Yayoi Kusama and the Amazing Polka-Dotted, Selfie-Made Journey to Greatness
Sometimes I think Yayoi Kusama might be the greatest artist to come out of the 1960s and one of the few, thanks in part to her long life, still making work that feels of the moment. Other times I think she’s a bit of a charlatan who produces more Kusama paintings than the world needs and stoops to conquer with mirrored “Infinity” rooms that attract hordes of selfie-seekers oblivious to her efforts on canvas.
Ms. Kusama’s current three-ring circus of exhibitions at David Zwirner’s uptown and downtown spaces — which include 76 works on canvas — argue in favor of greatness.
While there are the inevitable “Infinity” rooms on view in Chelsea, the shows give her paintings a new forcefulness; with their fluctuating rhythms and imaginative images, they could even win over fans who only have eyes for her Instagrammable environments.
On all fronts, Ms. Kusama has a formidable urge toward art and fame fueled by what seems to be a steely will and also a great mental focus — partly a function of psychological imbalances that have led to periods of hospitalization. (She began to experience visual and auditory hallucinations as a child and they continue.) She has characterized art as her chance for salvation both here and in the afterlife.
Now 88, Ms. Kusama works nonstop and, if you’re wondering, does all the painting herself, save for a ground color applied by assistants. Recently she shifted her workweek from five days to six, saving Sunday for writing, reading, talking on the phone and making smaller paintings. She and her art run the gamut from avant-garde to popular to outsider to whiz-bang conjuring. The pixieish creature we see in a bright orange wig wearing clothes printed with patterns from her art is only her most recent public persona. She plays cute grandma to Jeff Koons’s cheerful robot, to cite another widely known artist’s self-presentation.
The new Zwirner space in New York, on East 69th Street, is presenting “Infinity Nets,” a beautiful display of 10 paintings, all from this year, that make a surprisingly good case for Ms. Kusama’s continuing reprises of her Net paintings from the early 1960s. Who knows how many of these works exist, but individually they can mesmerize. Their surfaces of little commalike strokes resembling knitting are ancestors of the artist’s polka dots.
Filled in one small curling stroke after another, the older paintings flew in the face of the grandeur of Abstract Expressionism and made her reputation, garnering admiration from Frank Stella and Donald Judd, the leading Minimalists of the period. They were soon followed by her installations made from found objects covered with stuffed, sometimes dotted phalluses, to which she soon added mirrors, and by the well-known orgy-like Happenings (and their films) whose participants were painted with dots.
As with all of Ms. Kusama’s efforts on canvas, the latest Net paintings are just work: no inspired brushwork or heroic flourishes. They have an automatic yet meditative quality and the unconscious physical energy of handwriting, attesting not just to the specialness of touch but to its inevitability. Anyone could probably make their own Net paintings — which would have their own pulse.
The uptown exhibition is a great baseline introduction to Ms. Kusama’s sensibility, and its obsessive repetition and intuitive process. And as blasphemous as it may sound, a few of these paintings are as good as the sought-after, historically sanctioned early works. The new ones are freer and breathe more. The Nets billow and sink, contract or stretch. The paint clots and thins out. The works make spatial illusion feel like a living, shifting thing, sometimes reptilian but also spongy, like layered clouds. In one work, two shades of green curls, painted atop bright orange, suggest a verdant patchwork of irregular fields. In the largest canvas, red curls fade in and out of the dominant silver. The whole surface swims and slithers, evoking a mass of crumbling skyscrapers, like the images of fractured Eiffel Towers that Robert Delaunay began making around 1910
One of the Zwirner spaces on West 19th Street houses two “Infinity” rooms that will undoubtedly attract lines around the block and hours of waiting time. One is a peek-in hexagonal box whose mirrored interior multiplies a changing light show, creating the sensation of flying above an endless cityscape. It’s a new version of an earlier piece, and it may disappoint selfie-seekers.
The second room, which also echoes earlier efforts, accommodates up to six people at a time. It’s lined with expertly exploited mirrors and several dozen floor-bound and ceiling-dangling spheres that create (surprise!) a silvery “infinity” of orbs. At the center of this room is another peek-in box where the splintering becomes infinitesimal. With their dazzling fracturing these rooms are the most literal manifestation of one of the artist’s central obsessions: infinity, which can symbolize the enormity of love, death and God, all of which she often invokes in her titles and her poetry. (Another fixation is Ms. Kusama’s own mental issues; one painting, not in this show, is titled “I, Who Have Taken Anti-Depressants.”)
My favorite environment has the fervent title, “With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever” (2011). It is simply an all-white room containing three large sculptures of tulips in which everything is covered with red dots — and rather sparingly for Kusama. It replaces the suggestive phalluses with innocent fun. Could it be a store-window display? That, too.
The tour de force of the Chelsea show is a very large gallery lined — tiled really — with 66 double-hung canvases in the folk art/outsider art/art brut style of Ms. Kusama’s My Eternal Soul series, which started in 2008. Wrapping around the room, they are as spontaneous and unplanned as the Net paintings and release her uncanny inner child. Those here were made between 2013 and this year; some were seen in the gallery’s 2015 Kusama exhibition, surrounded by loads of pristine white wall. But those uncrammed days seem to be over: In a recent exhibition in a museum in Tokyo, Ms. Kusama offered a wraparound display of 132 paintings.
The patterns in these brightly colored works include passages of Net-painting, but also numerous mutations: ellipses, eyes, dots, and daubed lines whose patterns resemble enlarged finger prints. There are faces, flowers and face-flowers, cell-like bubbles and amoeboid caterpillars. Again, space moves. An almost frighteningly fertile talent, and mind, are visible. The works invite the viewer into Ms. Kusama’s subjective and almost ecstatic state, a spirit-way of seeing, while offering evidence of Jung’s collective unconscious.
These paintings form a great big infinity room of their own, but one in which each part is also an autonomous work of art, its own piece of wobbly, handwrought infinity. You may not want to know these paintings Ms. Kusama has made, but in the moment their vitality is infectious. It is the vitality of an artist who lives to work, whose work keeps her alive.
Image: A woman looking at “Longing for Eternity, ” 2017. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times