Jeff Koons is the all American artist. He deals in popular culture and consumerism. He is an image manufacturer.

A Romanesque bust from 1991 casts him as a Hollywood star in glittering marble. His lover, adult film star and model, Ilona Staller, is a Venus with pearls and plaited hair.

The iconic and self-adulatory centrepiece is from Koons’ Made In Heaven series.

“Ilona and I were born for each other,” he declared at the time, referring to his now ex-wife.

“She’s a media woman. I’m a media man. We are the contemporary Adam and Eve.”

Bourgeois Bust – Jeff And Ilona was intended to mark his apotheosis as artist and man.

It achieved its aim to match the extravagance of the Baroque period.

But the ego alienates some.

The great art critic Robert Hughes called Koons “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks” in an article comparing the contemporary art scene with showbusiness.

In Britain, the critical reception has never been as warm as in other European countries such as Italy or Germany.

“I was shocked in one interview he gave when he said, ‘After Duchamp and Picasso, I am probably the best artist of the 20th century,’” says Jenny Lund, curator of fine art at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

“I thought, are you being ironic or do you actually believe it? But that is what makes his art interesting: the ambivalence. You can’t say it is all irony or all surface. It isn’t.”

Koons’ work, mixing high and low art, money and sex, is among the most valuable made by living artists.

Tulips, a giant steel sculpture of seven flowers in bright colours from his recent Celebrations series, sold last year for £21 million at Christie’s.

His fame in America is equal to Damien Hirst’s in Britain. Is that because beyond the sugary finish of the Made In Heaven series is a recurring metaphor for self-development and attaining dreams?

He calls that series a way of “presenting the idea of the chameleon – that if one emulates what one wants to be one can become that”.

Bourgeois Bust (pictured right) is currently on loan to Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

It is one of eleven works which give Brightonians a chance to see the divisive artist’s work up close.

“We are extremely lucky to have it in Brighton,” explains Lund, who has played a key role in bringing the collection to the South Coast.

“It’s a big task for us to take on and that makes it very exciting. We have been working to get this to Brighton for more than a year”.

It is a huge project with fragile works. “The bust weighs more than 220kg.”

Artist Rooms: Jeff Koons is a collection which follows his career from its beginning in 1980 to 2003.

Brighton is its debut opening at a regional gallery.

The loan is thanks to a donation to the nation made by Anthony D’Offay.

The Sheffield-born collector and dealer once represented German artists Gerhard Richter (as of Wednesday the world’s most expensive living artist), Sigmar Polke, Joseph Beuys, but also Jeff Koons and Young British Artists Rachel Whiteread and Richard Patterson.

The National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate Gallery paid £26.5 million instead of the market value £125 million in 2008 for D’Offay’s collection of 725 works by 25 artists.

“Artist Rooms was a donation with the premise these should tour to regional museums,” explains Lund.

“The idea is museums should focus on one artist. You present an artist’s way of working or thinking, their theoretical mindset and their development, instead of doing a thematic exhibition.”

Brighton Museum and Art Gallery wanted Koons because his work had only been shown in London and at Scotland’s National Gallery, and also because they thought Koons’ work would “resonate well with Brighton”.

“On the one hand, Koons’ work has very strong art historical references – both to romanticism and the Baroque – and to the craftsmanship and skills you see in, for example, the Royal Pavilion, with perhaps the excess that George IV liked.

“Then there are the tourists and souvenir shops, the beach culture and leisure, pop culture, and also Brighton is a media-saturated city.”

Lund points to the large numbers in Brighton working in advertising and computer games, which are part of Koons’ imagery.

That the show is bringing art of an international standard by a big-hitting modern artist to Brighton Museum and Gallery fits Lund’s role to increase its contemporary exhibitions.

“He does something that is very unique in his use of popular culture. He builds and draws on minimalism and the early avant-garde and manages to create a language of his own.

“There is a constant ambivalence in his work – it is both pop culture and high art, which makes him difficult to place.”

Some critics think he is not critical or avant-garde enough because he celebrates the popular.

“But his works make us think as viewers about the meaning of art and how we project meaning into the world around us.

“His art is beautiful and seductive and playful.”

In each of the three rooms are brightly coloured mirrors from the Easyfun series.

They are made in cartoon animal styles and are equally about transforming the gallery into a child’s room as recreating a wall of mirrors to fulfil adult pleasures. The idea is to frame the viewer.

“He is making you part of the artwork. Again it becomes about how we project ideas and give works meaning.

“He is also playing on narcissism – falling in love with our own image and the artist’s image.”

The collection, which is chronological, begins with work from The New series, made between 1980 and 1987.

Above four vacuum cleaners in glass vitrines is a quote from the artist.

“If one of my works was to be turned on, it would be destroyed.”

The Hoovers were originally exhibited in the window of the New Museum in New York to mirror the idea that the space was a shop window.

Koons was building on Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the ready-made. The Frenchman had previously chosen an old porcelain urinal, which he named Fountain, and placed it in a gallery to remove its function. He turned it into art to ask what constitutes art, beauty and value?

Koons chose a brand-new and banal consumer object – a slick mass-produced item concerned with American suburban life and the middle class – to draw parallels between the shop window and the gallery, the commercial world and the fine art world.

He called it New Hoover Convertibles, Green Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker, 1981-1987.

“He is highlighting how we all project desires and hopes on to consumer objects. He plays with the sexiness of the way consumer products are given titles and how we buy into this.”

Koons worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street to pay for his early works. He had high specifications and exacting standards. His art is flawless and expensive, like luxury consumer goods.

Before commodities trading, after graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1976, he worked in the ticket office at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

He was a renowned salesman and substantially increased MoMA’s membership numbers in his time there.

He often tells a story of walking around Philadelphia as a young boy serving candy to the neighbours and ringing people’s doorbells.

“He is part of American culture, stating that he is not afraid of speaking positively about himself, but using very sincere language,” says Lund.

“You can see him up there with Walt Whitman in the list of great American artists, but he is also great salesman.”

Another work, Encased, made up of 24 basketballs in glass vitrines from the Equilibrium series, brings art, commerce and sport together.

Again, it is a parallel between the art gallery and the shop window. He juxtaposes the commercial world with high art. He references commercial packaging, repetition in advertising and youth culture.

The basketball is an American object, a symbol of aspiration; how young people can be socially mobile through sport.

“He often comments how he, as a white man, has used art to move away from his class in the same way African Americans would use sports,” adds Lund.

“He is playing on the American dream. ‘If I can come from a lower middle-class background to become a successful artist, everybody can.’”

  • The Jeff Koons exhibition is at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Pavilion Gardens, until September 8. Open 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday, free. Call 03000 290900.