Whitney Museum:   Yayoi Kusama    July 12 - Sept 30, 2012                    back


Sewn and stuffed fabric, wood chair frame, paints
35½ × 38½ × 35 in.


The Triumph of Obsession

What kind of Pop artist “does battle at the border of life and death”? Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), who so described her art-making in 1961, suggests a Japanese Andy Warhol in terms of sheer energy, protean endeavors, and fixation with publicity. But Warhol would never have professed such high purpose. Indeed, the Kusama revealed by the Whitney’s retrospective defies any single label. Despite her friendships forged in the 60s with Warhol, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg and Joseph Cornell, her work leapfrogs categorizes like Pop, minimalism, and conceptual, revealing an honest vulnerability seldom seen in her male colleagues.

The museum’s front windows, crammed with the giant, bobbing spheres of her “Dots Obsession” (2009/2012), offer an instant dose of her signature polka dotted installations. It’s only a foretaste, though, of the six decades of painting, sculpture, collage, film, performances, installations, fashion design, and writing displayed or documented on the fourth floor. Kusama’s “Infinity Net” paintings, her early nod to Abstract Expressionism, fill one gallery with countless swirls of white, subtly tightening and expanding across wide surfaces. She shifted gears with the “Accumulation” sculptures that appeared in some of the first exhibitions of Pop art. These monochromatic works encrust various items—chairs, shoes, rowboat, ladder, hat, suitcase—with multitudes of stuffed fabric phalluses; the fidgety, potato-like protuberances have an awkward intimacy very foreign to Pop and minimalism. A variation of these “Sex Obsession” sculptures, dubbed by Kusama the “Food Obsession” works, covers objects with macaroni.

Also on view is “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration,” her 1967 film showing her fiercely applying polka dots to animals and naked, carousing humans. But it took her “Anatomic Explosions” to put the self-styled “Priestess of Nudity” on the front pages. For these public performances, the artist hastily painted spots on nude dancers until the police showed up. The press releases and flyers combine 60’s breeziness with equal dollops of hucksterism and galactic purpose: “Become one with eternity. Obliterate your personality…take along one of our live bikini models.”

On a more poetic level, colorful mixed-media works on paper from the 1970s combine images of faces, insects, and flowers with surprising delicacy. By this point, though, museum visitors may be wondering: How long can a soul publicly obsess about its own obsessions? Only so long, it seems; having returned to Japan, Kusama voluntarily entered a mental hospital in 1977, where she resides to this day. Thankfully, it has been a nourishing environment. The vaguely biological forms of her large canvases and soft sculptures from the 80s and 90s glow with asexual sensuousness. Though frankly decorative, the seething, micro-dotted tentacles of “Yellow Trees” (1994) mesmerize. On the first floor, standing in for the enclosed installations produced since the 90s is “Fireflies on the Water”(2002), from the Whitney’s own collection. Its coolness factor—with lights seeming to shimmer infinitely in all directions—is not to be missed.

This review originally appeared in shorter form
in the August 1, 2012 issue of CityArts.

Whitney Museum, July 12 - Sept 30, 2012
945 Madison Ave, New York NY 10021
(212) 570-3600 · www.whitney.org