Electric Circus

John Haber
in New York City

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama can still put on a show. The electricity is, if only literally, in the air before one even reaches the elevator. It is striking now, just as it was in 2004, when she was already in her mid-seventies. It is a light show, but it leaves one alone in the dark—with one's private imaginings and with mirror images everywhere. One could see the reflections on the smaller scale in a gallery exhibition six years before, but nothing beats taking over the Whitney.

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. As recently as 1998, LACMA surveyed her ten most active years in New York, from 1958 to 1968, and she is still performing. For the opening of her new retrospective, she posed at the Louis Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue. Is it another sign of the commercialization of art and museums? Does it make a difference that she is posing in front of her work and, through that, her fears? And what if museum-goers are just having fun and forget the whole thing the next day? Yayoi Kusama's Accumulation (photo by Tom Powel, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1963)

At the Whitney, she appears in photographs and memorabilia, surrounding a central room for her showiest and best-known work, soft sculpture. In Heaven and Earth, from 1982, white tendrils extend from boxes on the floor. In Leftover Snow in a Dream, that same year, they cram into wall shelves, bodies upside-down. Minimalism's unconscious might have escaped the grid, with frightening results. For all that, though, Kusama is still for many a poster child for the 1960s—and for several competing versions of it at that. And that work off the lobby serves as a handy reintroduction to them all.

The culture wars

Fireflies on the Water dates from 2002, but you may remember it from the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Only one person can enter at a time, and then only for a minute, but that keeps the traffic moving. After all, in Kusama's New York years, the action never stopped. To accommodate it, as well as to create a waiting area, the museum moves forward a wall. A newcomer could mistake the bright, empty room for the art—and its hiding could identify her nightmare with repression. But then, late modern art had plenty of white cubes, for those who were a part of it.

Behind a door, a narrow walkway extends over a dark pool of water. It is the space of a performance, your performance, much as in the days of happenings, Warhol's Factory and Screen Tests, and Kusama's first Infinity Mirror Room, from 1965. Christmas tree bulbs hang down as the fireflies—and the room's only light and color. Looking up, one can imagine constellations, and in the mirrored walls to all sides, one can imagine infinity. But then the "summer of love" had its Electric Circus, and a flyer upstairs recalls it. Still, the room is almost a cube, and in reflection the lights and cords recede in nearly perfect rows, in perspective.

The 1960s also introduced geometry, industrial parts, and the light sculpture of Dan Flavin. And Kusama's first paintings in New York earned the support of key Minimalists and conceptual artists. She showed at the same gallery as Andy Warhol and such Pop artists as Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, and James Rosenquist. She exhibited her Sex Obsession series at a time of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, and she staged Body Festivals for naked others. If that time seems a little unhealthy to one side in the culture wars, she increasingly spoke of overwork and hypochondria—and of herself as "sick, sick, sick." She left in 1973 for Japan and a mental institution.

Great story? Sure, and it suggests how a Japanese artist landed in a museum of American art—with support from a fashion designer. Her sculpture back then did include shoes, stuffed with phallic objects. Yet the story leaves out a few things, too. It downplays another side of the 1960s that has come more and more to light. Soft sculpture, hard boxes, and threatening body parts link Kusama to Eva Hesse, Louise Nevelson, Francesca Woodman, women in Pop Art, and feminism.

The story finesses the tension in those years, too, between performance and formalism. And if both sides were a kind of anti-art, it neglects her lifelong attachment to art objects. Born in 1929, Kusama was nearly thirty when she reached New York via Seattle, and she dreamed of a different city as a student and painter. She wrote Georgia O'Keeffe for advice, and the older artist's encouragement and delight sound downright quaint even then. O'Keeffe looks forward to her arriving with her pictures under her arm. In reality, she came empty-handed, but she did not simply start over.

Finally, too retro a view of her retrospective omits the Whitney's pride in bringing the story up-to-date. Kusama does not have much to add beyond 1968, but just enough to make her a contemporary artist. She anticipates "relational esthetics" and theme-park architecture, with that waiting line off the museum lobby to prove it. She is an entertainer even in her paintings, which anticipate graffiti and graphic art. She is also ever the celebrity, with herself the product line, like far too many artists ever since. She is on camera from the moment one steps off the elevators.

Posing with her demons

Actually, one first sees a wall, where the curator, the Tate's Frances Morris, selects photographs of the artist through the years. The wall is part of an installation by the Whitney's David Kiehl that privileges interior spaces—as metaphor and as room for sculpture—but the photos suggest a greater continuity in Kusama's self-images and her art. She had her first solo show in Japan in 1952, when she posed in front of Lingering Dream, a painting of botany, hands, and threats. She is old enough to have worked through Surrealism, like Jackson Pollock or Alina Szapocznikow, and to have returned to it in cartoon colors, like Philip Guston. She is also old enough to have lived through work assignments during the war, when corpses were more than a Surrealist fantasy. She was already drawing as a child, and those looking for her early loves and animal fears will appreciate a sketch of monkeys.

Her paintings identify her with an older generation even as she shifts to abstraction. She tries out the thick textures and outlines of Pollock's 1944 Gothic. She is not one for drips, but works on paper add circles and signs like the mirrored constellations to come. In Dots on the Sun, a psychic landscape blots the light. Where her first paintings in America looked to her supporters like geometry, she bases their grids on thick, loose circles of white paint, like eyes, against a gray ground. Even as a Minimalist and in monochrome, she has access to the outside world through vulnerable body parts and visions.

She fits right in with the scene nonetheless, from her idols to her fashion sense. It shows in a poster based on Bonny and Clyde. It shows in a video, which cuts between a dance floor and her yellow dress. One can still see red dots of that dress at the shoe store—or on balloons outside the Whitney and in Hudson River Park. She calls a 1967 performance Kusama's Self-Obliteration, but she enjoys the power to shock. A poster in psychedelic colors, Orgy, turns up again in a recent Chelsea group show devoted to Screw magazine, and even now a review in The Times has removed the five-letter word from its headline (substituting the name of the curator).

Still, her psyche continues its love-hate relationship with itself. A performance in MoMA's sculpture garden in 1969 stunned and amused The Daily News. Yet she was clothed, and in the photo she turns her back on the nudes to walk away. The stocking fetish of her sculpture has a parallel in Ernesto Neto. There, too, her art leads to the public space of relational esthetics. Her fears, however, are both private and increasingly real.

She staged her Phallic Festival in 1968, but she recalls how little she relished the thought of a penis entering her body. She formed a romantic but platonic relationship, she insists, with Joseph Cornell, and they look happy and comfortable together. That should have everyone asking not about her imagery and his as well. She assembles sculpture from pinwheel pasta and egg cartons along with the nylons and shoes, and her Food Obsessions do not sound healthy. She scavenges a rowboat and chair with help from Donald Judd, paints them white, and layers them with phalluses. The chair will not offer a rest, and the boat will not take anyone to safety.

Back in what MoMA has called "Tokyo: The New Avant-Garde," titles like I Who Committed Suicide grow darker still, and she had to sell gifts of Cornell's art to keep going. At the same time, the reclusive artist had found her celebrity and her niche. The hospital allowed her a workshop and studio, where she has churned things almost exactly as before. Her only new style comes in the retrospective's last room—dismayingly like posters by Keith Haring. No wonder she seems finally at peace with her demons. Besides, she gets to pose with them.

Time to relax?

Yayoi Kusama has tried her hand at poetry and performance, then, and her work includes sculpture and prints, cool metal and soft surfaces, bright rooms and a dark one behind a curtain. It takes time to catch them all, like taking in all the rides at an amusement park. Her previous gallery show, still her latest in New York, stood out instead for its focus on discrete works, where the smallest adopt the scale of traditional indoor sculpture. They even rested on pedestals. In fact, these works extend their pedestals, with polished cubes almost at eye level. They offer a choice of openings, and they keep one guessing about which to try and what one might discover inside.

Yayoi Kusama's Nerve (Robert Miller, 2006)With all those choices, I cannot really give it away, so I shall simply tell you. Sometimes you see right out the other side, sometimes you see only glass, sometimes you see the reflection of your own eye, and sometimes you see another peeking in, too. One could call it a hall of mirrors, except that one gets to stand on firm ground. She calls it an Infinity Box, like a smaller version of her infinite room, but the vanishing point seems improbably close for once, rather than impossibly far away. Even when Kusama does not turn her surroundings into an installation, it insists, one goes for the sensual overload. Birds, meteor showers, shooting stars, and a product tie-in—it still sounds like heaven.

My favorite recent work, the largest in that gallery, extends its soft tentacles from ceiling to floor. It resembles a caged spider by Louise Bourgeois or Hesse's netting, but as a cuddly stuffed animal. Nick Cave, the musician who has appeared with emerging artists at the Studio Museum, is another who cannot remember his dreams without decorative retouching. Cave means his Soundsuits literally as suits, perhaps for his band. Their outrageous wardrobe may evoke anything from African colors to Mardi Gras to a bad hair day or empty suits. Kusama, too, loves surfaces way too much to leave them as metaphors for the unconscious.

Kusama's stature has grown over the years, but she was always about more than just the "summer of love." It makes sense that the Whitney left her out of the 2006 Biennial. That show drew on underground film and alternative musicians from the 1960s and 1970s, and it recalled the birth of the culture wars as a dark and noisy night. In contrast, Kusama had that room for herself in the 2004 Biennial, a show dedicated to diversity and pleasure. I felt them all as I stood again in her retrospective, at the end of a narrow walkway surrounded by water and mirrors. I could have been waiting to dance, meditating on the expanse of oceans, or walking the plank.

Sure, her art can easily sound psychedelic, including the anxiety of a bad trip or the fashionable darkness of empty installations. She makes time to relax and float downstream, but amid the darkness and the glitter. I think of her when I see the idealism of, say, Rirkrit Tiravanija or Rivane Neuenschwander. Kusama, too, suggests a delightful world in which not even infinity requires depth. I would not call the 2006 Chelsea show her most stellar outing, for all the shooting stars. Yet many of its titles help suggest the native optimism behind the terrors of her retrospective—Infinity Box, Ladder to Heaven, Shooting Star.

Kusama seeks both collective surrender to the visual and artistic control, but not as anything goes. (A slightly younger Japanese-American artist, Yoko Ono once invited others to hammer a nail, then grew angry when John Lennon wished to do so before the opening.) One waited on line at the Whitney, if not quite as long as at Disneyland, and Kusama calls the shots for each portal of her mirrored cubes. She had her bad trips in childhood, when she suffered frightening hallucinations, and as an adult, when her paintings and soft sculpture embodied them. She has harnessed her fears, and she still is managing them on her own terms. Call her work shallow pleasures, and they are, but at least she manages them now and again like an artist.

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Yayoi Kusama ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through September 30, 2012, and before that at Robert Miller through November 25, 2006. I mention a review in The New York Times of "Screw You" at Susan Inglett through July 27, 2012, and Nick Cave at Jack Shainman through November 11, 2006.


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