New York

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—Let’s Survive Forever, 2017, wood, metal, glass mirrors, LED lighting system, monofilament, stainless steel balls, carpet, 10' 3“ x 20' 6” x 20' 5 1/4".

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—Let’s Survive Forever, 2017, wood, metal, glass mirrors, LED lighting system, monofilament, stainless steel balls, carpet, 10' 3“ x 20' 6” x 20' 5 1/4".

Yayoi Kusama

David Zwirner | 34 East 69th Street

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—Let’s Survive Forever, 2017, wood, metal, glass mirrors, LED lighting system, monofilament, stainless steel balls, carpet, 10' 3“ x 20' 6” x 20' 5 1/4".

The experience of standing in line for hours in the cold, on the blustery West Side, in order to be immersed for forty-five seconds each in three successive environments by Yayoi Kusama falls somewhere, culturally speaking, between waiting to skate beneath the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and staying out all night at a club in the hope that Grace Jones will show up. On the one hand, it’s tiring, touristy, and probably not worth it; on the other hand, it’s Yayoi Kusama. When the eighty-eight-year-old phenom signs her name with the regal title Avant-Garde Artist after a comma—as she does in the high-minded “Message to the people of the world from Yayoi Kusama” statement that accompanied her fall takeover of David Zwirner, New York—she’s being accurate. Who cares if she’s also being grandiose?

With the quaint term avant-garde, she invokes the early days of her career—her lonely “revolution in art,” as she called it—in which idiosyncratic theories of transcendence, liberation, and “self-obliteration” explained her practice of obsessive repeated gestures and forms. In the 1960s, she forged a unifying aesthetic of excess that positioned her multidisciplinary oeuvre at the intersection of Minimalism and Pop. It also tamed the boundless, wall-crawling patterns of her lifelong hallucinations. Today, the same ideas and psychologically soothing processes produce not the challenging works we associate with avant-gardism, but the well-honed seriality of a celebrity brand—from her throwback monochromes and sleek, fabricated, polka-dotted things, to her consummately Instagrammable mirrored installations. That’s interesting too, though.

In two concurrent shows—“Festival of Life,” which filled both of the gallery’s West Nineteenth Street spaces, and “Infinity Nets” uptown—she didn’t conquer new ground but instead exercised her prerogative to recycle old work in new arrangements and color schemes (though a couple of her new “infinity net” paintings, whose dark grounds teem with tiny white arcs, directly invoked her breakthrough works shown at the Brata Gallery on East Tenth Street in 1959). Kusama’s fixation with cellular forms derives from the hours of her troubled childhood spent gazing at the pebbles of the riverbed behind her family’s Matsumoto, Japan, home (as well as her subsequent dotted visions), and so the original infinity nets have a strange quality and novel status: They’re representational paintings in the guise of abstractions, born of an automatic mark. The colorful ones, from 2017—which feature green arcs on orange, or yellow ones on purple, for example—are happier than their early templates. They billow and contract with areas of varying density, in the same appealing, tried-and-true manner, but seem to come from a place of meditative refinement rather than delirious torment. And their bright palettes link them to the other paintings Kusama somehow finds the time to churn out, which were shown in Chelsea.

The sixty-six square canvases from the artist’s ongoing series “My Eternal Soul,” which she began in 2009, radiated manic exuberance with their vibrating color combinations and crowded compositions. Incorporating serpentine and floral patterns, polka dots (of course), and playful figuration, each painting is distinct. Yet the larger statement, expressed through the quantity of paintings on view, and their edge-to-edge installation (in two rows on all four walls), is one of her favorite conceits: Her art is endless.

Kusama, referring to her “Accumulation” and “Aggregation” sculptures of the ’60s—for which she might encrust a sofa or a rowboat with hand-sewn, tuber-like phalli, or clothing with spray-painted, dry pasta—once wrote, “The thought of continually eating something like macaroni, spat out by machinery, fills me with fear and revulsion, so I make macaroni sculptures. I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process.” Her strategy—to face down the horror of mass production by mimicking its modes, using her own controlled engagement with it to mitigate capitalism’s psychic effects—has perhaps been abandoned over the years, or has become so ingrained that it has lost its edge. Meanwhile, gross excess as subject matter has been absorbed by grander, all-encompassing themes of limitlessness.

Her shows’ big draws, of course, were the stainless-steel-ball-filled Infinity Mirrored Room—Let’s Survive Forever, 2017, and Longing for Eternity, also from last year, which is like an upright coffin of twinkling LED lights that you peer into, your face filling a dark gap in a kaleidoscopic mosaic that races into the distance. Kusama is sincere in her desire to evoke awe and delight—the pure, philosophical high of momentary self-obliteration, I think. Though perhaps she also enjoys, as I do, the perversity of rewarding the crowd’s long wait and brief contemplation of the infinite by granting each selfie-seeker a personalized Droste image, with an iPhone as its vanishing point, marking it, for all eternity, as totally of our moment.

Johanna Fateman