

The late critic Robert Hughes lampooned Koons for thinking he is a Michelangelo of the modern day and collectors for believing it.

“He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida,” he wrote.

“Great, good, bad and terrible art,” according to The Guardian's headline on its review of the retrospective, pondering that a better starting point might have been contemporary collapse in America.

“Then we could finally figure out whether he really is a child of our time, or rather woefully, unforgivably out of sync.”

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