Kusama's polka-dotted greatness

Yayoi Kusama impresses with her current exhibitions at David Zwirner Gallery, which include 76 works on canvas

With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever, made in 2011 by Yayoi Kusama, on display at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.
With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever, made in 2011 by Yayoi Kusama, on display at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Sometimes I think Yayoi Kusama might be the greatest artist to come out of the 1960s and one of the few, thanks in part to her long life, still making work that feels of the moment. Other times I think she's a bit of a charlatan who produces more Kusama paintings than the world needs and stoops to conquer with mirrored Infinity rooms that attract hordes of selfie-seekers oblivious to her efforts on canvas.

Kusama's current three-ring circus of exhibitions at David Zwirner's uptown and downtown spaces - which include 76 works on canvas - argue in favour of greatness.

While there are the inevitable Infinity rooms on view in Chelsea, the shows give her paintings a new forcefulness; with their fluctuating rhythms and imaginative images, they could even win over fans who only have eyes for her Instagrammable environments.

On all fronts, Kusama has a formidable urge towards art and fame fuelled by what seems to be a steely will and also a great mental focus - partly a function of psychological imbalances that have led to periods of hospitalisation. (She began to experience visual and auditory hallucinations as a child and they continue.) She has characterised art as her chance for salvation both here and in the afterlife.

Now 89, Kusama works non-stop and, if you're wondering, does all the painting herself, save for a ground colour applied by assistants. Recently, she shifted her workweek from five days to six, saving Sunday for writing, reading, talking on the phone and making smaller paintings. She and her art run the gamut from avant-garde to popular to outsider to whiz-bang conjuring.

The new Zwirner space in New York, on East 69th Street, is presenting Infinity Nets, a beautiful display of 10 paintings, all from this year, that make a surprisingly good case for Kusama's continuing reprises of her Net paintings from the early 1960s. Who knows how many of these works exist, but individually, they can mesmerise. Their surfaces of little comma-like strokes resembling knitting are ancestors of the artist's polka dots.

Filled in one small curling stroke after another, the older paintings flew in the face of the grandeur of Abstract Expressionism and made her reputation, garnering admiration from Frank Stella and Donald Judd, the leading Minimalists of the period. They were soon followed by her installations made from found objects covered with stuffed, sometimes dotted phalluses, to which she soon added mirrors, and by the well-known orgy-like Happenings (and their films) whose participants were painted with dots.

As with all of Kusama's efforts on canvas, the latest Net paintings are just work: no inspired brushwork or heroic flourishes. They have an automatic yet meditative quality and the unconscious physical energy of handwriting, attesting not just to the specialness of touch, but also to its inevitability. Anyone could probably make his own Net paintings - which would have their own pulse.

The uptown exhibition is a great baseline introduction to Kusama's sensibility and its obsessive repetition and intuitive process. And as blasphemous as it may sound, a few of these paintings are as good as the sought-after, historically sanctioned early works. The new ones are freer and breathe more. The Nets billow and sink, contract or stretch. The paint clots and thins out. The works make spatial illusion feel like a living, shifting thing, sometimes reptilian but also spongy, like layered clouds.

The tour de force of the Chelsea show is a very large gallery lined - tiled really - with 66 double-hung canvases in the folk art/outsider art/art brut style of Kusama's My Eternal Soul series, which started in 2008. Wrapping around the room, they are as spontaneous and unplanned as the Net paintings and release her uncanny inner child. Those here were made between 2013 and this year.

The patterns in these brightly coloured works include passages of Net-painting, but also numerous mutations: ellipses, eyes, dots, and daubed lines whose patterns resemble enlarged fingerprints. There are faces, flowers and face-flowers, cell-like bubbles and amoeboid caterpillars. Space moves. An almost frighteningly fertile talent, and mind, are visible.

These paintings form a great big infinity room of their own, but one in which each part is also an autonomous work of art, its own piece of wobbly, handwrought infinity. In the moment, their vitality is infectious. It is the vitality of an artist who lives to work, whose work keeps her alive.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2017, with the headline 'Kusama's polka-dotted greatness'. Subscribe