There are three places to see Yayoi Kusama in New York City right now, which is three more than usual. The Whitney Museum is hosting a long-overdue retrospective of her artwork on its fourth floor, while Manhattan’s two Louis Vuitton stores, one in SoHo and the other Fifth Ave, are featuring a capsule collection of clothing collaborations with the artist, with luxury goods covered in her signature spots. In the front window of the Fifth Avenue location sits a wax figure of Kusama, eerily realistic down to the glinting eyes behind her Louis Vuitton sunglasses. It seems only appropriate, given that the Pop art and Happening pioneer embraced the concept of artist-as-brand early on when she moved to the United States and began to make her name in the late 1950s.

 After gaining notoriety for her ephemeral performances, intricate paintings, and surreal collages alongside a cohort of artists like Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol (who “appropriated” her ideas when he lived below her, she claims), Kusama retreated to Japan in 1973 under intense psychological pressure, grief from the death of longtime friend and companion Joseph Cornell, and the return of overwhelming hallucinations that have plagued her since childhood.

“No. B White,” 1959

“The Clouds,” 1984 (foreground)
“Revived Soul,” 1995 (background)

“The Clouds,” 1984 (foreground)
“Leftover Snow in the Dream,” 1982 (background)

 “Heaven and Earth,” 1991

Another gallery is set with a long plinth holding Kusama’s “Accumulation” sculptures, everyday objects like couches, chairs, and suitcases covered in monochromatic phallic fabric protrusions.

  Yayoi Kusama’s “Accumulation Sculptures”


The exhibition includes a gallery with a glass-covered running cabinet showcasing press clippings, exhibition posters, photographs, and odds and ends from the artist’s life. These include breathless descriptions in the Village Voice of her naked performances at the Museum of Modern Art and other public venues, a newsprint publication emblazoned “Kusama Presents an Orgy of Love, Sex & Beauty” in psychedelic script, and photographs of the artist posing dramatically in front of New York City landmarks.

 A flyer for Kusama’s “Body Festival” (1967)

  A photograph of Yayoi Kusama

 “Lingering Dream,” 1949

A photocollage by Yayoi Kusama

 The Spirit is about to Part,” 1975

“The Woman,” 1953 (left)
“No. 19 H.S.W.,” 1956 (right)

 “Sprouting (The Transmigration of the Soul),” 1987

 “Yellow Trees,” 1994

 Recent works by Yayoi Kusama

“Fireflies on the Water,” 2002 (installation view)

The installation entitled “Fireflies In The Water,” it’s one of Kusama’s later works. From a mirrored ceiling hang hundreds of LED lights, reflected endlessly by the mirrored walls. Visitors stand on a gangplank extending over a shallow wall-to-wall pool of water. The experience is, to say the least, absolutely mindblowing.

There is Kusama the myth, the legendary Japanese woman who invaded the New York City art scene at its height, decamped, and has now returned to be trumpeted by major international museums and the world’s biggest fashion label. Then there’s Kusama the artist, who should be evaluated solely on the strength of her work. The Whitney exhibition, and its surrounding marketing blitz, bears the sheen of its Louis Vuitton sponsorship a little too strongly, as if the show were advertorial for the new clothing and proof-in-point that the brand-name artist is the new creative patron saint of luxury consumption. The art on display, while powerful, subtle, and protean on its own, has a difficult time overcoming that pervasive context.

Yayoi Kusama” at the Whitney Museum runs through September 30, 2012. 

ARTINFO  Photo by Kyle Chayka