Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cuckoo for Kusama


"Fireflies in the Water"
Last Sunday morning, I beat the Kusama adoring fans already lined up at the Whitney with my fancy membership card. I had called in advance to have tickets put aside to see Yayoi Kusama’s installation, “Fireflies on the Water”.   It’s a small room with mirrored walls and bright colored lights hanging from the ceiling.  Standing on a runway nested in water, when the door closes, you might imagine being by a lake in the middle of nowhere, with fireflies emitting bursts of light, or perhaps, being in the middle of nowhere surrounded by ravers. Or not.   You only get a minute of immersion, which isn’t enough time to start seeing spots. Bummer really, because then we could pretend to understand what Kusama sees all the time.

The first room of the retrospective is undeniably the most surprising, and in some ways, the most informative.  You gain an unexpected glimpse of Yayoi as a young artist in Matsumoto, Japan, and witness even in her early paintings, a fixation on spots and menacing genitalia.   Hints of Klee and Miro appear in her smaller works.  Other early paintings have a bit of a botanical and biological feel to them- which makes her correspondence with Georgia O’Keefe a little less surprising, though still kind of odd.  I’d take Kusama’s vaginal dentata over O’Keefe’s  “flowers” any day. 

Image property of Yayoi Kusama

In the ten years that Kusama resided in New York, she staged “happenings”, photo-ops, hung out at Andy Warhol’s Factory, lived with Donald Judd, dated Joseph Cornell (whose penis she described in frightening terms), and exhibited in 1962 with Claes Oldenburg, George Segal and James Rosenquist.  She took household furniture, a chair, a sofa a stool, and covered them with bulbous phallic growths, sewn with canvas, and painted over in white, or silver, some with spots, others, not. All I want to do is poke and prod them whenever I see them.  She made shorts out of macaroni and wore them. (Take that, Lady Gaga!) They are all at once, playful, scary, sensuous, compulsive and surreal. They are everlasting gobstoppers through a looking glass, manufactured at Kusama’s studio in the mental institution where she has resided since her return to Japan in the early 70’s. I am forever impressed by her ability to win over even the stodgiest of art goers. Of course, with Louis Vuitton now selling Kusama-dotted hand bags and shoes, it’s no wonder New Yorkers have gone cuckoo for Kusama.

Yayoi Kusama Collection for Louis Vuitton
Marketing madness aside, Kasama, at age 83, continues to make magical tendrils crammed into awkward spaces.  I still have sculpture envy. She has recently created obsessively detailed paintings with her trademark spots of varying sizes in loud, almost obnoxious colors that are so perfectly executed I wonder if they weren’t silkscreened onto the canvas.  They are pretty like a fine textile, but not much more than that.  While it has become harder to see her personal hand in her newer work, there is absolutely no question as to who is the mastermind behind them. She’s not a shriveled sniveling lady behind a big green head, but rather, she is a fabulously clad Japanese woman in a bright red wig.   

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