The Whitney Museum: Yayoi Kusama Retrospective

Image courtesy of Whitney Museum

Priestess of Polka Dots/Eccentric Art or Louis Vuitton Brand Ambassador?

The queues at the Whitney Museum for entry to the Kusama Yayoi retrospective (Read NY Times Review) were, yes, admittedly longer and more decorous than the ogling and awe-inspired crowds outside Louis Vuitton’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue. These latter, mainly Chinese tourists who seemed to think the life-sized doll in the midst of waving salacious red and white polka dot tentacles might be real, did however, share the same level of curiosity and inquiry about this diminutive female Japanese artist. Described as ‘Japan’s greatest living artist’ in the catalogue of the exhibition , Kusama has risen from recent obscurity to international fame, entering the stable of artists at leading American art dealer Larry Gagosian (although recently rumoured to be departing therefrom) and feted by one of the world’s leading luxury brands, albeit still a mass marketer.

The Whitney retrospective started in Kusama’s early years with a number of small works from her study of Nihonga. Demonstrating a quiet brilliance and sensitive curiosity about natural forms, these works provided a glimpse of the artist’s traditional beginnings. Kusama rebelled against the strict Japanese master-student discipline of Nihonga and sought her own path to originality and independence; a path that led her to New York in 1957, and saw her as a controversial leader in the hippie happenings of the 70’s.

Kusama’s Infinity Net series exhibited in a dedicated room, established for me her credentials as a great artist. Brilliant in concept and execution these are the works that transcend the everyday. The early works establish her technical skills in traditional expression, the Infinity Series takes that skill and augments it with an originality that is viscerally experienced. Her evolution into sculptural works obsessed with the phallic shapes of a fear of sex that she attempted to deal with through immersion, was less inspiring. Her originality cannot be denied but the hedonistic cultural influences of the time and place from which they emerged somehow lessened their authority. At the risk of ridicule from the ‘serious art world,’ I question whether the physical manifestation of an individual’s neurotic obsession is art. The final room featuring Kusama’s latest works (see image below) can only be described as a curatorial disaster and a sad testament to adherence to a famous name rather than to talent. It leaves one with a sense of decadence rather than with a sense of celebration of a great, if controversial, career.

Images courtesy of the artist website

Nonetheless, the story of a female artist born in strictly traditional Japan, dealing as a child with a complicated, yet typical, profligate father figure and angry mother, and a serious mental illness, independently deciding to leave her home to pursue freedom in a foreign land, is a romantic one and led me to read her recently published biography (available here).  Kusama’s self-promotion is often commented upon, and perhaps due to translation, the biography presents a picture of anomie; of a seemingly disconnected, heartless , somewhat manipulative individual focussed on widespread recognition of her work and career while at the same time expressing a desire for self-obliteration.

Contradictions and ambiguities abound, undoubtedly part of the accolades and fascination with this artist. Yet faced with the rampaging polka dots of her recent work and their blatant commercialization by Louis Vuitton (and replication by Damien Hirst?), the following words from her biography resonate uncomfortably, suggesting an artist who has sold out to the market: ‘And the heartless commercialism of many art dealers was too terrible even to joke about; it was a cause of real agony for many creative artists’ (Infinity Net p.37). Or, as she did at the Venice Biennale in 1966, is she quietly ridiculing the contemporary art world while laughing all the way to the bank: ‘As a comment on commercialism in the art world, I was selling the mirror balls for 1,200 lira (about $2 each), an audience-participation performance that shocked the authorities. They made me stop, telling me it was inappropriate to sell my artworks as if they were “hot dogs or ice cream cones” ‘(Infinity Net p. 54.) … or handbags and shoes?

See here for an interview with Kusama and slide show of the exhibition:

Image courtesy of Whitney Museum Tumblr

Image (right) courtesy of The Arts Journal

The Final room with Kusama’s latest works
Image courtesy of Whitney Museum

Closeup detail : Infinity Nets series by Yayoi Kusama

CBS News Report