Yayoi Kusama
Works on paper from the 1950's

June 20 – September 30, 1998
at Peter Blum SoHo

Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Yayoi Kusama: Works from the 1950s: Peter Blum Galler

Art Papers 23

How does an artist whose career has been assiduously ignored for almost 30 years resurface as the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, where art history is carefully monitored and guarded? After languishing in the dustbin of recent art history, all of a sudden Yayoi Kusama is appearing all over town. "Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968" is at MOMA. 29 works, mostly from the '50s and on paper, fill the walls of Peter Blum's gallery in Soho, and Robert Miller presents "Yayoi Kusama Now," an exhibition of 32 new works, complete with a catalogue that includes British art star Damien Hirst interviewing the Japanese artist.

It seems that the artist who was "as famous as Warhol" in the '60s has been relegated another 15 minutes. But the past two and a half decades haven't been as kind to Kusama, who was born in Matsumoto City in 1929 and came to the U.S. in 1957. Part of this is because of Kusama herself, since she effectively disappeared from the art world at the end of the '60s. As a child she was plagued with hallucinations and anxiety (she refers to her "disease"--"obsessional neurosis" or obsessive-compulsive disorder--frequently in her conversation with Hirst) and, after returning to Japan in the early-'70s, checked herself into a psychiatric institution in Tokyo where she has resided ever since.

But part of her historical neglect certainly has to do with other factors--namely, being female, and a non-white, non-Western female to boot. As the show at MOMA reveals, Kusama made work that was shown with the boys (her work appeared in the 1962 Pop exhibitions at Richard Bellamy's Green Gallery, alongside work by Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and Warhol) and she shared many of their concerns. Her large-scale monochromatic "Infinity Nets" were formally not unlike paintings by Pollock or Newman, artists who also employed an "all-over" approach, or Minimalist painters like Ryman or Stella. Her Pop work was planted firmly in the "space between art and life"--like Broodthaers or Rauschenberg, she was inspired by the detritus of everyday life.

But there was little room in much of those artists' work (save Warhol, naturally) for jokes about gender/sexuality, and Kusama's oeuvre is striking in that regard. After devoting much of the late-'50s and early-'60s to the two-dimensional "Infinity Nets" (many examples of which are exhibited both at MOMA and Peter Blum), Kusama moved into her "Accumulations": sculptures whose armature was a piece of furniture or another everyday object--shoe, baby carriage, handbag--covered with phallic-shaped stuffed-fabric forms. These sexually charged works have a formal look to them--the all-overness of gestural abstraction, the repetition of Minimalism--but they are funny and playful, too. The most elaborate of these, Infinity Mirror Room (1965, recreated for MOMA), consisted of a room with mirrors on all four walls and the floor covered with white-and-red-polka-dot fabric-phalluses. The viewer standing in the center of the room is treated to a bright, optically challenging scene in which one and the room are endlessness reflected.

As Kusama moved into performance and film, her work becomes an increasingly more focused combination of formal art, sexuality, and the absured. The 23-minute film titled Self-Obliteration (1971) finds Kusama painting polka dots all over naked bodies and wading into a pond where she paints polka dots onto a floating piece of paper and finally on the surface of the water itself. And then there are her performances--the first one was at the Black Gate Theatre in the East Village in 1967, where people painted polka-dots on each other while a rock band played in the background--which culminated in the August 1969, "guerrilla" action called "The Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MOMA--Featuring the Usual Display of Nudes"--in which Kusama and four naked dancers frolicked in a fountain in the sculpture garden at MOMA.

Unfortunately, however, Kusama's recent work, on display at Robert Miller in "Yayoi Kusama Now," is little more than a prolific rehash of her work from over 30 years ago. There is a room full of "Infinity Net" paintings on canvas which employ the same two-color circle-and-ground concept she developed in the late-'50s/early-'60s, starting with the monochrome canvases; there are polka-dot canvases; there is a room full of fiberglass reproductions of the "Venus de Milo"--10 of them towering over seven feet, all covered with the "Infinity Net" pattern; there is a room dedicated to "Accumulation"-style works using the same or very similar objects to their earlier counterparts as their starting points: shoes, birdcage, basket, handbag; and there is a large wall installation, "Repetition", which consists of Louise-Nevelson-like boxes, painted black, filled with black and yellow polka-dot phalluses planted in a nest of curly shavings that looks like public hair.

Kusama's latest works are certainly brighter, cleaner, and newer than the works on display at MOMA and Peter Blum. But there is something missing from them. The old works are imbued with the joy of discovering and disseminating a new visual system, a new vision of the world. In this sense, her old work seems part and parcel of the decade in which it was created: the '60s. (Her joyful, unashamed use of nude bodies--including her own--also seems appropriate to that moment.)

Armed with the details of her biography, it seems almost inhumane to criticize her new work since, as she confides in Hirst, "I have been able somehow to live to this day without committing suicide simply because I have used my art as a shield against my illness." But art has a life apart from its creator, and that is the one in which we, as viewers, circulate. Given this distance, it is difficult to see Kusama's earlier work and her new work in the same light. The latter is really just a fresher copy of the original. - MARTHA SCHWENDENER