Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark
17 September 2015 – 24 January 2016
by FRANCESCA WADE
Step through an unassuming, closed door in a darkened gallery of this exhibition, and you enter another world. Suddenly, you stand alone in a narrow passageway. Soft, tentacle-like tendrils – white, covered in bright red spots – appear to sprout from the ground either side of you, jostling for space like weeds bristling in a field. The surreal vision is multiplied to infinity: each of the four walls is lined with a mirror, so that your bizarre surroundings, and your own image, are endlessly, kaleidoscopically repeated. Playful, unnerving and slightly menacing, Phalli’s Field (1965) is one of many psychedelic immersions in Yayoi Kusama’s mind.
Throughout this exhibition – her first Scandinavian retrospective – is evidence of Kusama’s interest in boundlessness, whether in the repeating patterns of her Infinity Net paintings, her room installations with their mirrored walls and surfaces, or the photographs and videos in which the artist appears, camouflaged by, and almost submerged within, her work. “It’s a classical retrospective,” says exhibition curator Marie Laurberg, “but also a themed show, focusing on the central, basic concept of infinity, in her art, and in her thinking about her art.” For Kusama, says Laurberg, infinity is “both a spiritual idea and a psychological abyss, filled with both joy and anxiety, in which she can disappear. It has a double meaning to her.”
The exhibition aims to present Kusama “as an art-historical figure, a prominent figure”, through the display of work from the whole of her long career, which has spanned myriad media – painting, sculpture, installation, fashion, performance – and two countries, Japan and America. “Her career was very affected by the way she travelled from culture to culture, Japan to the US, with the shifting cultural contexts. She is one of the big migrant artists of the 20th century,” says Laurberg.
Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, around 200km west of Tokyo, into an old-fashioned, feudal family. Her early artistic training was at the service of the war effort, sewing military uniforms and parachutes at a Japanese textile factory during her teens. Sketchbooks from the 1940s – rarely seen until now – show how she started making art by careful observation of nature; detailed, naturalistic leaves, seeds, organic patterns. Her first paintings are dark and earthy, with nods to the surrealists, whose work she pored over in books and magazines. Already, some of her signature themes and motifs are emerging: Self Portrait (1958) features an eye, shaped like a leaf, within a treelike structure composed of polka dots. Her style swiftly moves into the abstract, becoming brighter and poppier as she experiments with colours, fluorescent paints and materials, often piling one on top of another. “Overlaid materials are typical of her early work,” says Laurberg. “It’s a young artist trying to find all means of expression, engaging in a dialogue between her observation of nature and her formal investigations.”
In the mid-50s, Kusama saw a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe in an art book and, having obtained her address from the US embassy, they began a correspondence (fascinating extracts from which are displayed here). Impressed by the young artist’s determination to make her way on the US art scene, O’Keeffe helped Kusama to sell her paintings in New York. It was always Kusama’s ambition to make it there: Japan, she said, was “too small, too servile, too feudalistic and too scornful of women” to hold art “that does battles at the border of life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die”. In 1957, she flew to the US, dollar bills stuffed into the toes of her shoes, for her first American exhibition, at Seattle’s Zoë Dusanne Gallery. The following year, she moved to New York, where she shared a studio building with Donald Judd and Eva Hesse, and where she took part in the 1962 exhibition at the Green Gallery, widely considered the first exhibition of pop art. Her first New York paintings exhibit an immense new confidence: they are far bigger than earlier work, more abstract and conceptual. During this period she began creating her Infinity Net series: large canvases, on which minuscule painted semicircles web across a black background. “Nature is still a reference point,” says Laurberg, “but the gesture takes over. The net, web, becomes an endless idea, until it covers the whole world, and almost devours her.” From a distance the background and paint blur into one, but up close, the industry is awe-inspiring: blotchy strokes of paint which converge into clusters, creating random patterns of circles, triangles and diamonds. Kusama worked without assistance, sometimes for up to 50 hours at a time. “She tried to find an expression that was relevant to the art scene she encountered in New York,” says Laurberg. “In the 50s, art there was dominated by abstract expressionism, and these are her answers to that.”
At a time when New York artists such as Andy Warhol were shifting focus to generalised, industrially produced forms, Kusama insistently placed herself at the centre of her work. “She always makes by hand and connects her work to her own psychological state of mind, which is unique, and brave,” says Laurberg. In 1964, Kusama held Driving Image Show, an exhibition at the Richard Castellane Gallery in New York. It featured a dense assemblage of her newest form: white, phallic, fabric protuberances clustered on to furniture – chairs, ladders, ironing boards – and known as Accumulation sculptures. On the floor, for the viewer to tread on with a crunch, was dried macaroni. In the poster for this show, repeated images of Kusama’s disembodied face hang over the scene, merging into the space. She has always described her main inspirations as her own visions and psychology, and has written of a hallucination – triggered by the energy expended on making them – in which her body merged into one of her Infinity Nets. The idea of self-obliteration imbues her self-presentation within her own work – brushing her hair performatively in a video interview in her studio, holding up a home-made dress to hide her body; lying back, dressed in yellow, in a field of sunflowers; or spread-eagled naked against one of her own paintings, skin spattered with painted polka dots. In Accumulation of Letters (1961), the canvas is filled with her name printed over and over: “Yayoi Kusama”. It is notable that she refers to the phrase not as her name, or as words, but reduces it to mere letters: self-obliteration even in the most overt act of self-exposure.
At the Venice Biennale of 1966, Kusama created Narcissus Garden, shown here in archive footage: a sea of silver balls, placed on the lawn to reflect the sky. Wearing a golden kimono, Kusama sold the balls to passers-by for $2 apiece, and was expelled from the biennale for her efforts; her slogan was “Your narcissism for sale”. During the late 60s, Kusama moved into performance art – a form of expression well-suited to her desire to interrogate the self, and appealing to the New York hippie counterculture of Woodstock and free love. She organised public happenings around New York, on Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, in the Museum of Modern Art’s garden and under the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in Central Park, where she daubed polka dots on to people’s naked bodies (documented here in archive photographs). A 1968 press release, designed by the artist (displayed in a glass case, Laurberg points out, to be considered as artwork) describes her as “the High Priestess of Polka Dots, pioneer of naked happenings” who “offers the new way to happiness by smashing to smithereens the old social morality”. She organised “the first homosexual wedding ever to be performed in the US”, and protested against the Vietnam war outside the New York Stock Exchange. Often, participants dressed in the hand-made, free-love-inspired clothes made by her Kusama Fashion Institute: “orgy dresses”, designed to contain more than one person, with polka-dot shaped holes cut to expose parts of the body. “You have to admit it’s startling, if not fun!” proclaimed Bachelor magazine.
In 1967, Kusama showed Polka Dot Love Room at the Internationale Galerij Orez in The Hague. Following an intensive month of conservation, this spectacular installation forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. Five coloured mannequins stand, in dance formation, within a UV-lit space – a significant move, being the first time Kusama had covered a whole room in polka dots. (The form, she wrote in another press release, is symbolic of the earth, sun and moon; energetic and soft, alive and peaceful, the polka dot – like humankind – can multiply to infinity.) At the private view, she painted guests in dots, blurring the boundaries between artwork, observer and room. The ultraviolet light further dissolves the lines between body and space, creating an odd, disembodying effect as the mannequins disappear, leaving only the dotted outlines. Kusama took the same effect further in her 1967 film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration. Wearing a red cloak, spotted with white polka dots, she rides through a forest on a horse, whose shiny pelt is covered in the same dots. As the light fades, the dots on their bodies merge with the white flowers on the trees, until only the glowing specks can be seen, woman no longer distinguishable from horse. Shot in New York and in Woodstock, the film is an intriguing encapsulation of many of Kusama’s abiding themes and motifs. Against a soundtrack of discordant noise music, by turns ambient and frantic, Kusama dots a cat with leaves – natural polka dots – and paints the surface of a forest lake with dots, which float freely away. Spots of light – imagery that converges in her infinity rooms – bounce playfully across the screen, obliterating shots of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, while close-ups of natural objects – an onion, a corn on the cob – are juxtaposed with her Infinity Nets, and spliced with footage from her happenings, as naked people grind happily, their bodies tied together with string.
In 1973, Kusama returned to Tokyo, where she was completely unknown; in 1977, following a breakdown, she moved to the psychological institution where she still lives, voluntarily. Back in Japan, says Laurberg, Kusama “was regarded as a western artist”, and “had to start again”. Laurberg suggests that Kusama’s role in shaping the 60s art scene in New York has been underplayed, since she left the city so abruptly. “When history was being written, she was out of the country. But she was part of the currents in New York: minimalism, avant garde, performance, happening art. Judd and Frank Stella owned her works, she was part of a milieu: an artist’s artist.” Nonetheless, in the 70s and 80s, Kusama developed “a colourful new style in painting and sculpture”, which Laurberg suggests has been downplayed in retrospectives. Using highly synthetic, artificial materials, Kusama transforms the natural motifs of her early career – life-size tree sculptures spray-painted silver; flowers and bubbles sprawling across immense canvases, emerging like parasites from huge cabinets. The work from this period is varied and vibrant. Following the death in 1972 of Joseph Cornell, with whom Kusama had had a close relationship for a decade, she created a series of boxed assemblages in his signature style – “an artistic dialogue” – filling these small installations with her own symbols. In 1981, she made the first work to feature the pumpkin form that would become one of her best-known motifs: bright yellow, patterned in small black dots, somehow both solemn and amusing, these feature in paintings and sculptures both giant and minuscule. “The pumpkin develops from her interest in natural forms,” says Laurberg. “It starts as one motif among others, but something speaks to her. She says that it resembles the human head, a very rounded, singular form, but with a surreal quality and a pattern that appeal to her.”
The idea of self-obliteration, which runs through her work from the Infinity Nets onwards, inspired the large-scale installation works that Kusama created in the 90s, for which she is perhaps best-known today. Her room installations – childlike and joyful, often beautiful, featuring an array of mirrors, lights and structures – are “about reaching out, about the intense involvement of the viewer inside her artworks”. This exhibition features a generous selection of spatial installations, including the mesmerising Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008), a permanent installation at Louisiana, in which a water-filled, mirrored room is lit by the glow of thousands of tiny coloured spotlights, and Mirror Room (Pumpkin) (1991), a yellow and black spotted room with a mysterious box in the middle. Climb the steps and look through the peephole, and a field of pumpkins (ceramic) is revealed, stretching through mirrors to infinity. This was Kusama’s offering at the 1993 Venice Biennale, at which she was the first Japanese artist to have the pavilion on her own; she walked around the show in a yellow dress with black dots and a matching witch’s hat, handing out tiny pumpkins to guests.
The exhibition closes with a display of Kusama’s current series, My Eternal Soul, on which she has been working since 2009. These large canvases are covered with a bright mix of symbols – animals, people, phallic shapes, dots, tribal patterns. Aged 86, she completes around one piece a day, Laurberg tells me, working her way slowly around the canvas, placed flat on a table. “It’s a meditative process. Like a visual diary, she tries to put down the images that flow through her head.” Since 2000, Kusama has also been collaborating with brands – including Marc Jacobs and Coca-Cola – to design phones, shoes and handbags in her own patterns, coquettishly transgressing the borders between high and low art. Above the exhibition’s exit is a recreation of the shop window Kusama curated for Louis Vuitton in New York in 2012. “She refers to her Louis Vuitton ‘exhibition’ when she’s talking about it,” says Laurberg, “and it’s very close to her gallery installations. She’s offered a platform, and she puts work in it. It’s a shop window, but it’s public art.” From inside the window, submerged in spotted tentacles that engulf the space, the artist gazes down: a waxwork model of Kusama herself, a small figure in big sunglasses and bright orange hair, looking disconcertingly real, yet at the same time strangely fake. It’s a final, triumphant surprise for an exhibition resounding with surprises: the artist has been present all along.