Yayoi Kusama had a difficult start in New York following her 1958 immigration from Japan. Hungry and isolated, she lived in an unheated loft and faced artistic rejection—in one anecdote from her fascinating, self-mythologizing autobiography, she carries a painting taller than herself forty blocks to submit it for the “Whitney Annual” only to be turned down. Sometimes during those bleak early days, she would make her way to the top of the Empire State Building where, she writes, her bruised ambition was renewed by the view of the “vast, dazzling panorama of New York, the citadel of capitalism, with its glittering jewels and grand, swirling drama of praise and blame.” With the city in her sights, she recalls, in her characteristically ardent prose, “my commitment to a revolution in art caused the blood to run hot in my veins and even made me forget my hunger.”
Now, Kusama’s traveling retrospective has reached its final stop, in New York—at the Whitney. Downtown, a biomorphic sculpture emerges from the lawn on the Christopher Street Pier, while in various locations, her collection for Louis Vuitton hangs on racks and gleams in boutique cases. Vuitton, also the sponsor of her Whitney exhibition, has even created an iPhone app that transforms any photo into a Kusama-ish composition of her famous dots.
Her obsession with the pattern started early. Kusama—who was born in Matsumoto City in 1929, and has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo since 1977—found some reprieve from her unhappy childhood in filling sheets of paper with dots and chains of cellular forms, inspired by the white pebbles of the riverbed behind her family’s home. The motif became a mainstay of her long and prolific career. Effervescent, disorienting, sometimes menacing, her dots are variously daubs of paint, stickers, or tiny lights. And they appear in a wide array of media—paintings, sculptures, photo-collages, installations, happenings, and a film.
She uses dots to depict or symbolize infinite space, and to reenact the hallucinations that have beset her since childhood. In these frightening visions, uncontained patterns crawl the walls, and bleed onto every possible surface. But her dots are also activators of her emancipatory concept of “self-obliteration.” In Kusama’s cosmology, an object or person covered with dots is “obliterated”—liberated—against a corresponding background. Hence, in her regal tradition of posing for photographs with her work, she often wears camouflaging or contrasting dots (and in recent years, a bobbed, candy-apple red wig, too). Such a set-up is restaged in the window of the Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue: Amid a cluster of red and white polka-dotted tentacles, stands a lifelike wax model of the artist.
But before Kusama’s dots took off, she painted nets. With the tireless repetition of a single gesture—a tiny arc of thick white paint against a dark wash—she produced the expansive canvases of her Infinity Nets. The Whitney exhibition includes a room of these breakthrough works from 1959-1960. From a distance they appear to be textured monochromes; up close they’re revealed as stunningly laborious action paintings, though here the action is a delicate, even menial, one. The obsessive marks of these all-over compositions deflated the legacy of heroic splatters that still held sway over the New York scene, and with them she gained her footing in the avant-garde.
The next phase of her work, her angry-funny Accumulation sculptures, are evidence of the mad pace of her work through the early ‘60s. Furniture, clothing, and a boat—all encrusted with tuber-like forms—curve around one of her retrospective’s galleries, and seem to literalize a phallocratic reality (you can’t take a seat on the couch for the swarm of would-be penetrators, or slip your foot into a pump without stepping on a protruding, yam-like dick). Kusama explains the sewn and stuffed phalli as psychological remedy for her terror of penises, but she also knew that with these absurd, elegant, white-or-silver-painted sculptures, she placed herself at a provocative intersection of Pop Art and Minimalism. She doesn’t hesitate to cheerfully spot her influence in subsequent works by Oldenburg and Warhol.
Kusama’s pop sensibility has changed: In recent decades her sculptures and environments are fabricated, not produced by hand, and have taken on a slicker, cartoony aspect. Her 2004 sculpture Guidepost to the New Space, now installed on Pier 45, is an example of this later work. On my visit one recent hot afternoon, half-nude sunbathers—mostly young people with earphones—were reclining on, around, and against its red and white Shmoo-like forms. The press release asks people not to sit on the sculptures, but the polka-dotted humps resemble chaise lounges, and beg to be rested on.
Part of a manicured stretch of the Hudson River Park, the pier is a vestige of the iconic gay-liberation, pre-AIDS, pre-gentrification West Village. Though it is still a queer meeting place (mostly for Black and Latino teens), it’s a confined oasis pushed to the water’s edge, while the abutting neighborhood is increasingly a playground for the ultra rich. It’s a poignant location for Kusama’s work, and perhaps a sly commemoration of her past, raucous association with gay liberation. From 1967 to1973, the final years of her New York stint, sexual freedom was a centerpiece of her inclusive public performances. In her frenetic schedule of happenings, orgies, and nude protests, she staged her 1968 Homosexual Wedding. In it, a gay couple wore a Kusama-designed wedding gown for two.
Some see this phase of Kusama’s career as a somewhat disingenuous detour, capitalizing on Viet Nam-era countercultural trends: As she took a shamanistic, executive role at the center of public performances and spin-off enterprises (such as a fashion line, and ticketed body-painting parties with beautiful young models), she was spread thin, sensationalized, burned out, and her idiosyncratic brilliance was absorbed into a hippie zeitgeist that soon waned.
But in Infinity Politics, a compelling essay in Kusama’s retrospective catalogue, Mignon Nixon sees these activities as a nimble expression of Kusama’s ever-present—not merely opportunistic—radicalism. Nixon argues that abhorrence of war, overconsumption, and authoritarianism is a constant in Kusama’s work: Personal-political trauma (like Kusama’s conscripted labor in a parachute factory as a teen during World War II) produced an art that, with its urgent repetition, “dramatises the scale of patriarchal totalitarianism’s insult to the subject.” Kusama’s politics have been unrecognized, Nixon suggests, because her “relentless striving, unrepentant fame-chasing, sexual magnetism, and entrepreneurial flair” do not square with any popular image of a ‘political’ artist.
It is difficult to locate Kusama’s protest politics in her aggressive merchandising. If you hoped that her collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Vuitton would reference her past designs—purses strung with her phalli, or a gay wedding gown, maybe—you’ll be disappointed. These are simply beautiful polka-dotted clothes in Kusama’s palette. Dresses, t-shirts, trench coats, bikinis, and pajamas feature her signature pattern, as do Vuitton’s
perennially repellant, classy leather bags.
Although Kusama’s New York Moment trades on her eccentric celebrity and the cache of a luxury brand, its spectacle is not an overstatement of her importance, or out of keeping with her enterprising drive. With her esoteric theories of transcendence, and her art brut mystique, she has always been a determined competitor, first within the avant-garde, and later the art market. At eighty-three, she is still prolific, churning out vivid, patterned canvases in her studio by the hospital where she lives. (She’s also one of the highest grossing female artists at auction). Kusama’s story, from her initial, hard-won acclaim as Japanese woman in the white, fraternal New York art scene, to her resurgence in her senior years, is a riveting anomaly—especially when told through the uncommon objects now on view in the city where she first struck out to promote her revolution in art.—Johanna Fateman