Critic Gayle Clemans writes of Yayoi Kusama that “Her work is cathartic and concrete, universal and specific, infinitely appealing and intimately personal.” Her terrific show “Infinity Mirrors” is at Seattle Art Museum June 30-Sept. 10.
I have great news for those who have been eagerly awaiting the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Seattle Art Museum (and there are a lot of us; advance ticket sales have completely sold out).
The show is as good as we’d hoped. Maybe even better.
“Infinity Mirrors” surveys the art of Kusama, the 88-year-old Japanese avant-garde artist who has been in and out of the spotlight for over six decades. As the title suggests, and at the request of the artist, the exhibition focuses on Kusama’s mirrored installations, rooms you can enter or peek into, and find yourself be surrounded by giant polka-dot balloons or glowing yellow pumpkins or thousands of reflections of hovering lanterns.
‘Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors’
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, and beginning July 7, 10 a.m.- 9 p.m. Exhibition runs June 30-Sept. 10, Seattle Art Museum; advance tickets are sold out but a limited number of tickets will be available at SAM each day of the exhibition for same-day entry starting June 30. (206-654-3100 or seattleartmuseum.org).
So, yes, the spectacular experiences are there. And so much more.
There are surrealistic paintings from the 1950s, soft sculptures from the 1960s, Joseph Cornell-inspired collages from the 1970s, very recent work, and documentary photos and ephemera, all of which gloriously establish Kusama’s unique place in contemporary art history. (The exhibition drew record crowds earlier this year at Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum.)
In an era when the spectacle is both craved and critiqued, Kusama’s art engages us in immediate, bodily, sensory experiences, allowing us to escape from and return to self-consciousness.
At the same time, they pulse quietly with the implication that this art keeps the artist’s mental health in balance. We gaze upon and stand within creations driven by Kusama’s experiences with anxiety, psychosis, and her search for fulfillment and harmony.
Kusama has said that her repetitive processes — covering everything with dots or sewing hundreds of fabric forms, for example — are acts of “self-obliteration.” She has described her labor-intensive methods as “art-medicine.”
Kusama had a difficult childhood with cultural trauma caused by World War II and a home life that revolved around an adulterous father and a judgmental mother who adamantly opposed her desire to pursue art. And the signs of mental illness appeared early on, with visual and auditory hallucinations, including an encounter with a pumpkin that she believed spoke to her.
As a child, she created drawing after drawing. As a young adult, she gravitated toward abstract painting, filling canvases with surreal figures or all-over patterns. She was inspired by seeing the work of American modernist Georgia O’Keeffe and sent paintings to the Northwest Abstract Expressionist Kenneth Callahan, both of whom corresponded with her.
Even as she enjoyed increasing success in Japan, Kusama was laying the groundwork for a move to America. Her first stop was Seattle, where she had a solo show in 1957 at the now-long-gone Zoë Dusanne Gallery, before moving to New York City the following year.
In addition to painting, she created soft sculptures, often with phallic shapes that she said helped her address her fears surrounding sex. These proliferating forms became known as “accumulations,” a key word for most of her work — which seems to grow and multiply, spreading across canvases or chairs or entire rooms.
Performance art and “happenings” allowed her to merge art and life and real space to a greater degree. She staged events where people stripped naked and covered each other with polka dots, infusing her work with anti-war and pro-sexual liberation messages. She became a star of the counterculture, known as “the priestess of polka dots” and “the international queen of the Happening.”
But her father’s health brought her back to Japan and her own health led to her voluntary residence in a psychiatric hospital, where she has lived since the late 1970s. After a spell of flagging critical interest, the 1980s saw an increasing number of solo shows and group surveys on topics ranging from Minimalism to Pop to feminist art. The variety of lenses through which her work can be viewed is a testament to how timely and expansive it has been.
And she’s not done yet. Every day, she walks a couple of blocks to her studio in central Tokyo where she works from 9 a.m. until dark, adding to a series of paintings called “My Eternal Soul,” begun in 2009 and now totaling over 540. The exhibition kicks off with a stunning display of these large, vibrant canvases. I like that we begin in the present.
Organized by the Hirshhorn Museum, where it opened to record-breaking crowds this spring, the current configuration at SAM includes the magnificent addition of “Walking on the Sea of Death,” which is literally a boatload of fabric protuberances, all painted silver, on loan from local collectors the Greenstein family.
And, of course, there are the glorious “infinity mirror rooms,” four you can enter and one you peer into. Be prepared for lines as you wait for your 20 or so seconds within each one. Times are limited not only because of high attendance, but because Kusama wants each experience to be brief.
And therein lies another clue to the underpinnings of her work. She keeps a tight grip on her potentially limitless, chaotic exuberance. She allows us to lose ourselves in color, pattern, light, and form, and then she ensures an exit, a time limit, the edge of a canvas, the familiar curve of a gourd.
Her work is cathartic and concrete, universal and specific, infinitely appealing and intimately personal. In 1968, Kusama amplified upon what is now her most iconic form, stating, “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos.”