When curator David Kiehl was planning the new Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Whitney, as he recounted to a group of visitors at yesterday's preview, he spent many spring nights sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of each of the artist's works, completely losing track of time. I, too, felt like doing the same as I strolled past her netted and polka-dotted dreamscapes. These abstract "infinity nets," her trademark, are direct results of the hallucinations she suffered from throughout her life.
Born in Japan to a wealthy and conservative family, Kusama suffered physical abuse from her mother as a child. She eventually grew into an artist, and trained in classical Japanese painting before moving to New York City, where she developed into an environmental and performing artist, with Warhol and Joseph Cornell among her contemporaries. But I did not sense, on the fourth floor of the Whitney, that Kusama's art communicated the haunting effect of the delusions that have plagued her. Instead, the retrospective felt more like proof of the artist's capacity to liberate herself using that which burdens her.
Furthermore, the exhibition is sequenced chronologically: Kusama's tender, intimate early watercolors precede her lumped Accumulation
sculptures from the 1960s, which in turn are followed by her more recent highly saturated canvases. Yet her work manages to break all geographic and chronological boundaries with its timelessness and placelessness. It's as if her dots and phalluses reside in a unique place, somewhere between surrealism and pop-art that's also permeated by film, sculpture, and other media.
In conjuction with the retrospective, the Whitney is also showing Kusama’s installation piece Fireflies on the Water
(2002) in the lobby gallery on the first floor. Behind a discrete white door is the epitome of Kusama's ability to defy time and space: a pitch-black hall filled with dizzying multi-colored bulbs and mirrors, which multiplied my reflection on the walls around me as well as in the watery floor below.
As I re-entered the daylight of the museum's concrete lobby, my vision speckled from the contrast, it felt as if I had stood inside Kusama’s dotted infinity for far longer than the minute I had been allotted.
Opens tomorrow, through September 30, 2012.
WHITNEY MUSEUM OF ART
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021