Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney

Perhaps foolishly, I had no great expectations when I decided on a whim to visit the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Whitney. Given the option I wouldn't really have said abstraction is my "thing," but then something happened. It started in the first gallery among the early works. There cryptic, whispery figures meandered over nebulous forms emerging from dark paper to suggest space or deep ocean environs. Mysterious but calming, they invited both perplexity and meditation. From that point on I fell in love with Kusama's work.

Yayoi Kusama, The Germ, 1952. Ink and pastel on paper, 9 3/4 × 7 1/16 in. (24.7 × 18 cm). Collection of the artist. © Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo; Victoria Miro Gallery, London

The breadth of her creation over the decades as represented here is astonishing, though threads of continuity are abundantly clear in the art itself as well as in the accompanying text. It is immediately apparent why the artist earned the moniker "princess of polka dots," but as with many such identifiers its use is reductive, and in this case belies both the depth and variety of her art.

From the first gallery visitors progress to works from the infinity net series. Again evocative of the ocean, their initial similarity gives way to endless variation upon close inspection. The next room presents the performative aspect of her work also examined in subsequent galleries, and showcases among assorted other items artifacts from the happenings Kusama staged. Do take a few minutes to read a few of the project proposals and letters on display—I was pleasantly surprised to find a few that made me laugh aloud.

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 12-September 30,2012). Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins, courtesy of the Whitney Museum

Less engaging to me personally were the phallus-bedecked works populating a middle gallery, though their inclusion helps to emphasize the obsessive character variously manifest in much of Kusama's work. Later pieces—including those undulating and enticing forms that now grace an array of Vuitton products—delight in their vibrancy.


Kusama for Louis Vuitton Bag Collection. Image via highsnob

The last room engulfs visitors in the bright colors and complex symbols of numerous paintings hung floor to ceiling, a splendid climax to an impressive show. According to the introductory text, the exhibition aimed to encapsulate the over 60 years of Kusama's career and demonstrate the significant shifts occurring within her body of work. This it did admirably, but though I came away with a seemingly full understanding of this progression, I wonder if it wasn't partially constructed for the sake of the show's own clarity. I imagine too that it (necessarily) only scratches the surface of Kusama's complex character—how ironic that this staunch protestor of MoMA's elitism should evolve to stage a show replete with the "do not touch" signs she once so reviled.

Kusama at the Whitney with her latest works. Photo by Matt Carasella, courtesy of the Whitney Museum via GalleristNY

Yet where the goal is to both draw in those who know Kusama's work and to introduce her to those who don't, the show both captivates and inspires. It certainly engendered a great deal of heated debate between myself and my companion, with whom I disagreed about Kusama's painting methods. Thankfully curator David Kiehl was kind enough to settle the matter for us on Twitter-hosted Ask A Curator Day. The question: "Please settle a dispute: does Kusama use stencils or other tools for works like "Yellow Trees?" Answer (read bottom to top):


Three cheers for social media and audience engagement!

Yayoi Kusama is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until September 30, 2012. The museum's address is 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, and it is open Wed-Sun from 11am-6pm, on Fridays 11am-9pm. General admission is $18, $14 for ages 19-25, seniors/65 and over, and full-time students. Ages 18 and under are admitted free. Fridays are pay-what-you-wish from 6pm-9pm.

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