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On the surface of this well-fueled publicity blitz, Yayoi Kusama is a dotty (pun intended) old grandma all about fun, polka dots and puffy balloons, including her eye-popping window display for the Louis Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. On the inside, which all the W magazine air kisses in the world can’t conceal, Kusama is about decades of raging struggles with precarious mental balance, gender, ethnicity, money, power, class, self-mythology, annihilation, life and death, peppered with a bit of wonder. You have to ask why this 83-year-old woman has voluntarily remained inside a mental institution in Japan as her a home base. Is it because it’s a “quirky,” “arty” place to live, or have poverty, sexism and ethnocentricity been such an obstacle over the years that she needs the structural support? People have wondered if she’s a nut job, a dedicated artist or both. Is she a perpetual fly in the ointment or a queen bee who just couldn’t bust out of the hive?
The Kusama show, curated by Frances Morris, originated at the Tate Modern in London and, unlike MoMA’s recent Cindy Sherman retrospective, takes the time to delve into the artist’s earliest and most formative years, highlighting her excruciating, idiosyncratic flameout and bounce back. It investigates each decade of her life in clear, understandable periods, shedding new light on her gritty, provocative and tumultuous career. Her early works are deeply troubled, moody and bizarrely affecting, giving hints of her ongoing hallucinations triggered by dark, subterranean forces.
As a young woman, before she ever set foot outside of her native Japan, she was tackling formidable questions about life, existence and death, painting with odd combinations like oil and enamel on seed sack. Her first dots showed up in the beginning of the 1950s, though she experimented with them as early as 1939, in an untitled schoolgirl portrait of her mother. In “Heart,” a painting from 1954, you can feel her struggling to find a method and a voice as she creates diminutive gouaches in murky red and black tones. One of her works from 1950 carries the uber-heavy title “Accumulation of the Corpses (Prisoner Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalization,)” employing sodden black, brown and tan tones. You can also glean the modernist influences of Hans Arp, Lionel Fenninger, Wassily Kandisky and Jules Olitski at a time when few Japanese artists had accepted the covenants of Abstract Expressionism. One other artist was particularly influential as well — Georgia O’Keefe, with whom she began corresponding in 1955.
Kusama arrived in the United States from Japan in 1957, landing on the West Coast, in Seattle, and moving to New York in 1958. By 1961 she was included in the then Whitney Annual, jumping wholeheartedly into painting with thick whorls that must have used dozens of tubes of pure zinc white, as, for example, in the painting “Pacific Ocean.” She called these productions “nets,” examples of which fill one section of the museum. She also smacked right up against the 1960s, combining her obsessions about the nature of fear and the nature of the phallus with that decade’s hedonism, nudity, drugs and lack of boundaries. It made her trajectory so swift that in 1967 she directed a film about her own self-obliteration, which was shown in the New Filmmakers series at the Whitney. Thankfully it is included in this exhibition, with its colorful fade-in and fade-outs presaging the state of Kusama’s flickering mind.
Her life has been a long attitudinal roller coaster. Compare the utterly acerbic 1962 collage of a dollar bill highlighting the Japanese linguistic pronunciation of “One Rollar,” “Won Hollar” and its corresponding statement “This Is Stage, Money No Value” to her current extravaganza at Louis Vuitton. In 1962 she is railing against materialism, capitalism and the power of money. Fifty years later she is the doyenne of the high-rolling haute couture set with her designs launched in all 453 Vuitton stores worldwide. Just one of her signature hand bags sold for $5,388.88 on, of all places, eBay. That’s a far cry from the “Money No Value” of “One Rollar.”
In 1965 she produced “Infinity Mirror Room” at the Castellane Gallery in New York, a precursor to her “Fireflies” installation currently at the Whitney. In 1966 she was the first woman to represent Japan at the 33rd Venice Biennial and ticked off the officials there by trying to sell parts of “Narcissus Garden,” comprised of 1,500 mirror balls, for two bucks a pop. Her star was ascending as she amped up her escapades for maximum effect.
She also turned her attention towards stitchery, making soft sculptures that resembled the wavy threads of intestinal villi for a 1962 show at the Greene Gallery, which included Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and others. In an odd throwback, her villi sculptures have now acquired red dots and are currently adorning the windows of Vuitton on 57th Street. In 1967 she staged a “Japanese Parade” happening in St. Louis and a polka-dot “Horse Play” performance in Central Park. In 1968 she occupied Wall Street with “The Anatomic Explosion Happening” by having a bunch of hippie friends dance nude in front of the statue of George Washington across from the New York Stock Exchange.
Her Kusama fashions produced amoebic-looking dresses with big holes cut out for nipple display. She made a Phallic Dress, a Phallic Handbag, a Phallic Tray and Phallic Bowl. She ran around New York staging nudity in the subway and making a “Homosexual Happenings and Fashion Show” in her studio, which was located in the then notorious and quite dangerous Alphabet City, at 404 E. 14th Street. In 1969 she made the front page of the Daily News with her happening “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead,” which featured a cluster of artists performing naked in the front garden of the Museum of Modern Art with a fully clothed Kusama choreographing their bacchanal romp. All of these events are well documented in the Whitney’s extensive glass display cases with newspaper clippings and magazine articles.
In 1973 the party was over: money, already scarce, grew scarcer, and punk was redefining the aesthetic. Many people viewed Kusama as nothing more than a nutty pain in the ass. Though her work was provocative and shocking, it didn’t pay the bills. She moved back to Japan and fulfilled the promise of her “self-obliteration” by promptly suffering a nervous breakdown. In 1975 she was painting somber, dark collages and watercolors with morbid, weighty titles such as “Remember that Thou Must Die,” “Graves of the Unknown Soldier” and “Tidal Waves of War.” In 1977 she moved into a mental hospital, but even from afar criticized museum politics as art for the wealthy. She ripped into the Metropolitan Museum’s New York Painting and Sculpture 1940–1970 show as being purportedly for the people but actually reflecting the special interests of the museum trustees. “The Metropolitan exhibition does not show the evolution of kinetic and mechanical art, among the strongest art trends of our time,” she said, and decried its “realism and figurative art.”
She seems to have found her groove again by the 1990s, focusing more on pure design and color with large-scale paintings such as “Yellow Trees,” black-and-white dot paintings like “Revived Soul” and the green and black patterned “Weeds.” These works use repetitive patterns with a single color paired against black or white. The recreated “Fireflies” installation room at the Whitney offers a total, delightful immersive experience through the simple use of water, mirrors and hanging lights. Kusama’s paintings since 2009 have strayed into realms of pure pop design with a strong use of Matisse-like primary colors and cutout shapes, with mixed results.
It’s great that Louis Vuitton helped finance the exhibition, and it’s great that the Whitney’s curator of prints and special collections, David Kiehl, took on this complex show from the Tate Modern. It focuses on different phases of an artist’s life in the way a true retrospective should. But assessing the artist’s earlier, more powerful and consummate work, it’s clearly a scream, a rant and a ballistic war cry against the very powers that now adore her. Kusama is certainly no victim, having showed in one capacity or another at the Whitney six times during her career. But now she is old and safe enough for corporations to embrace, as Vuitton has done, highlighting her uncontroversial “pop” side. She has fashioned her signature dots to resemble a version of the traditional Japanese family crest or Mon, used on fabric, embedded in family homes and contemporary Japanese corporate logos; she’s stripped it of content, abstracted it and re-employed it as her own indicator of nobility.
Time and New York have become kind to her. She has triumphed where she was obliterated. She has been raised up where she had fallen. And that is the story of the long, strange art and life of Yayoi Kusama.
Yayoi Kusama continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, New York) through September 30.