Kusama at the Whitney (a belated post from Hungary)

Note: I meant to send this before I left for Hungary, and then have a fresh start about Hungarian art…but here this draft is, sitting and waiting to be published. So…

Self-Portrait, 1972. Collage with pastel, ballpoint pen, and ink on paper.

Yayoi Kusama courted and received a lot of attention in New York in the 1960s for her truly groundbreaking and unique work. It’s how the Whitney Museum of American Art can justify having the Japanese artist’s retrospective on view, despite her having lived most of her life in Japan, as she still does today. Kusama has her trademark polka dot works up, supported by some works from the beginning of her career, documentation about her activities in the 60s in New York, and a final roomful of her most recent paintings, all atop each other like the inside of a Kusamaesque Rubik’s cube.

The exhibition allows you to see how themes develop in her career–her initial white dot paintings become dots she paints on people to “obliterate” them, which becomes the undulating patterns of her paintings in the 2000s. She also returns to soft, abstract sculptural forms reminiscent of the body and of Louise Bourgeois, at multiple points.

Man Catching the Insect, 1972. Collage with oil on paper.

Her collage works, two examples of which are shown here, don’t fit as neatly into these patterns. They aren’t as clean and graphic design-y as her current works, but I found them as strong as anything else in the show. The more literally evoke Surrealism and the exploration of consciousness, but they do it in a very Kusama (note the polka dots) and very accomplished way. They are one of the rare times her obsessive attention to detail combines with recognizable imagery. Kusama is notoriously and publicly of a “fragile mental state,” to quote the artist herself, and these works show again how that mental instability plays into and feeds her artistic production.

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