By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. pop artist Jeff Koons' retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art brings his work full-circle because an exhibit at the New York landmark 40 years ago set him off on his groundbreaking career.
Koons is considered one of the world's greatest living artists. His work "Balloon Dog (Orange)" sold for a record-setting $58.4 million last year, the highest price for a living artist.
"Jeff Koons: A Retrospective," which opens on Friday and runs through Oct. 19, is his first large-scale New York museum exhibition and the first time a single artist has taken over nearly the entire Whitney Museum.
But long before Koons awed, inspired and shocked the art world with his inflatable flowers, nude images and monumental sculptures, he saw an exhibition at the Whitney in 1974 by American artist Jim Nutt that had a huge impact on him.
"I ended up moving to Chicago and studying art, going to school at the Art Institute of Chicago from seeing that exhibition," Koons, 59, said at a preview of the retrospective.
It is his wish that his works will have a similar influence on those who see it.
"I hope that this exhibition can have a dialogue with the art world, with young artists and help show the opportunities and the freedom that young artists have today to follow their own interests," he added.
With 150 works spanning more than three decades, the Whitney retrospective chronicles Koons' career, showcasing the works that made him one of the most popular, influential and controversial postwar artists.
The works range from wall-mounted vacuum cleaners with fluorescent lights from his first 1980 solo exhibition, to basketballs suspended in tanks, a stainless steel train filled with bourbon, and the 1988 porcelain sculpture "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," of the pop singer and his pet chimpanzee.
In his "Made in Heaven" series of huge works that shocked viewers in 1990 in Venice, Koons is shown nude with his then-future and now ex-wife, Ilona Staller.
"One of the things I like to think that Jeff has done is to break not just one boundary but so many," Scott Rothkopf, the associate director of programs who curated the retrospective, told Reuters.
Although Koons has been a major force in the art world for decades, he has never had a major retrospective in his hometown, so the timing felt right for the New York show.
"I think in a way his work just gains in its significance and its importance and its sense of urgency," said Rothkopf.
Koons has been called the "king of kitsch" because of his use of everyday objects and pop art imagery, but Rothkopf noted that Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were also criticized for going down that road.
"I think Jeff's relationship to kitsch and popular culture is one of the most complicated and interested aspects of his work," he added.
After its New York run, the retrospective will move to France and then Spain.
(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Jonathan Oatis)