Los Angeles

Yayoi Kusama

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

When Yayoi Kusama arrived in New York from Japan in 1958, at age twenty—nine, she had a single purpose: to become a world—famous artist. She did not become one, strictly speaking, but she did have her fifteen minutes. From 1961 to 1968 she achieved notoriety working in a wide variety of media and developing the basic idioms that have characterized her art to this day. “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958–1968,” organized by Lynn Zelevansky of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Laura Hoptman of the Museum of Modern Art (where it remains on view until September 22), is the first in-depth look at Kusama’s formative period, a healthy sampling of paintings, collages, photocollages, sculptures, installations, and performance documentation—though not all are presented in the best of health. The fact that more than one was presented unclean is symptomatic of the mindset that occasioned this show, for this exhibition is less about looking carefully at the art than about obtaining justice where Kusama’s supposedly neglected achievement is concerned, about restoring the public memory of her early career. The artist’s plight is purportedly rendered all the more poignant by virtue of her mental condition: Kusama has voluntarily resided in a Japanese psychiatric hospital that specializes in art therapy since 1977.

Kusama readily describes a life of hallucinations and paranoia that compelled her to invent the designs she calls “infinity nets”—roughly semicircular hand-painted strokes of paint, linked and repeated—that coat the surfaces of her paintings and a large portion of her found-object sculpture. The same compulsion is also said to account for the proliferation of stuffed-canvas protuberances covering other of Kusama’s objects—Cabbage Patch phalluses mushrooming up inside high-heel shoes and carpeting the floor of mirror-walled installations. The theme is carried through elsewhere—in spaces covered with dried macaroni, or collages constructed out of multiple photographs of her paintings and sculptures, or with hundreds of small paper labels of the kind used on envelopes or file folders. The mechanically produced photos and labels of the collages appealingly distinguish these works from their more expressive counterparts—though they are not as appealing as Andy Warhol’s similarly repetitive silk-screens of the same year, 1962.

No compulsive disorder, however, can redeem the contradictory aspects of Kusama’s art that caused it to fade so quickly from public memory. Her attempt to cast a decrepit expressionism and surrealism in a budding Pop and Minimalist idiom is what sets her apart from the New York scene of the time. In truth, her work aligns itself more readily with Euro-Pop, with Eduardo Paolozzi, Marisol, and Niki de Saint Phalle and their attempts to negotiate the barrier between hot European Surrealism and cool American-style Pop. The repetitive infinity-net motif may share an affinity with Minimalist grids, but its irregular, handmade form preserves the personalized organicism of Abstract Expressionism. In her paintings, allover rhythmic compositions become a monotonous drone, finding resolution in neither the bodily music of Abstract Expressionists nor the geometric rigor of Minimalists. As a consequence they deflect attention back to their maker, where this master of publicity wanted it.

In a 1964 review of the artist’s “Driving Image” exhibition, which included furniture and a rowboat covered in the trademark phalluses, Donald Judd rightly observed that to see a show by Kusama is to see “a result of Kusama’s work, not a work itself.” Kusama’s struggle to master her internal demons and the “external” sensibility of ’6os art resulted in works too heavy for their idiom; Pop is about acquiescing to desire, not combating it. The fields of phalluses were already a tired Freudian riff; today they look harmless—one wants to sprinkle a little Desencx on those shoes. In many works the phalluses are fashioned out of brightly colored polka dot or striped fabric and speak less of acute anxiety than of cute anxiety—less an evocation of unconscious drives than of a Tri-Delt homecoming float on the theme of feminist angst. One recoils at the enormous effort that went into making these works, the way one cringes at the sight of the orange and tan synthetic afghan that took your great aunt three months to knit. Though one appreciates the effort, such extravagant expenditures of energy serve debased mythologies—of femininity and family in your great aunt’s case, of Romantic constructions of the mind in Kusama’s.

Nevertheless, looking back at her New York moment is a worthwhile endeavor. As the curators remind us, Kusama’s self-aggrandizing antics—posing naked with her sculptures, frolicking in fields of the phalluses she purportedly feared, generally keeping the spotlight on herself—foreshadow the self—centered work of later artists. But where Eleanor Antin, Hannah Wilke, and Cindy Sherman hammer the rhetoric of narcissism into persuasive art, Kusama hammers the rhetoric of ’60s art into a vehicle for her narcissism. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that something feels wrong about this art, and nothing in Kusama’s late work feels any better. Subsequent artists have taken her idioms, reordered her priorities, and made important work in the territory she staked out. In this lies Kusama’s importance.

Libby Lumpkin