Though every generation dutifully brings forth its crop of visual artists, some harvests are more blessed and bounteous than others. And while few have been as sparse as those of recent date, we can all take some consolation in the Whitney’s retrospective of Yayoi Kusama. Any age that engendered her cannot be all bad.
This 83-year-old artist is highly eclectic, not only in her choice of media, but also in her artistic aims in each of those media. She is a master of painting and installation, of sculpture, performance, and conceptualism. Everything from Greenbergian formalism to minimalism, from feminism and pop art to surrealism and the hippie counterculture comes together to form the chaos of her brilliant career.
It is part of the mystery of Kusama that she is able to indulge these mutually incompatible goals and to succeed memorably in all of them. As a painter she is—especially in classic works like her white dot paintings of 1960—a committed formalist. In her installations, she reveals herself to be (if I may coin a term) a committed experientialist: She aspires, through the creation of environments, to awaken in her viewers a spiritualized state that transcends form. And in her neo-Dada antics of the 1960s—with all the requisite nudity of such affairs—she contentedly revels in the most impish mischief.
Given that Kusama is not American, but Japanese—though she lived here from 1957 to 1973—one has every right to wonder what she is doing at the Whitney in the first place (this museum, after all, was incorporated to display the art of Americans). The point, I think, is valuable. And yet, such is my surprise at seeing good contemporary art of any stripe at the Whitney that I cannot press the point with much enthusiasm.
Nor would I complain too loudly that, as exhibitions go, this one could have been far better. Its wide-ranging display of nearly 300 works of art and documentation was too scattered for my liking. It may be that such an approach conveys the artist’s multifarious doings more effectively than a tidy and focused exhibition. But in a show that ranges over six decades, the display looked a little ad hoc, and the garage-like vastness of the Whitney’s fourth-floor galleries didn’t help. Nor did it help that the exhibition began and ended with two bodies of work, represented in unnecessary abundance, that fall far short of Kusama at her best: the ink and pastel works on paper that she made in Japan in the 1950s, when she was still struggling to find her way, and her gaudily representational paintings from the past decade.
Yayoi Kusama describes her installations as “making worlds,” and that is singularly apt. Unlike most installations, which sit contentedly on the floor or in the corner of a gallery, those of Kusama are typically contained in a large wooden box fabricated by carpenters to roughly the size of a trailer. Such is the case with “Fireflies on the Water” (2002). Its full effect can be grasped only when you enter the box alone and shut the door behind you. The sense of enclosure and ensuing isolation is crucial. Standing on a narrow plank, you perceive a thin layer of water beneath your feet, while all around you and above you tiny lights expand to infinity through the mirrors that cover the walls and ceiling.
I am aware of few works of art that capture so effectively that strangeness and wonder and beauty of dreams, that sense of the mind in a state of giddy imbalance as it turns radically in upon itself. There is visual beauty in this makeshift firmament of glittering lights, but its deeper beauty is experiential: It consists in the environment and the forms working in concert to produce elusive moods that overpower the perceptual responses of traditional art.
The other important component of her production is her paintings. Roughly speaking, Kusama is, in the best part of her career, an abstract painter, and a very accomplished one. Starting in the late 1950s, she conceived her “infinity” paintings as a sequence of white monochromes (not unlike those of Robert Ryman) that responded to the aesthetic debates of the time by seeking to reduce painting to pure surface. Even today, when such ambitions have lost their urgency or appeal, we can admire the dexterity and taste with which Kusama has achieved this goal. She has filled the surface of these works with thousands of tiny repetitive gestures that are far less gestural than what most mainstream artists, generally male and American, were making at the time.
Their flirtation with pure pattern would reach fruition only a decade later, in those candy-colored, ditzily lovely dot paintings for which Kusama is best known. Here the forms are often similar to those of her earlier abstractions, but textured surface has been replaced by a flat, almost industrialized smoothness. In this respect, the artist anticipates what Takashi Murakami, one of Japan’s most important contemporary artists, calls Superflat, a distinctly Japanese conflation of high and low culture.
This quality is never as polemical in Kusama’s work as in Murakami’s, but both artists share a delight in cuteness, bright colors, and elementary forms. A masterpiece of this sort is her “Yellow Trees” (1994), three continuous panels overrun with snaking roots whose weight and perspectival depth arise from the exacting use of yellow dots of varying size. Outlined in inky black pigment, they form a sinister but also haunting composition of maximalist ambitions.
A third component of Kusama’s art is sculpture. As with the work of Lee Bontecou and Eva Hesse, her various “Accumulations” from the 1960s exhibit—within their own highly original idiom—a similar preoccupation with such feminist-friendly materials as sewn fabrics (including garments) that have been treated and transformed into bizarre, surrealist-inspired form. A typical example is her “Arm Chair” (1963), in which the furniture in question has been overrun with podlike, leguminous accretions that thoroughly upend the object’s original function.
Even if you are not won over by Yayoi Kusama’s impeccable taste and intelligence, the fact that she managed to anticipate, by decades, some of the most dominant trends in contemporary art would make her eminently worthy of attention.
James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).