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Installed for Good

The improvisational art of Yayoi Kusama.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By JAMES GARDNER
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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 Here the forms are often similar to those of her earlier abstractions, but textured surface has been replaced by a flat, almost industrialized smoothness.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).

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