Yayoi Kusama's Dotty Retrospective Shows an Artist Unafraid of Branded Fame

Recent works by Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney
(Photo © Kyle Chayka)

There are three places to see Yayoi Kusama in New York City right now, which is three more than usual. The Whitney museum is hosting a long-overdue retrospective of her artwork on its fourth floor, while Manhattan’s two Louis Vuitton stores, one in SoHo and the other Fifth Ave, are featuring a capsule collection of clothing collaborations with the artist, with luxury goods covered in her signature spots. In the front window of the Fifth Avenue location sits a wax figure of Kusama, eerily realistic down to the glinting eyes behind her Louis Vuitton sunglasses. It seems only appropriate, given that the Pop art and Happening pioneer embraced the concept of artist-as-brand early on when she moved to the United States and began to make her name in the late 1950s.

After gaining notoriety for her ephemeral performances, intricate paintings, and surreal collages alongside a cohort of artists like Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol (who “appropriated” her ideas when he lived below her, she claims), Kusama retreated to Japan in 1973 under intense psychological pressure, grief from the death of longtime friend and companion Joseph Cornell, and the return of overwhelming hallucinations that have plagued her since childhood. The artist now lives in a mental hospital in Tokyo, in a minimalist room outfitted only with a bed and French doors, according to a profile from Assembly Language, and walks to a studio she keeps down the street.  

Yet the majority of Kusama’s Whitney retrospective portrays her as an extreme extrovert, restlessly testing the boundaries of culture, society, and the art world. The exhibition includes a gallery with a glass-covered running cabinet showcasing press clippings, exhibition posters, photographs, and odds and ends from the artist’s life. These include breathless descriptions in the Village Voice of her naked performances at the Museum of Modern Art and other public venues, a newsprint publication emblazoned “Kusama Presents an Orgy of Love, Sex & Beauty” in psychedelic script, and photographs of the artist posing dramatically in front of New York City landmarks.

The room, though revelatory in its intimate, not to mention entertaining, examination of an artist’s life in bohemian New York, sets a slightly manic tone for the remainder of the show, which feels crammed into the single floor. Early paintings, drawings, and collages from the ‘50s show the influence of modernists like Klee and Wols. Given the artist’s only recent resurgence, it’s easy to forget that the latter painter was a near contemporary, and Kusama’s early work, like the ominous still life “Lingering Dream” (1949), was made during Jackson Pollock’s figurative surrealist period.

The show moves on to a brief display of minimalist, white “Infinity Net” paintings set in front of the floor’s only window. It’s a too-short respite from the rest of the space’s artificial lighting and densely hung art, but at least there’s a bench to make staring at the delicate webs of dots a little easier. Another gallery is set with a long plinth holding Kusama’s “Accumulation” sculptures, everyday objects like couches, chairs, and suitcases covered in monochromatic phallic fabric protrusions. The visual climax comes in two successive spaces, a room with “The Clouds” (1984), a set of stuffed white blobs arrayed on the floor, a similar wall sculpture, and some colorful net paintings, proceeded by a floor-to-ceiling array of recent works on canvas, acidly colorful, cartoony, and brashly weird.

There is Kusama the myth, the legendary Japanese woman who invaded the New York City art scene at its height, decamped, and has now returned to be trumpeted by major international museums and the world’s biggest fashion label. Then there’s Kusama the artist, who should be evaluated solely on the strength of her work. The Whitney exhibition, and its surrounding marketing blitz, bears the sheen of its Louis Vuitton sponsorship a little too strongly, as if the show were advertorial for the new clothing and proof-in-point that the brand-name artist is the new creative patron saint of luxury consumption. The art on display, while powerful, subtle, and protean on its own, has a difficult time overcoming that pervasive context. 

"Yayoi Kusama" at the Whitney Museum runs through September 30, 2012.