The stories of her terrible childhood and of haunting hallucinations have created the widely accepted view that Yayoi Kusama’s art emerges from unimaginable suffering. It is difficult to find anything said about Kusama that does not dwell on her mental illness and she herself does little to dispel this image.
In her new show at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo — “Eternity-Modernity” — the artist herself also writes in the preface of her “unbearable loneliness” and her “unceasing yearnings for suicide.” Hence the emergence of a schadenfreude-driven appreciation for Kusama’s work that just may be inappropriate.
Kusama, 75, is a living legend. Growing up in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture as “an unwanted child born of unloving parents,” Kusama escaped to New York while in her mid-20s, and made a name for herself painting large canvases covered with “infinity nets” and creating “obliteration” art and happenings — covering tables, chairs, naked hippies and even horses with polka dots.
A gradual descent into despair forced her to repatriate in the 1970s and enter the mental institution where she still lives, but she never stopped making art. After spending time in the “where are they now?” file, the polka-dot diva was rediscovered in the 1990s, due to her participation in the Venice Biennale (1993), a highly successful show at Pittsburgh’s influential Mattress Factory Gallery (1996) and, mostly perhaps, the 1998 exhibition “Love Forever,” curated by MoMA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“Love Forever” came to Japan in 1999 — appearing at the then exciting Museum of Contemporary Art. It was, somewhat shamefully, the first solo museum show here for a woman many regard as Japan’s most important artist of the 20th century.
Although the “Love Forever” show was augmented here with other Kusama pieces, its focus was on her New York years. We saw another big Kusama show, “Kusamatrix,” at the Mori Museum earlier this year. But that too was focused on one aspect of the artist’s work: her installations.
“Kusamatrix” was an easy, flashy show — a Kusama theme park if you like, engineered to totally immerse the visitor in the artist’s visions.
And now we have “Eternity-Modernity,” which covers six decades of Kusama’s work. The first thing one encounters upon entering the show is a yellow pumpkin-theme area, with paintings and several dozen softball-size pumpkins, and further, smaller pumpkins.
All well and good, but next, we are suddenly in a twisting mirrored corridor, in the center of which is a little viewing window. Through the window one sees light bulbs in red, yellow, blue and green reflected in an infinity field — all good, once again. But overall, this ends up being a disjointed display of Kusama’s work that compartmentalizes and orders it in a way I could not discern the logic of.
Another sore point: The mirrored walls of this second room are but 2 meters high — not high enough to reach the ceiling. The same lack of site integration is evident in later installations, where, unlike at the Mori, the ceilings are not integrated into the installations, compromising the “all-around” effect that is essential to Kusama’s works of this sort.
Proceeding, we next find work from the 1970s, a lesser-known period for Kusama. Here paint is sprayed on and chicken wire stretched over a mixture of media pieces, among them political collages sporting anti-war messages.
Next, we find some of the celebrated painted and macaroni-encrusted pieces (principally clothing) from the 1960s, then a dots-obsession room, followed by three large white infinity-net paintings — the best pieces in the show. There are then the phallus works from the ’60s through ’90s, more infinity-net paintings, mostly in red, followed by a small “apartment” mock-up, with chairs, desk, a dining table with a bottle of wine, ashtray, crockery and cutlery and so on, all obliterated with orange, green and red dots. The room also has vintage documentary pictures and a video of Kusama doing wacky things in New York during the ’60s — unrolling paper towels through Central Park, affixing polka-dot stickers to a cat and so on.
Through a door in the “apartment,” one finds the mirrored “Fireflies on the Water” (2000). This is the only installation piece here more impressive than its Mori predecessor was — visitors walk out on a sort of plank, one at a time. Because the floor is also mirrored, there is a feeling of being suspended in the fragile beauty of floating lights.
Moving on, we find more infinity-net and obliteration works; reconstructions of some of Kusama’s ’60s pieces; an all-silver room with 10 cooking pots stuffed with phalli and another room with big yellow tree paintings; a badly presented noisily rotating big globe; and some early works on paper, abstractions developing into surrealist visions and vice versa.
There is, incredibly, a 25 × 22 cm pencil-on-paper portrait dating from 1939 (when the artist was only 10 years old), which sees Kusama’s mother’s face obscured with dots, presaging what would become her leitmotif. Finishing the show is an installation with chairs and a “hairy” table; some marker pen on particle-board work; again more large infinity nets (these ones are multipanel); a large room of boxes and red and orange tentacles snaking out of the floor; a mirrored infinity ladder, which changes from turquoise to yellow to red and white; three large “Tales of the Universe”; and a floor full of mirrored spheres, reminiscent of Kusama’s “Narcissus Garden” from the 1960s.
From the several interviews I have had with her, I believe Kusama has her demons to be sure, but she has, it would seem, beaten them back through art, so I do not feel sorry for her at all. It may be best to forget all the stories about Kusama when looking at this show, for although the exhibition may lack a logical progression, it is an unsurpassed overview of her work. Those unfamiliar with Kusama should enjoy this exhibition, and people who like her will really love it.
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