Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney
Tuesday, July 24th, 2012
By Jen Hazen
Right now, the Whitney Museum of American Art is celebrating the six-decade career of Japanese avante-garde artist Yayoi Kusama with a retrospective that will run through September 30. Officially a New Yorker again, Kusama began her career there in 1958, and quickly became famous for her use of bold polka dot patterns and nets on a variety of canvases: walls, mirrored large-scale environments, and naked bodies. She skyrocketed to the top of the city’s pop art scene in the sixties, only to fall out of popularity in the early seventies. Sadly, she returned to Tokyo in defeat with no money and spent several years in a psychiatric ward there. But Kusama never stopped creating, as evidenced by one of her famous quotes: “Every time I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of art.” Now she is making a grand comeback with her first NYC show in 15 years.
The Whitney retrospective, which coincides with the recent release of Kusama’s capsule collection of clothing and accessories with Louis Vuitton (Louis Vuitton is sponsoring the Whitney show), will showcase more than 300 pieces of the artist’s work, including two- and three-dimensional works, press clippings, photographs, and exhibition posters. The Whitney’s website warns us that “the visual effects may be disorienting to some viewers” as the large installation is set in a dark room displaying multiple mirrors and a pool in the center.
But let’s not call it a comeback for the 83-year-old artist. Mainstream culture still has some catching up to do with Kusama’s polka-dotted cult of personality. With her signature bright red bob and kimonos printed to blend in with sprawling paintings of twined tentacles and glaring eyeballs, Kusama’s control of her public image over the decades is now the norm for artists. And her art speaks to a branding concoction that seamlessly fuses art, fashion, and retail so perfectly that her patterns have spilled over onto everything from cell phones to bracelets to bikinis.