August 15, 2012

The Polka Dot World of Yayoi Kusama

If you think you've been seeing a lot of polka dots around New York lately, you're right!  From the Louis Vuitton boutique on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street up to The Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison at 75th, the perky polka dots of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama are everywhere!

Born in Matsumoto Japan in 1929, Ms. Kusama came to the United States in 1957 to explore her art in an environment more receptive to women artists.  And receptive it was.  She soon found herself in New York City at the heart of the avant-garde art world and on the cutting edge of such new movements as Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism and performance art.  Indeed, in the 1960s and 70s Ms. Kusama was a fixture on the New York art scene with her works exhibited alongside such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Claes Oldenburg.  She worked in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, works on paper, film, "happenings" and immersive installations or "environments".  Her use of dense patterns and serial repetition, particularly incorporating polka dots, became her signature and a theme she continues to this day.

Ms. Kusama left New York to return to Japan in 1973 where she was embraced as major contemporary artist.  Interestingly, in 1977 she voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric institution where she continues to reside with daily outings to her studio in Tokyo and rare voyages to openings of museum exhibitions.

It is remarkable too that now, in her 83rd year, she is not only the subject of two major museum retrospectives - at the Tate Modern in London and The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York - she is also the star of luxury goods retailer Louis Vuitton's 2012 Spring season.  A fashion-forward deity in her heyday when the "Kusama Fashion Company" was in full swing, Yayoi Kusama's polka dots are once again in style and gracing high end handbags and accessories of all sorts.

Unfortunately, while I really like polka dots, a Louis Vuitton purse is a little beyond my budget, but a visit to the Whitney is definitely doable.  Here, the fourth floor exhibition space is entirely devoted to her works from her very early works on paper, to video clips and photos of her performance pieces to her strangely phallic "Accumulation" sculptures that change ordinary objects such as shoes and sofas into sprouting biological beings.

The highlight of this exhibition has to be infinity mirror room installation entitled "Fireflies on the Water".  Created in 2002 it is part of The Whitney's permanent collection but is rarely on display.  Now, in conjunction with her solo show, visitors are permitted to experience this remarkable "immersive installation".  Timed tickets allow a one minute entry into a 12 foot square mirrored room with one hundred and fifty tiny colored lights suspended over a reflecting pool.  Believe me, it is worth the wait for one minute of total silence, all alone in a marvelous magical environment with no beginning and no end.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to The Whitney and this peek into the polka dot world of one of the 1960s major art figures.  Judging by line to enter museum, I was not the only one drawn to explore the fabulous world of Yayoi Kusama!  The exhibition remains on view until September 30.

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