Jeff Koons is such a notorious and controversial figure in our culture that one instinctively assumes one has seen lots of his work. But the air of ubiquity that clings to him is deceptive. Koons’s art feels thoroughly familiar because of the prominent position it has claimed for itself in the parallel dimension of culture, but on the ground, in shows, we in Britain have seen surprisingly little of it. So undershown is it that the Serpentine’s unveiling of Koons’s Popeye suite is the first big survey of his work in a public gallery.
Looking back at the few occasions on which his art was exhibited here before – as opposed to the many hyperreal occasions when it was discussed, felt or imagined – you count a mere handful of events. Saatchi introduced him to us a couple of decades ago in a memorable unleashing of new art from New York. Koons’s nerve-tingling sex pictures with the notorious Italian porn star La Cicciolina were furtively shown as well, as were his glorious Hoovers. More recently, his gallery, the Gagosian, has put him in its window in a couple of displays. And that’s it. A huge reputation, backgrounded by a smattering of shows.
His art feels as familiar as it does because of its stick ability: people keep remembering it and citing it. I recall vividly the first Koons sculpture I saw. It was one of his basketballs floating in an aquarium, put on show by Saatchi in 1987. Looking at it made me want to gasp for air. Ignoring my brain entirely, it spoke directly to my biology, as if it knew something about me that I did not. This surgical talent for addressing the lower self is displayed fully at the Serpentine, too, in a group of paintings and sculptures produced between 2002 and today, themed, very loosely, on the subject of Popeye. Meanwhile, a roomful of gorgeous Koonses is on show at Tate Modern as part of the New Displays. The Tate room is beautiful: go see it. The Serpentine contribution is trickier and more discomforting.
The first thing to admit about Popeye is that he hardly seems a suitable subject for serious artistic investigation. Popeye yiz what he yiz, right? And thad’s it, no? Hmmm. Moybe. If this really were a series only about Popeye, then empty levity might indeed have been a problem. But although the great spinach-swallower pops up to flex his muscles impressively in a couple of the most direct paintings, he is not its most insistent presence, nor, I suggest, its real subject. If I were lying on a psychiatrist’s couch right now, instead of writing this review, and the psychiatrist asked me for the first two words that popped into my mind when I recalled Koons’s show, I would reply: “Drowning and sex.” The first thing you see here is a trilogy of sculptures involving beach inflatables of the sort you buy for your kids on Bournemouth pier. On the right, a big, grinning dalmatian, suspended on chains from the ceiling, carries a cargo of sawn-up logs on his back. In front of you, an aluminium ladder, of the variety preferred by DIY enthusiasts, has been weirdly conjoined with a huge inflatable caterpillar. Finally, a large, schematic moustache, of the old-fashioned sort favoured by Victorian circus trainers, hangs from the ceiling, with two inflatable swimming aids dangling from either handlebar, one shaped as a dragon, the other as a fawn: a him ring and a hers.
Your first instinct is to dismiss all of them as childish garblings. It’s the usual initial response to a new Koons. There is something distinctly Michael Jackson-ish about his relationship to the nursery years, and few things you can buy are as irredeemably, quintessentially, irreducibly kid-like as a pool toy. Particularly when it is purple, green, yellow and shaped like a gurning caterpillar. So you walk away. You tut. You circle. You prowl. You poke (illegally). And, slowly, you realise that the damn thing has a hold on you. The grinning dalmatian is particularly clingy. Staring at you inanely, it transforms itself before your eyes from a silly, vacuous, innocent kids’ toy into an uncanny piece of hardcore surrealism. The heavy wooden logs on its back, pulling it down, seem somehow to induce sensations of drowning. The creepy red chains, holding it up, take on a sinister S&M air. I suspect Koons’s ridiculous chained-up rubber dalmatian brought me closer to the autoasphyxiation experience than I have ever wanted to go.
The entire display works on you in this slippery, underhand manner. Poking one of the show’s infla table lobsters with my finger – which you, of course, are not allowed to do, and I was not supposed to, either – I found it solid, weighty and metallic, its convincing sense of weightlessness achieved with obsessive trompe l’oeil paintwork. One of the reasons Koons is such an infrequent exhibitor is that his art takes so long to finish. The attention to detail lavished on these seemingly trivial pool toys – lobsters, dolphins, turtles – is worthy of a Nuremberg goldsmith.
Even more furtive than the sculptures, the paintings seem to take place on a bewildering number of layers. Hook, a picture from 2003, features a blue hippo and a green turtle. But when you look more carefully, you notice the disembodied diamanté panties camouflaged in the foreground, the squidgy close-ups of prawn sushi, the violent metal hook at the centre, the sinister wire cage, the dark phallic thrust of the two-tone inflatable dragon plunging into the diamanté panties. All this is layered and overlayered so that each mysterious shape can work a suggestive connection with the one next to it. The effect is to bat you like a ping-pong ball from childhood innocence to adult perversion and back.
Popeye himself makes a wonderful appearance at the centre of a couple of heroic portraits. What Landseer did with The Stag at Bay, Koons does with Popeye Eating His Spinach. Posed supremely in the middle of the picture, with his can of magic greens in one hand and bursting biceps propelling his pile-driver fist on the other, our indomitable sailor man appears to be broadcasting his proud world-view: I yam what I yam. In the catalogue, that particularly wacky art critic Arthur Danto suggests we might see Popeye as Koons’s self-portrait. But I am inclined to go further and view him as an embodiment of the American spirit. Koons’s art has always given the impression that its topic is the world that spawned it. And while I would not be so literal as to suggest that this mock-heroic naval hero with the puffed-out chest and the anally cleft chin is supposed specifically to stand for America in the Bush/Iran era, there is a powerful sense here that Koons’s Popeye is comically bestriding the world we live in, and that his puffed-out persona is being simultaneously adored and mocked.
Fifty years ago, if a New York pop artist had fussed this noisily over a famous cartoon character, we might happily have accepted that it was being done for slight and fizzy pop-cultural reasons. But Popeye, now? When his story lines seem so old-fashioned and his pertinence has collapsed? Something else is going on here. Something personal, nostalgic and sticky. Something that pulls this weird show out of its jaunty cartoonish orbit and directs it darkly at your bowels. Popeye has been ordered to get under your skin, to toy naughtily with your basic instincts.
It all adds up to a wickedly brilliant display. The show seems to grow as you watch. It takes a while to realise that the lurid cartoon colours and grinning kiddie shapes are a cover for darker adult concerns; that those concerns are being kept teasingly out of reach; and that Koons is cunningly invol ving you in an exhibition-wide psychosexual mystery. Because this isn’t a show about Popeye at all. This is Jeff Koons’s State of the Nation address.