5:28 pm Jul. 13, 2012
It is perhaps unavoidable, on the occasion of any artist’s retrospective, to sift over the past and attempt to connect the dots. This is, after all, rather the retrospective point.
It is especially unavoidable when the artist being retrospected is the octogenarian, quasi-reclusive Yayoi Kusama, whose work—spanning the late 1940s to the present and encompassing an impressive range of modes and media—is being shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 30. Unavoidable too because there are dots absolutely everywhere; they are, after all, Kusama's enduring and easily recognizable motif.
Those dots are having a big moment: not only are they featured prominently in the Whitney show, but they have spawned a Louis Vuitton collection, making their mark on a line of handbags, shoes, sunglasses, and other accouterments. (Unlike the 2008 Takashi Murakami show at the Brooklyn Museum, which included a pop-up shop peddling Vuitton bags designed in collaboration with the artist, Kusama-inspired accessories will not be available for sale at the Whitney. It bears noting too that, throughout the '60s, Kusama designed clothing—much of it featuring strategic cutouts over the breasts and buttocks—which was sold in a number of department stores, and that, in 1969, she opened her own clothing boutique.)
The dots have also brought Kusama back to the city that first made them (and her) famous. Apparently entering into the spirit of a triumphant return, the artist has made a much-covered appearance at the Fifth Avenue Louis Vuitton flagship store, sporting her now-signature Raggedy-Ann-red bob and using a wheelchair done up in those polka-dots. (A wax figure of Kusama occupies the window display.)
The contours of Kusama’s career can be sketched with relative ease, though its details are particular, if not altogether peculiar: she first came to New York in 1958, at the age of twenty-nine, having left her native Japan, after finding the country—and its rigid art-training schools—too tradition-bound for the art she wanted to and had begun to make. In New York, she quickly became part of several of mid-century’s burgeoning avant-garde art scenes, palled around with Andy Warhol, making the requisite appearances at the Factory, and staged splashy performances involving aggressive displays of nudity and the liberal deployment of polka-dots, the pattern painted on the bodies of the participants in the semi-scandalous happenings. But, sex and glamor and art-world celebrity aside, Kusama was often penniless, and she struggled as a Japanese woman in a New York art scene dominated by white men. She lived in an unheated apartment, and, though she was occasionally shown alongside contemporaries like Donald Judd, much of the attention she received focused on her exoticism or her sexual displays, and, often, such attention was negative. (Kusama, who occasionally swanned around in a kimono, sometimes cultivated impressions of her foreignness.) In 1973, she returned to Japan, where she persisted, despite semi-obscurity, in producing paintings, drawings, and sculptures, adding poetry and novels to her repertoire. Her dedication eventually resulted in a small but dedicated following in Japan.
She has also, since 1977, voluntarily lived in the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. (She resides at the hospital to this day.) Whatever this particular domicile means to Kusama herself, it has certainly meant a great deal to evaluations of her work, lending her repetitions and reiterations an intimation of mystique, a patina of madness, the stature of legend. At the very least, when her work was rediscovered by Western curators in the 1990s, this bit of her life story made for an undeniably potent narrative. In a bit of perfect irony, the very things that might have been said to keep Kusama from achieving art-world domination in the 1960s became her major selling points as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first.
But, as the Whitney show amply illustrates, Kusama's work can bear the weight of all this mythologizing. The retrospective is less exhaustive, more representative, accounting for Kusama’s major keynotes and obsessions, her idiosyncratic but rigorously-executed practice, and her development as an artist. Like Kusama’s best pieces, the show—which arrives in New York after stops in London, Madrid, and Paris—is animated by the energy of simultaneous oppositions. Not exactly manic-depressive, more giddy-melancholic, Kusama’s work neither observes traditional pieties nor ostentatiously deconstructs them. It is provocative without being provoking, using patterns—dots, of course, but also nets and phallic shapes and, lately, eyes, spermatozoa, and other biological forms, as well as deliberately unmannered profiles—to ground whimsy and balance it with sadness and world-weariness, to insist on meaning amid chaos.
I do not mean that Kusama’s obsessions come to seem ponderous or pedantic. In fact, they do not, and this is her great accomplishment. You move from room to room and are consistently surprised, which is no small feat for a show involving the insistent invocation of repeated forms. (Credit ought to be given to the show’s curators as well: they have done remarkably fine work situating the pieces that make up the retrospective, giving each just enough room to breathe while corresponding with other, nearby pieces.)
Kusama has rejected the “outsider artist” label that might, on the surface, seem apt, and of course she is no outsider; after all, outsiders don’t collaborate with Marc Jacobs (Vuitton's director) in designing expensive leather goods. (The artist and the designer met in 2006, when Jacobs visited Kusama in Japan, and apparently bonded over their shared commitment to their work, their mutual sense that no self exists outside their creativity and productivity.) Still, I think the real distinction lies in the lightness of Kusama’s work, its playfulness even when it is deadly serious. Her obsessions go beyond personal neurosis, though they undeniably carry the traces of the hallucinations she has experienced. They are also freighted with historical trauma—coming of age in wartime Japan, the atomic bomb, the precarious position of an Eastern, female artist in a Western, male-dominated art world. And yet they bear their burdens gracefully, tongue-in-cheek.
Take, for example, the series of objects, displayed in two vitrines: a collection of kitchen equipment—spatula, bowl, and tray; an array of fashionable items—dress, handbag, shoes. Made circa 1968, they are stereotypically, even aggressively coded as feminine, but Kusama has adorned each with stuffed protuberances, transforming the objects into Phallic Spatula, Phallic Bowl, Phallic Tray, Phallic Dress, Phallic Handbag, Phallic Shoes. (What a missed opportunity for Louis Vuitton on those last three…)
A snapshot of Kusama herself, wearing the Phallic Dress, is part of the show, and her look is equal parts fierce and fun, aggression tempered by a playful innocence. There is nothing naïve about the work, but Kusama manages to avoid the sort of knowingness that can sometimes infect the art movements she has been associated with—Pop, minimalism, performance—and make them too precious, too esoteric, too alienating. This art is hardly cuddly, and it is not easy. It is, rather, absorbing, it fascinates.
Kusama made a practice of having herself photographed in front of her work, often wearing outfits matching the art and becoming, as a result, part of the project. This is part and parcel of her ongoing "self-obliteration," the name she used to signal her desire to meld art and artist, to blur the boundary between herself as maker and what she has made until no such boundary exists. But self-obliteration is not, finally, self-abnegation but a form of affirmation, or, to use another important Kusama term, "accumulation," her name for the soft sculptures, most featuring phallic protuberances, she has made throughout her career. (The accumulations connect Kusama to Louise Bourgeois, another female artist who worked well into her eighties (and nineties) and made work that was at once autobiographical and significant beyond the individual self.)
It is as if the artist is ever in the process of assembling herself, piling up pieces of ephemera—dry macaroni, say, which dots various articles of clothes, as in Macaroni Pants (1968), or the air-mail stickers in Air Mail Stickers (1962)—in order to reveal some hidden, inner self. In this, Kusama is not unlike Joseph Cornell, another semi-reclusive artist with recognizable obsessions and repeated motifs. (Cornell also became a close personal friend. Three of his collages, part of Kusama’s personal collection, are presented alongside other personal effects, including correspondence with other artists —among them Georgia O’Keefe—photographs, and archival materials.)
In recent years, Kusama’s work has expanded its scope and scale. Paintings from the late 1980s and 1990s are done in diptychs and triptychs, evoking growth; even, perhaps, limitless possibility, with dot-like patterns coming together into organic forms. They have names like Sprouting (The Transmigration of the Soul) (1987) and Revived Soul (1995), suggesting a rebirth, a renewed energy as the artist enters this late stage of her lifework. Her newest paintings, done in intensely bright acrylics, build on Kusama’s signature patterns. Clustered together in the final room of the exhibit, they are half-teasing, half-macabre. (They would also make the most fantastic Vuitton scarves.)
But perhaps nothing captures the full range of one’s experience of Kusama’s work like Fireflies on the Water (2002), displayed on the museum’s ground floor. The installation, made up of a mirror, plexiglass, lights, and water, first appeared in the 2004 Whitney Biennial and is now part of the museum’s permanent collection. Part of Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms” series, the project is like a cross between a Zen garden and an amusement park, a space of quiet contemplation, admitting a single viewer at a time, lit up like a wondrous, magical sky.
In this all-consuming environment it is as if, suddenly, completely, simultaneously, the viewer’s self is unmade and aggrandized, collapsed into infinite space and reborn into the kind of beauty we endlessly seek but rarely encounter.
'Yayoi Kusama' is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 30. Images courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc./Whitney Museum of American Art
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