New York, New York
Why does art matter? Sometimes, it is because the media has decided that it does. In the case of the Whitney’s recently opened comprehensive retrospective of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, this platitude, at times, seems to be true. The 83 year old’s art is defined by the repetition of a single motif – the polka dot – and that repetition creates a visually idiosyncratic world of aesthetic expressions. Ms. Kusama’s work is engaging, challenging, and darkly, hauntingly beautiful, but to me, the press and hype surrounding the exhibition became an abrasive entity that initially prevented me from having a personal, non-institutional connection with the art itself. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the AFP, the AP, ArtInfo, the Huffington Post, and W Magazine, to name a few, have all written pieces on the exhibit; fashion publications and websites have also covered the exhibit extensively because of the artist’s coinciding collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Because the fact that this exhibit offered Important Art was stuffed down my throat, I found myself compulsively, irrationally searching for reasons why it wasn’t when I attended the show.
Yet it would be inaccurate to say that Kusama’s work doesn’t merit such a major exhibition: her art is arresting, unique, and memorable. Her influence can be seen in the work of Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Rei Kawakubo. The exhibit covers her eyelet-patterned work from the late 1950s, when she arrived in New York from post-war Japan, through the Infinity Net paintings that gained her notoriety in the early 1960s, to her meteoric rise during the 1960s when she became a counterculture and New York art world star who focused on phallic sculptures and polka dots, ending with the work she created after her defeated retreat back to Japan in the 1970s and 1980s and her most recent pieces. Kusama’s development as an artist is easy to follow: what begins as small and beautifully contained works balloons. As her work grows in size, variety of form diminishes.
Though some of her work, such as the austere Revived Soul (above, on the wall), has anti-war undertones, there is no underlying or obvious cultural message or critique behind the majority of pieces. This element, often a prerequisite for art deemed to be worthy of a major retrospective, becomes unnecessary in the context of such technical complexity and intricacy. Kusama’s patterns and labor-intensive methods stand on their own. One can easily get lost in works such as Sprouting (The Transmigration of the Soul) that are defined by obsessive and meditative repetition of shapes, forms, and colors. This particular piece was located in the exhibit’s most memorable gallery. Along with Revived Soul and Yellow Tree (below), it was arranged around the installations of Heaven and Earth, Leftover Snow in the Dream, and Clouds. The installations’ organic, white expanses stood in stark contrast to the paintings’ vibrant, powerful tones and controlled compositions, providing something to dwell on and hidden elements to seek out. Not all of her work was of the highest quality, however. I, like New York Times’ Holland Cotter, was underwhelmed by the last gallery in which her most recent work was stacked like larger-than-life neon tiles. As a totality, the pieces became impressive; as individual works, they were often underwhelming.
But what also makes Kusama, and her work by extension, noteworthy is her modus operandi. In this, she joins luminaries such as Picasso, Warhol, and Dali, whose personalities have all lived on independent of their work. During her tenure as a counterculture celebrity, Kusama actively courted the press through flyers and aggressive, tongue-in-cheek, and sexually provocative press releases (see below) that the Whitney has collected in one gallery. This strategy, fairly or unfairly, gained her the reputation of a self-important narcissist more interest in fame than the creation of art. She became known for orgiastic naked body painting happenings and public performances such as the Anatomic Explosion in which naked dancers performed opposite the NYSE. In an open letter to Richard Nixon, her “hero,” she seductively asked the President to let her paint polka dots on his body and have sex with her in order to end the Vietnam War.
That she has furiously created her idiosyncratic art while voluntarily residing at a psychiatric hopsital for the past decades also emphasized her reputation for self-promotion. Though Kusama says that she has suffered from hallucinations since childhood, many believe that she exploits her illness in order to make herself and her work that more notorious, provocative, and press-worthy. While some see Kusama’s work as the lifeline to which she clings in order to keep her sanity in a life that has been marred by World War II, a meteoric rise and similarly epic fall, isolation, neurotic fears, and alienation, others see it simply as a gimmick.
What is definite is that Kusama is highly eccentric, and, in truth, that does make her all the more compelling. She has a habit of asking that her work be photographed with her in front of it, which has the effect of collapsing or eliding the distinction between art and artist and engendering new ideas about the artist’s control of her work. In these photos, she wears Technicolor wigs and clothes that match her paintings, and it is impossible to tear your eyes away from her gaze. Her eyes are defiant and intense yet completely, wholly empty, prompting the viewer: what fantastical multitudes could be contained within this mind, what wondrous worlds could be firing between the synapses behind that face?
Further in keeping with Kusama’s tendency to court press, the Whitney’s retrospective coincides with the release of Kusama-designed bags and clothing for the exhibit’s sponsor, Louis Vuitton. The French luxury label has a history of courting high-profile artists for collaborations: a few years ago, Takashi Murakami enjoyed runaway success when he too designed bags for Louis Vuitton, as did graffiti artist Stephen Sprouse. These kinds of collaborations are nothing new: capital-F Fashion and capital-A Art have long been amiable commercial bedfellows; their couplings tend to be propitious and, in financial terms, mutually beneficial. Kusama met Marc Jacobs, the head designer of Louis Vuitton, in 2006 and deemed him a genius. She views the collaboration, and the resulting high-profile recognition, as a validation of sorts of her long, prolific career.
While in the middle of the show, a friend made me come to an easy conclusion about the retrospective. Despite the hard-to-swallow hype, the art I saw deserved its place at the Whitney and the fawning reverence it has received. I suppose what one must remember in the context of officially sanction Important Art that has hijacked the current cultural zeitgeist is a sense humor beyond the expected admiration. A work’s purported significance and weightiness can become more palatable, both to the aficionado and the dilettante, when viewed through a comedic lens. I visited the Kusama show with a friend who is about to embark on a year-long sojourn in Senegal to work on governmental food policy. While standing in front of Heaven and Earth (above), I asked what the name of the piece was. He immediately said “It’s called ‘Release the Baby Krakens,’ duh” before wandering off to find the placard, leaving alone me trying to hide my resulting snort with a cough.
All images courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.