Spotting Yayoi Kusama At Tate Modern Retrospective

Yayoi Kusama

Major retrospective for Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern reveals fundamental continuity behind the dazzling diversity of a six decade career

‘This is the press of London’, curator Frances Morris explained to an overwhelmed Yayoi Kusama upon the artist’s unexpected arrival midway through Tate Director Chris Dercon’s verbal introduction to her major retrospective; ‘they have all come to see your exhibition, and they’re all going to write nice things about it – aren’t you!’ But, as it turns out, such social blackmail (invoking that ancient law; thou shall not slag-off the elderly (Kusama was born in 1929!)) was hardly necessary, thanks to the sheer magnitude and dizzying diversity of this exhibition, spanning six decades, and charting the artist’s radical and restless transformation from traditional Japanese painter to pioneering figure of contemporary art.

Arriving in New York from provincial Japan in the late 1950s, Kusama had almost instantly found herself at the epicentre of the city’s avant-garde, setting herself up as an abstract painter in the context of Abstract Expressionism, and creating works now known as her ‘Infinity net paintings’ – huge immersive canvasses covered in, and swimming with, tight swirls of white paint. This development represented a major departure from the art that she had created while still in Japan; from detailed, observational figuration in the traditional Japanese style with incorporated surrealist elements, to full-blown minimalist abstraction. This transformation, as the curator notes, would, for many artists, have been enough to constitute the arc of an entire career; but, for Kusama, it was achieved almost overnight, and was only the beginning.

Dealing with a remarkably long, intensely productive, and mind-bogglingly varied career, the curators have undertaken this retrospective through ‘a series of chapters’, creating fourteen self-contained and coherent units that each present us with a distinct creative moment or artistic standpoint. And so we are carried swiftly and bumpily onwards through what feels like fourteen shows; from Kusama’s foray into Pop Art, covering canvases with air mail stamps, paper money and sticky labels; her movement into sculpture, covering everyday items with proliferating phallic growths; her embrace of all things psychedelic, far-out, free-lovin’ etc, starting the ‘Kusama Orgy’ magazine for ‘nudity, love, sex, & beauty’, and staging ‘body festivals, in which naked ‘happy people’ covered each other in polka dots; to her final arrival at the large-scale and immersive installations for which is she best known in the West.

But bizarrely, the only thing more remarkable than Kusama’s incredible diversity, is her incredible consistency, with the artist surfing the wave of artworld trends but ever-retaining her voice. Walking through this exhibition, you get an potent sense of Kusama’s impulsiveness, of her near-fetishistic fixation with repetitious processes, of her obsessive sensuousness. And it is only through the sharp juxtaposition of her ostensibly divergent works created by this exhibition that such underlying continuity becomes absolutely clear – as manifestations of one strange and extraordinary mind. Words: Thomas Keane / Photo: Paul Carter Robinson © 2011 ArtLyst

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