Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney Museum of Art

Yayoi Kusama: Deconstruction and Discontent

July 12- September 30, 2012

by Deborah Johnstone

Whitney Museum of American Art

The 1960s was a decade of deconstruction as artistic practice was married to the social and political tumult of the era. Art and performance fused and symbolized a commentary on cultural and political conflicts. The environment and the spectator became central to the artist’s concept of creation and artists such as Yayoi Kusama, abandoned their classical training, moved to New York, and produced provocative “Happenings.” Also a savvy marketer, Kusama would orchestrate street performance pieces where she would paint dots on naked performers. One such event created a scandal when she had eight naked people mimic poses of statues in the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art.

Yayoi Kusama in Yellow Tree furniture room at Aich Triennale, Nagoya, Japan, 2010 (detail). © Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Yayoi Kusma Studio Inc.; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Gagosian Gallery New York

Hype and misama would remain her calling card throughout the 1960s. Plagued by life-long halluncinations and later, psychiatric problems – that some believe to be fabricated – she returned to Japan in 1977. Once at the vanguard of the cultural revolution of the 60s, she never regained that momentum. But the legacy of Kusuma’s work continues to resonate – particulary in an era where instant communication takes place via the click of a mouse. “Communities” are conducted in an online environment where actual human contact may, or may not happen. The idea of art has taken on a complex patina where anything by anyone can be viewed anytime, in the digital landscape.

The 1960s,“Happenings” were the embodiment of an experience where the viewer was involved in an artistic event. The aesthetic was spawned out of a dingy urban landscape – in basements, dusty lofts, and street corners. It’s birth and subsequent evolution was grounded in a grass roots, hands-on, tactile environment – the opposite of how ideas about art are now communicated in the digital age. It seemed a natural extension of a disaffected culture whose ideals had evaporated in the murk of the 1960s counterculture, the Vietnam War, racism, the sexual revolution, and disillusionment with institutions.

Yayoi Kusama was a frontrunner of this movement. The idea of annihilating what had come before – armed with a new-found psychic freedom – dominated artistic thought. Kusama was primed for this deconstruction. Unfortunately, it is impossible to recreate the explosiveness of this era at The Whitney. Walking through the exhibit, one has the sense that Kusama has been reigned in and in retaliation, her most recent work is large, bold, bright, and graphic. It is as close as one could come to a “Happening” and indeed it is the gallery that generates the most heat. This is not – in any way – meant to diminish the remainder of her impressive body of work.

Heaven and Earth (1991)

Her soft, cushioned Accumulation sculptures resemble creatures emerging from an ancient primordial sea. Soothing and dreamlike, several people express the wish to jump on – and sleep in – Heaven and Earth (1991). I prefer tendrils of coral, but “phallus shaped” has been ascribed to these multiple clusters of hand-sewn objects and so it is. The dark, moody pastel and ink collages in the following gallery are the antithesis of the repetitive polka-dots that she returns to time and time again. These early works on paper (1950s) are layered with Surrealist imagery and reveal the artist’s compulsion to create a singular vocabulary of recurrent symbols and themes. The obsessive precision exercised in the Infinity Net Paintings is daunting. Large white canvasses ripple with repetitive, intricate detail. Each is different and one can spends hours scrutinizing the vastness of the work.

An Encounter with a Flowering Season, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 51 5/16 × 63 3/4 in. (130.3 × 162 cm). Collection of the artist. © Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo; Victoria Miro Gallery, London

The history of civilization has been coerced by agendas designed to pinion societies into constricting social contracts and it has been left in the hands of the poets and artists to incite fervor. Discontent continues to impel artistic catharsis. The concept that catharsis is powerful and transformative remains the impetus behind all art movements. Now 83, Kusama continues to harness this power and mold it to eradicate her own demons. In doing so, we bear witness to an ever-changing, insistent, whirlwind of reinvention.

— Deborah Johnstone

“Yayoi Kusama” continues through September 30th at the Whitney Museum of American Art; New York City (212) 570-3600, whitney.org. http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/YayoiKusama/Images

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