Yayoi Kusama’s Wild World of Dots, Mirrors, and Phallic Fabric Tendrils

The fourth floor of the Whitney was predictably crowded at the opening of the museum’s new Yayoi Kusama exhibition. The work of one of Japan’s most important living artists was back in New York, where the ground-breaking eccentric made her name in the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde scene. The show at the Whitney — which runs through until September 30 — is part retrospective, part celebration, and loads of archival material. Here’s a little peek at the work on view. Beware the tendrils!

Kusama experimented from an early age, mixing household paints with sand and painting on seed sacks, so it’s no surprise that by the time she was studying in Kyoto in 1948, weighted with the dark imagery of post-war Japan, she was drawn to avant-garde movement filtering in from Europe, yearning for artistic freedom: “For art like mine — art that foes battle at the border of life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die — [Japan] was too small, too servile, too feudalistic and too scornful of women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom, and a wider world.”

Repetition is a major theme in her work. It’s those obsessive surfaces and madly-detailed canvases that draw you in closer, closer, and closer in until the other museum visitors start looking at you funny. Her large Infinity Net Paintings from the late ’50s feature many, many tiny brushstrokes strangling vast surfaces. The Accumulations sculptures that she made in the following decade riddle regular objects with repeating forms, organic-looking felt limbs resembling tentacles, or potatoes, or… phalli, if you will, painted silver, jutting out in clusters and all directions. In 1962, Kusama was in a show with Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist. In the 1960s, she got radical, implementing her concept of Self-Obliteration. Documenting her life in New York and the art scene art around her, Yayoi Kusama’s polka dot frenzy extended to her art work, her art show outfits, and the many giddy naked performers she looped into her storied happenings of Body Festivals.

When she returned to Tokyo in 1973, the same naked happenings didn’t pan out quite so successfully, and overall difficulties and pressures of readjusting to Japan put so much stress on the artist that she voluntarily entered the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill. In the 1990s, Yayoi Kusama set up a studio within the hospital, working diligently on small parts of big things, like The Clouds, an impressive piece sprawling across the floor of the Whitney, made up of deliberately shaped, perfectly fitting silver, pillow-like blobs. Her recent paintings from the aughts are also on display — fresh, colorful, radiant, populated with fragmented faces, happy waves, sperm-like squiggles, fluorescent jagged frames, and pops of neon. Those lucky enough to get into the lobby gallery installation, Fireflies on the Water (2002), will step inside a closed room and be transported into an infinitely mirrored world of darkness, water, and many glowing little lights.

We recommend a trip. Click through our slideshow below for a preview of the highlights.

Yayoi Kusama press clippings. Photo by Marina Galperina