By Rachel Corbett
Updated June 27, 2014
© Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons is the most expensive living artist. One of his metallic-lacquered Balloon Dog sculptures sold at auction for $58 million in November—a figure that, to many, was not a testament to the importance of Koons's work, but to the extent that rich people like shiny objects. But while Koons does deal predominantly in glossy kitsch—think puppies, Pink Panthers and Popeyes—his more than three-decade career is being given serious treatment at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new show, "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective," running today through October 19. Love him or hate him, Koons is going to be more visible than ever this summer, so here’s a guide to understanding a few of his most important pieces.

1. Michael Jackson and Bubbles:

Koons’s earnest admiration for American bad taste reached eerie heights in the artist’s “Banality” series of the 1980s. Koons has often described finding spiritual meaning in everyday activities like having sex, looking at cute animals or listening to pop music. So for this porcelain sculpture, Koons rendered Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee in the style of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, elevating them from pop icons to religious icons.

2. Hoover Vacuums:

If Koons is a kind of patron saint of suburbia, then his series of Hoover vacuums cleaners from the 1980s could be his altarpieces. Sealed in plexiglass cases and bathed in fluorescent light—perhaps the glow of postwar American innovation—the household objects become sacred totems.

3. Equilibrium Tanks:

Koons is interested in origin stories: birth, the beginning of the universe etc. His basketballs suspended in vitrines of water certainly bring to mind pregnancy. But why basketballs? “The reason that I used a basketball over another object is really probably for the purity of it, that it's an inflatable, it relates to our human experience of to be alive we have to breathe,” Koons once said. “If the ball would be deflated, it would be a symbol of death.”

4. Made in Heaven:

This 1991 series of paintings and sculptures depicting Koons having sex with his former wife, the Italian porn star Ilona Staller, infuriated critics and nearly ended the artist’s career. Some found the works vacuous and egotistical, while others were even more shocked by its apparently complete lack of irony. In any case, the work seemed to defy earthly logic—which was perhaps behind the artist’s famous statement at the time that the couple had “become God.”

5. Celebration series:

In the 1990s, Koons nearly went bankrupt manufacturing these massive steel sculptures and paintings of toys, easter eggs and birthday cake. But while the series looks like an ecstatic celebration of childhood, it has a darker underside. For one thing, there are no children present at this party—perhaps because Koons was in the midst of a custody battle at the time with Staller, by then his ex-wife, who had taken their young son to Italy. One of the infamous Balloon Dogs—a yellow one—is on display at the Whitney.