Still working in feverish catharsis at the age of 82, Yayoi Kusama is Japan’s most famous living artist. Yet in the United States she has only recently received a slice of the recognition that her expansive body of work and visionary approach deserve. Following a critically acclaimed retrospective at the Whitney last year, Kusama was picked up by David Zwirner in early 2013. For her current exhibition, her first at the gallery, she has created two new “infinity rooms” and an impressive collection of large, square-format paintings.
Kusama’s practice develops a cult of personality as a result of the simple fact that she is her work. Compulsive in quantity and in form, Kusama’s work consists totally of her own hallucinatory obsessions; the spots, tentacle forms, and phalluses in her work are based on visual hallucinations she has experienced since childhood. A permanent resident at a psychiatric institution since her return to Japan in 1973, Kusama has crafted an immense body of work as an extension of her disorder and as a balm for it, effectively enshrouding herself and her viewers in her own hallucinations.
Kusama’s infinity rooms are perfect for a Time Out blurb—a great free activity in Chelsea just off the High Line. The rooms are hyper-popular, and the agony of the line to see them necessarily becomes part of the texture of the work itself. Snow began to fall as I shivered in line, and in a brief episode of hysteria, I wondered if Zwirner purposefully had the show in December in a Darwinian scheme to cut the lines down. Even after leaving the gallery, I couldn’t decide: Was waiting two hours for a strict sixty seconds of transcendence a brutal, capitalist exercise or actually a pilgrimage toward a quasi-mystic experience? Standing on a rubber island at the precipice of a glittering reflection pool surrounded by the infinite refractions of Kusama’s glowing dots, I had been guided toward the edge. The frigid line became an act of duration that made the ecstasy of my entire solitary, quiet minute in Kusama’s mini-heaven of LED lights that much sweeter by contrast.
There is no line to see Kusama’s impressive breadth of paintings, which span David Zwirner’s two adjacent locations on 19th street and should not be overlooked. Her patterned dots form rivers or pathways through a landscape of repetitive, androgynous profiles and monochromatic walls of eyes. To me, these figurative, pointillist landscapes recall the visual language of Aboriginal dot paintings. Such subconscious confluence made me consider these paintings in light of Jungian forms: depictions of buried psychic landscapes containing “their own pictorial logic,” as the show’s press release states.
To call Kusama’s work “outsider art” is a common mistake. She has always worked in fervent pursuit of fame and notoriety in the art world, and though her recently snowballing popularity is highly deserved, it is important to understand why Kusama’s work has gone unrecognized until this late stage in her career. Kusama was a visionary predecessor of trends in minimalism and pop art—movements that are largely credited to the work of her white male peers.
There is a still-prevalent trend in painting to discuss abstract and minimalist composition as accomplished through a series of logical moves—the development of formulas and blueprints more associated with “design” than any kind of affective reaction. But this confluence of abstraction with rationality, formula, and straightforward (even mathematical) construction is a kind of oxymoron that leaves us at a hollow dead end. What is the point of an artistic formula that does not point toward the infinite?
This trend is also associated with a kind of historically masculine, often arrogant ego. The marginalization of Kusama as an Asian woman has much to do with the way her work was co-opted by the white-male-washed gallery scene at the apex of her career in 1960’s-1970’s New York. Kusama has continually made abstract, minimalist, and suggestively figurative work that is deeply rooted in a profound emotional and psychic condition. This work is incredibly real to Kusama; it is a necessary externalization of deep phobia, a kind of exorcism that results in an essential construction of form. This abstraction can lend itself to feeling, to a fervent connection to the human condition, to the struggle of madness and the limits of sanity. As Kusama has stated, “I create art for the healing of all mankind”(1). In copying her forms, however, her white male peers have effectively robbed this kind of work of its radiance—of any productive extension toward depth and connection. Theirs is the empty work of those who seek to understand nothing about mental suffering, and in fact seek to eradicate it in favor of logic and structure. I cannot see this as anything but a violent, masculine suppression of the radical potentiality of the divine feminine. Such femininity is quickly labeled as Other, as exotic, as foreign, weird, and thus it is easily marginalized.
Kusama is resistant to institutions that try to classify her work, and rightly so. As she says, “Kusama is Kusama”(2). Her work constructs a singular mythology around a highly insular life. Though it is inwardly focused, Kusama’s work has always dealt in the transcendence of reality, in the creation of a fantasy (or nightmare) layered on top of present space. In her newest infinity rooms, the continuity of these gestures toward the infinite leads us down a poetic tunnel through an easy, soft, melancholy transition into the afterlife. Standing on the precipice of the sparkling reflection pool, my fingers finally regaining sensation from the cold, I wanted to cry. I felt it very important to catalog my feelings at that moment—to honor Kusama’s dedication to poetic sensation and to dedicate my own affective reaction to her psychosomatic projections on the difficult experience of everyday structure.
I Who Have Arrived in Heaven is on view at David Zwirner, New York, through December 21, 2013.
(1) Quoted from the Artist. Grady Turner,”Yayoi Kusama,” BOMB Magazine, Winter 1999. http://bombsite.com/issues/66/articles/2192
(2) Quoted from the Artist. Kay Itoy, “Kusama Speaks,” Artnet. August 22, 1997. http://www.artnet.com/magazine/features/itoi/itoi8-22-97.asp