On Tuesday, July 10th, two days before the public opening, members of the press were invited to preview Yayoi Kusama’s career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Downtown, that same day, the Yayoi Kusama for Louis Vuitton pop-up shop opened its doors at 116 Greene Street, where Kusama used to live and have a store in the 1960s. The window displays at both the Whitney and the Louis Vuitton store are emblazoned with Kusama’s signature red and white polka-dots. At the Whitney, spotted spherical sculptures hang in the institution’s lobby like massive beach balls. Over on Greene, a mannequin of the artist—a Madame Tussauds-quality reproduction—scowls out through the luxury shop window, dressed in her uniform polka-dot smock with matching LV sunglasses and handbag, surrounded by glossy, dotted tentacular “waves.”
Louis Vuitton is the bold-type sponsor of the Whitney show and, at the preview, there were as many attendees wearing homage polka-dots as there were in the iconic interlocked LV pattern. Once upon a time, this blatant corporate presence might have irked some, but it’s 2012 and we’ve been through it already with Takashi Murakami and Louis Vuitton at the Brooklyn Museum. And then there’s Tom Sachs and Nike, Prada/Schiaparelli at the Met, and Marina Abramović in her Tisci Givenchy. As the Whitney retrospective, which spans six decades, is evidence, Kusama has always worked with the trends of the time—in the late ’40s and early ‘50s, we see her working in the remains of Surrealism; into the 1950s and we’re into Abstract Expressionism; in the ’60s and early ‘70s, Kusama played with it all: Minimalism, Pop, hippy happenings, performance and body art, and video art. Now, you heard it here first: the 2010s will be the decade that fashion shows art for what it really is (commerce) and art shows fashion for what it can be (art), and all these categories (art, fashion, and commerce) will, as a result, become way less relevant. Kusama’s working on it.
Yayoi Kusama is an artist reclaimed. Once apparently more prolific than Warhol, Kusama faded from view after critics grew impatient with her late ’60s publicity-mania, and she retreated to Japan, having “failed.” In the ’70s, she checked herself into a mental institution. She missed the whole ’80s art market boom and, a testament to just how devalued her work became, in 1996, an intern at the Paula Cooper Gallery found one of Kusama’s ’60s “Sex Obsession” phallus peppered chair-sculptures (on view at the Whitney) in a junk shop in the East Village for just $250. Just over a decade later, after major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern, and now at the Whitney, Kusama is back. In 2008, Christie’s sold one of her works for $5.1 million, a record for a living female artist. And, thanks in large part to Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton and the media machine of luxury fashion, her dots are everywhere again.
A great deal has been made of Kusama’s “madness,” but you wouldn’t know it from the Whitney show. Kusama lives and works out of a psychiatric facility. Her madness (she sees dots!) is presented as a kind of Modern masculine ideal of madness; the art moves through her; she must create to alleviate the pain. The most nuanced take on Kusama’s psyche I’ve read is Alexi Worth’s 2008 New York Times profile and, as I haven’t met Kusama or researched enough to attest, I’ll leave you with that.
What I will say is that, at the Whitney, everything is contained—her madness, her politics, her sexuality, her commercialism. One critic said the show was “…quiet.” It shouldn’t be. Kusama’s art is bubbling and expansive, looping and recursive. Infinity Nets, Accumulations, Compulsion, Self-Obliteration; these are the titles of Kusama’s works and movements. Kusama’s most feverish phase, in the late 1960s—when she was running around America painting dots on everything and posing for publicity pictures, running a newspaper called Kusama Orgy, fashioning polka-dotted and perforated clothing, and hosting naked happenings she called The Atomic Explosion—is the most contained. Documents from the era (photographs, newspaper clippings, opening invitations) are displayed in a small room under glass showcases that force the viewer to look down and walk in a straight line. Look there for her 1968 Open Letter to My Hero, Richard M. Nixon (“Let’s forget ourselves, dearest Richard, and become one with the Absolute, all together in the altogether. As we soar through the heavens, we’ll paint each other with polka dots, lose our egos in timeless eternity, and finally discover the naked truth”); it’s explosive enough to break through glass.
“Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dot, we become part of the unity of our environment.” That’s Kusama on her dots, in a statement that’s the antithesis to how I’d come to understand dots, which is, and I created an emoticon for it: :::::=$$$. Damien Hirst, Rei Kawakubo, Yayoi Kusama… We’ll pay big prices for polka-dots. Kusama says that everything she does is art. I believe this is true, if “art” is considered as an ambitious human endeavor where expression is foremost, and notoriety and financial reward are just secondary but welcome byproducts. Throughout her career, Kusama has simultaneously embodied both the savvy art market artist and the modernist genius tightroping the madness line. These archetypes might seem oppositional, but they aren’t in her. Kusama obliterates even that distinction.
What Kusama’s concurrent Whitney show and worldwide Louis Vuitton campaign represent is something she has been doing all along—from the early images of her wearing gorilla fur jackets and kimonos, to her stuffing women’s shoes with bulbous, flaccid phalli. It’s the forceful and beautiful imposition of her consciousness on everything she can touch, and her reaching to touch everything she can; canvas, body, museum, mall. Everything is nothing and the same, emptiness and infinity. Maybe it’s her “madness” that gives her the clairvoyance to see traditional categories—art, fashion, commerce—obliterated. But the lesson to gained, whether intentional on Kusama’s behalf or not, is this: Art is expressive labor just as fashion is expressive labor, and in a capitalist economy both have monetary value, but that doesn’t detract from the potential for exaltation in either field. It’s time we stop debating categories—postmodern deconstruction theory has successfully obliterated these—and try to simply consider the work in front of us. Kusama’s work, be it sponsored by a corporate luxury brand or not, is exalted. You can see on view at the Whitney and at Louis Vuitton pop-ups shop around the world.
Yayoi Kusama will be at the Whitney Museum from July 12 through September 30.