Finding a piece of mind in contemporary art

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

“Yayoi Kusama: Eternity of Eternal Eternity” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, presents the “late” style of the internationally renowned artist.

The works are nearly all new — the product of a surge of activity from 2004 that resulted in two series: “Love Forever” and “My Eternal Soul.” They are far tamer than her early works from the late 1950s, when she covered furniture in protruding soft phalluses and staged nude happenings, such as that of 1969 at the Rockefeller Garden at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Back then, as the artist explained, “I did body painting while my models f-cked a bronze sculpture by Maillol.”

“Late” style is an awkward term, but it conjures up something of the supposed serenity the artist is finding in her work as the years accrue and death draws ever closer. Beset by obsessive neurosis since childhood and with an uncomprehending mother who beat and locked her in a storehouse as she struggled to bring her, often suicidal, hallucinations under control, Kusama found drawing and painting a way to mediate her internal turbulences. It did not help, however, that her family opposed her urge to create and often confiscated her materials so that she had to hide and work by candle light.

Though she was ostracized in Japan for her mental illness, she still held several exhibitions praised by critics in the early ’50s. In 1957, she fled to New York, where her “Infinity Net” paintings of the late ’50s and early ’60s fitted perfectly with then-international trends of abstract expressionism and monochrome painting. Given her own work was the externalization of inner tumult, however, the artist herself has been resistant to characterizing her art under the readily available labels that have so often been conveniently recruited. These include Pop, Surrealism and Feminism.

Returning to Japan in the ’70s, Kusama continued to pursue her international career through the repetition of what had become instantly recognizable as her artistic trademark: applying polka spots to everything from clothing, installations and pumpkins — the latter two forming part of the five new “happy sculptures” on show.

“With all my love for the tulips, I pray forever” (2011), for example, is an all-white room with three huge sculptures of white potted flowers — everything of which is covered in red polka dots. Unusual for a show of such a renowned artist, spectators can pose with the sculptural works for photographs.

The two new series are part of the continuum of the artist’s former work, though they have important differences. The “Love Forever” series comprises 50 works of black marker pen on white backgrounds and large gray, soft-cushion sculptures that hover over the gallery floor space. The pictures, such as “After the Party” (2005), are largely biomorphic, filled with undulating repetitive lines, occasional fragments of figuration as in flowers and faces (said to be self-portraits), and patterns suggestive of what one might find looking through a microscope into a petri dish. It is significant that for this series, Kusama reduces her palette to monochrome and reintroduces figurative work, unlike in the past when she largely dealt with abstract dots and netting in bright colors.

The second series, “My Eternal Soul,” began in 2009 and shares much of the graphic quality of the earlier monochrome series. Similar motifs are also employed, but here Kusama abandons the marker pen for a brush and paints in exuberant colors.

The technically competent, assured older artist proceeds without the aid of preliminary studies. She “listens to her hand,” as she says, and spontaneously puts brush to canvas. It is only after a work is completed that Kusama decides which way up the painting should hang. The series now runs to more than 140 works, 47 of which are on display.

An intriguing phenomenon, as curator Masahiro Yasugi points out, is that the new work in many ways harks back to Kusama’s work before she went to America — that of her teens and 20s. It enlists the semi-concrete imagery that later gave way to the abstraction that formed the bulk of the artist’s later career. But the dots have not entirely disappeared — works such as her “Obliteration of stars (gold)” (2010) is one of the best paintings in the show.

Kusama’s late style, then, in many ways retraces the dominant elements of her 70-year career, evoking a pendulum swing back to her early works and artistic concerns of her fledgling years. The spotty monochrome painting “My self-portrait in the presence of adolescence” (2011) seems most representative of this psychological retrieval of youth in old age.

There is indeed a happy serenity to the exhibition, and Kusama’s poetry that accompanies the show impresses this point: “I will keep sleeping in comfort,” she writes. “And I will say farewell to the Earth.”

“Yayoi Kusama: Eternity of Eternal Eternity” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, runs till April 8; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.). ¥1,400. Closed Mon. www.asahi.com/kusama. The exhibition moves to The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, in April, the Matsumoto City Museum of Art in July, and ends at the Matsumoto City Museum of Art in November.