New York

Yayoi Kusama

Center for International Contemporary Arts

The Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama spent the years 1958–1973 in New York where she gained her first notoriety. During that period her work shared affinities with a nearly encyclopedic range of avant-garde practices. Her large “Net” paintings coincided with reductivist abstraction, her “Accumulations”—beginning around 1962, first with collage, then as environments with stuffed-fabric penises clustered on common household furnishings—anticipated the proliferation of strange erotic objects during the latter half of the decade, and her nudist Happenings from the late ’60s and early ’70s were right in sync with the politicized exhibitionism of the Age of Aquarius.

Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 and has been voluntarily living and making her work in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital since 1977. This small retrospective showed her at her best and still left one curious to see more—especially of her recent assemblages, which look just as timely as her earlier work once did. The serial, nearly monochrome “Net” paintings (examples here were from 1959–61) still look superb. Their closely adjusted, shallow layers hold the surface and yet suggest a breathiness reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s The Deep, 1953, though slower and more elaborated. You have to peer very closely to see how these graceful and sophisticated pictures were made. Kusama’s surfaces seem about to swirl madly out of focus, but the very arcs that suggest this motion also serve to stabilize the paint. Do the small flecks index the putatively scattered or inundated self? How literally interior are they? Alexandra Munroe, in her catalogue essay, likens them to capillaries and cells, but it’s hard to see the paintings as the artist did, as images of the dissolving self, because the forward colors—especially the whites in No. 2, 1959, and No. T.W.3., 1961—are like skin asserting a tender yet solid primacy.

All the same, Kusama’s work can be read as an agon of self-possession, both instinctive and shrewdly mediated. Even her way of claiming its status as “psychosomatic art”—as therapy—may be a mediating device that asserts, even as it apologizes for, the authenticity of her meanings. Her conceit is that of a perpetual leave-taking (as in Farewell Supper [2], 1981) that paradoxically shows signs of an ever more entrenched staying power. A wall-size cabinet assemblage, entitled Leftover Snow in the Dream, 1982, has terrific scale: several white podlike forms swell against the walls of 14 abutted, upright bins. If a pinprick were applied, the whole ripe agglomerate might burst, spurting its juices clear across the room.

Kusama’s art is fun—a fairly regular irony arising from work that derives from the more frazzled depths of the human psyche. This is not the “wonderfully dismal” that Robert Smithson found in Eva Hesse’s sculptures. Kusama’s compulsive reiterations are at least as specific and intricate as the weather. The work’s strangeness is not remote—not brut—but part of its intimacy.

Bill Berkson