Compulsion, Repetition and Innocence: Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, Self-Obliteration (Net Obsession Series) (c. 1966), photocollage on paper, 8″ x 10″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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The following review was originally published in the October 1998 edition of The New Criterion and is posted here on the occasion of Yayoi Kusama, an exhibition opening this week at The Whitney Museum of American Art and continuing until September 30.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had the opportunity to liken an art exhibition to an amusement park funhouse. A lot of contemporary art—installation art, in particular—lends itself to such an unflattering analogy. However one configures it, installations eschew the nuances of high art for the spectacle of theater or, should one say, the theatrical. One leading practitioner of the form stated that his aim was to “control” the viewer, and the most telling attribute of installation art is its distrust of aesthetic engagement. In taking over “the white cube” of the gallery, installations overwhelm and, at times, harass the viewer. Given the desperation inherent in such endeavors, who wouldn’t prefer the attractions of a roadside carny?

The re-creation of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room (1965), as seen in the exhibition Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958– 1968, was like a funhouse but in a good way—diverting and silly. Inside a gallery lined with mirrors, the viewer confronted innumerable polka-dotted phalluses made of stuffed fabric; they were, almost literally, the “prizes” found in a carnival midway (albeit a peculiar one). Gallerygoers were allowed inside Infinity Room one at a time, and greeted it—and incoming visitors— with a smile that was equal parts mirth and embarrassment. The comedy of Kusama’s refracted priapism is not unrelated to the more outré tendencies of the 1960s and has a woozy charm. Could this mean that the doodads of a flower child are preferable to the jaded ironies of our current crop of art-world careerists? Perhaps, although it may be a distinction so fine as to be not worthy of scrutiny.

Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation (c. 1963), sewn and stuffed fabric, wood chair frame and paint, 35-1/2″ x 38″ x 35″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Love Forever was not a retrospective; rather, it covered a decade wherein Kusama, newly arrived from Japan, made her presence felt in the New York art world. During this time, Kusama explored in rapid succession a variety of media: painting, sculpture, collage, installation, performance, and video. Her art is characterized by compulsiveness, repetition, and, in an odd way, innocence. Toward the end of the show there was an enlarged reproduction of a New York Daily News cover with a photograph of Kusama’s staged “nude-in” at MOMA’s sculpture garden in 1969. Having one’s confreres skinny-dip in a fountain alongside a sculpture by Aristide Maillol isn’t just a publicity stunt but, in retrospect, kind of sweet. Likewise, when we read that Kusama’s art was inspired by her “fear of male genitalia,” we wonder why her lumpish fetishes, which are more absurd than appalling, are bereft of angst. In a culture where self-mutilation is considered a viable form of artistic expression, one almost pines for tame shenanigans such as these.

Are the virtues of Kusama’s art intrinsic to her vision or a form of nostalgia on the part of the viewer? By the time one reached the end of Love Forever, one knew the answer. Certainly the requisite video gallery, with its soundtrack of shapeless rock music, was less an evocation of the Sixties than an unintentional parody of it. Kusama’s work is too lightweight to be taken seriously, but Love Forever was disheartening nonetheless. The curators at MOMA touted her as a precursor to “the art of our time,” and they were not off base. Kusama’s obsessions and narcissism may, for some, be tokens of creative authenticity, but her art leads nowhere. Surely there are better role models for artists as we enter the twenty-first century.

© 1998 Mario Naves

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