A visit to Yayoi Kusama’s restrospective at the Whitney Museum
If you take the long way to the Whitney, you could get a preview of Yayoi Kusama at the Louis Vuitton flagship on Fifth Avenue. I mean this in an almost literal sense, as the window display includes a wax statue of the artist looking stern and holding a bespotted handbag amidst a sea of tubular structures that rise from the floor like intestinal villi gleeful at having been let out into the wide world. It’s a familiar pose; in the decades since Kusama burst onto the avant-garde art scene in the ’60s, she’s often been photographed with her work to emphasize “the artist in the role of author and controller,” the Whitney’s introduction to her retrospective explains.
If it’s just dots you’re after, you could look elsewhere. Kusama’s signature aesthetic has infected the whole of American fashion, trickling down from the runways of last fall to the Lululemon sports bras of today in what, on some level, might be a testament to the force of her personality. For her part, Kusama preferred her dots on bodies, be them that of naked men, cats, or horses, as was the case in Horse Play, a “happening,” Kusama’s term for performance art, she put on at Woodstock in 1967.
But Kusama is more than dots. She’s been a poet and a painter, a fashion designer and an activist. To see her interactive piece, “Fireflies on the Water,” one visitor at a time walks a plank inside an enclosed cube of a room that has mirrors for a ceiling and walls, and a reflective pool of water for a floor. The hanging multi-colored lights illuminate the space, along with the viewer’s own reflection, into infinity. Like many of the paintings and soft sculptures in the main exhibit, it reveals the artist’s preoccupation with repetition and the sensation of feeling both lost and intensely present within one’s own mind.
If she doesn’t romanticize instability, Kusama certainly uses it to say other things. The import of “Phallic Spatula,” not to mention “Phallic Bowl” and “Phallic Tray,” will be happily lost on some, but those with children might want to avoid “Anti-War Naked happening and flag burning." Nonetheless, much of Kusama’s work—a suitcase covered in macaroni with macaroni pants to match, for instance—is child-friendly. And the final room of the exhibit is covered with large, bright canvases—think Miró meets Keith Haring—that could hang in a sophisticated child’s room for all their playfulness. —Kate Guadagnino