Yayoi Kusama’s work has a direct and immediate visual impact. Her obsessions with dots, pumpkins and floppy phalluses have become big crowd pleasers after a spotty career of avant-garde agitation and mental-health issues. The auction house Christie’s says she is “now the highest-selling living female artist.” Her solo show, “My Eternal Soul,” is part of The National Art Center, Tokyo’s celebration of its 10th anniversary, so expect queues and crowds for this frenetic extravaganza of color and confessional declarations.
The popular appeal of Kusama’s work is that her later stuff is pretty; the main hall of the exhibition is filled with the series “My Eternal Soul” — more than 100 bold, bright acrylic paintings, hung edge to edge, all painted in the last eight years. The works have titles such as “Entrance to Rise to Heaven” and “It’s Me Who is Crying Out.” Three glossy, tumescent and fecund flower sculptures in the middle of the room tell us that we are now in the province of Kusama’s subliminally erotic, but militantly asexual, universe.
Selfies are encouraged, but the room is patrolled by uniformed guards and staff dressed like secret service agents, who enforce a no proper camera, smart phone-only policy. It’s an interesting coda to the story of the uninvited Kusama trying to sell her merchandise at the 1966 Venice Biennale before the organizers shut her down, and to her mistrust of the Japanese media, who she has accused of using photos without permission.
This series of work seems to be aimed at evoking broad emotional verbal responses — “kawaii” (cute), “kirei” (beautiful), and “fushigi” (odd, or strange) — will pretty much cover it for this series. In smaller rooms around this main hall, however, are better indicators as to why Kusama, 88, commands the reputation that she does.
Following a mostly chronological order, the route around the rest of the exhibition starts with Kusama’s finely drafted and composed works on paper from her early years in Matsumoto. Vaguely organic forms, the repetition of dots and titles of broad generality are already visible; testifying to one of the artist’s defining qualities: her indefatigable focus.
Escaping to New York in 1957, Kusama built a career on a mixture of large-scale minimalist monochrome paintings, the “Infinity Net” series, performance “happenings,” eccentricity and persistence.
“Bring on Picasso, bring on Matisse, bring on anybody! I would stand up to them all with a single polka dot,” she writes in her autobiography, about her breakout 1959 solo show “Obsessional Monochrome.”
Collage works from the mid- to late ’70s, after Kusama returned to Japan, recall the precision of her early painting but take a dark turn. There continue to be organic and natural forms, but themes of war and violence appear. In one work from 1975, an indigo-speckled pumpkin is matched with a brilliant turquoise-striped lizard. In a work from two years later, a Nazi rally shares space with a print of American civil war ironclads, and a fragment of newsprint showing what could either be an orgy, or corpses in a concentration camp.
The following infinity mirror room with flashing lights, designer furniture, giant glossy fiberglass pumpkins etc., which date from the ’90s onward, signal an artist who has successfully turned a personal obsessive vision into a brand. Is this a paradox? Not according to the BBC journalist Adam Curtis, who, in conversation with Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler, recently suggested: “Capitalism is about self-expression; art is about self-expression. Art is far from being a radical outside movement. It’s at the heart of the modern conformity.”
Kusama has built a reputation over many years as an artist who was singularly true to her own vision, but it can also be said that she has become an artist true to our times.
“Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs until May 22; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Tue. (except May 2).