Monday, July 16, 2012

Jill Krementz covers Yayoi Kusama, Part I

Poster for the exhibition.
Career Retrospective of Yayoi Kusama
The Whitney
July 12 - September 30, 2012

Yayoi Kusama is one of Japan's most prominent living artists. Born in Matsumoto in 1929, Kusama obsessively developed an extensive body of work that encompasses painting, sculpture, drawing, and collage as well as the immersive large-scale
installations for which she is best known.

Yayoi Kusama. Photographed by Jill Krementz on July 10, 2012 in New York City.
Much of Kusama's art has an almost hallucinatory intensity that reflects her unique vision of the world, whether through a teeming accumulation of detail or dense patterns of polka dots. In the 1960s and 1970s she became a major figure in the New York avant-garde, associated with key developments in Pop, Minimal, and performance art. Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Joseph Cornell were among here friends. Since going back to Japan in 1973, Kusama has continued to reinvent herself as a novelist and poet, and also returned to sculpture, painting, and installation art.

On view at the Whitney's fourth floor is a representative selection of work from a career that has lasted more than 60 years. Also featured is an extensive selection of archival material, including flyers, press clippings, photographs, letters, and publications that show how Kusama's artistic activity has extended beyond the traditional bounds of the art gallery. You must not miss Fireflies on the Water, the Whitney-owned installation in the museum's lobby.

This traveling exhibition originated at the Tate Modern in collaboration with the Museo Nacional Central de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid and Centre Pompidou in Paris. The Whitney installation has been overseen by David Kiehl, with the assistance of senior curatorial assistant Carrie Springer. Both the Tate and Whitney presentations are supported by Louis Vuitton. The French leather goods company has basically transformed its flagship store on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street into a pop-up shop promoting Kusama-related merchandise.
Dot-less Kusama.
Madison Avenue sidewalk between 75th and 74th.
Outside the Whitney on Madison Avenue, a decorative fortress, which was described as a "Balloon Wall." Installed only for the gala festivities, it is already gone.
Check-in desk.
Refreshments, largesse of Louis Vuitton, included smoked salmon, bagels, fruit, quiche lorraine, coffee, and champagne. One reporter said he had never gone to a more lavish press preview in his 50 years of covering museum events.
Flutes of champagne at 10 AM. Linda Guibert Ferrara (New York Correspondent for Verve Magazine, an Italian monthly) and Jan Aaron (freelance critic and reviewer for Education Update) toasting LVMH.
Dots Obsession, 2009/2012
Vinyl, dimensions variable

The first Kusama installation on view is in the lobby.
Hottie wait staff.
New York Post's Barbara Hoffman and Linda Guibert Ferrara.

Hoffman would later publish this insightful and alliterative take in the Post's Weekend Pulse section:

"Yayoi Kusama is an artist obsessed --with flowers and fireflies, feminism and freedom, food and phalluses. Bouncing from pop to minimalism to performance art, she's reinvented herself more times than Madonna; at 83, she flouts an orange pageboy."
Steve Soba, Whitney's Communications Officer. Mr. Soba has been at the museum for almost 13 years. Gretchen Scott, Marketing Manager at the Whitney.
Reflections everywhere.
Waiting to get into Fireflies on the Water. Only one person at a time can enter the small chamber so you should start here. You will be too tired after going through the exhibition on the fourth floor and the waiting time will be even longer. Visitors are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Now it's time to get into the elevator and head to the fourth floor.

Elizabeth Estabrook is a conservator; Louise Neri, a Director at Gagosian.

Larry Gagosian hosted a cocktail party on the balcony at 980 for Kusama following the opening at the Whitney.
Virginia Coleman, Director of Communications for Gagosian Gallery, Kusama's US dealer.

"We have an exhibition of Kusama's work at 980 Madison; 7 paintings and 1 sculpture-
just until next Thursday July 19."

Lingering Dream, 1949
Pigment on paper
Flower Bud No.6, 1952
Ink and pastel on paper
On the Table, 1950
Oil and mixed media on canvas
Corpses, 1950
Oil on canvas
Left: Island No. 7, 1953
Watercolor and pastel on paper

Right: Dots on the Sun, 1953
Watercolor and pastel on paper
Cultural journalist Lee Rosenbaum blogs about museums, auctions, and art news for
In the mid-1950s, Kusama established her first links with the United States. She wrote to Georgia O'Keeffe, asking for advice on developing her career in America.

Around the same time, some of her paintings appeared in the International Watercolor Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

She also made contact with the painter Kenneth Callahan, who introduced Kusama's work to the Seattle gallerist Zoë Dusanne, leading to the offer of an exhibition.

Kusama arrived on the West Coast in November 1957, and moved to New York six months later. Like thousands of other struggling artists she was forced to survive on limited funds, even scavenging food, as she gradually began to exhibit her work.

Possibly responding to Abstract Expressionism, she radically transformed her painting: the large-scale canvases that became known as the INFINITY NET paintings are covered in seemingly endlessly repeating scalloped brushstrokes of a single color on a contrasting background.
Pacific Ocean, 1960
Oil on canvas
Detail of Pacific Ocean

The incessant quality of this gesture is both obsessive and meditative. Kusama's repetitions anticipate the serial techniques employed by Minimalist and Conceptual artists, although the insistent handmade quality of these paintings demonstrates Kusama's technical facility and stamina.
Art Critic Larry Qualls.

"If there is a case to be made for Kusama, it has to be for the "infinity" paintings, like this one and for her performance work in New York; it is only in those efforts--the first a feminist reaction, the second a feminist action--that she showed more than just a savvy commercial instinct.

This whole question of the Whitney going beyond its charter as a museum specifically devoted to all aspects of American Art has been one that aroused much discussion a few years back, but no ones seems to care now.

Just as there has been no commentary that I can find about the total sell-out by the Tate and the Whitney to commercial interests. Whatever the merits of the show--and there are some--this is just as bad as the Armani or the motorcycle show at the Guggenheim in terms of its function as one big advertisement for Louis Vuitton's newest product. But all those who attacked the Brooklyn for the Murakami seem to have lost their voices. Shameful."
Olivia del Balzo, 20, writes for London's Out of Order Magazine. She is is looking at one of several vitrines in Gallery 2 dedicated to Kusama ephemera.
Kusama's open letter to Richard Nixon.
Kusama's notion of self extends to her personal archives and history. She has carefully maintained an extensive archive about her early years in Japan, her move to New York, and her vibrant involvement with the art world of the 1960s.
Kusama carefully managed her own image by regularly arranging for professional photographs to be taken of her with her work. She posed in her exhibition wearing outfits that matched or complemented her painting and sculpture.
It's great to be able to see her process.
Pages from Kusama's notebooks.
The personal archives fill a critical need to assure her personal "self" even amid a concurrent desire of "self-obliteration."
Tokyo Leee, scenario, 1972
Priscilla Frank, who writes for Huffington Post, stands in front of Heaven and Earth, 1991; forty muslin-covered boxes and 285 stuffed muslin forms.
The accumulation sculptures were first exhibited in a group show alongside work by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, and James Rosenquist at the Green Gallery in New York in 1962.

This was one of the first exhibitions of the burgeoning American Pop art movement. Kusama was now deeply embedded in the heart of the avant-garde, and Donald Judd became an important supporter of her work.
Closeups of objects on display in alcove. Here we see a spatula.
Phallic Shoes, 1968
Untitled Accumulation, 1963, but obviously a small suitcase with phalluses.
Macaroni Suitcase, 1965, in front of Accumulation, No. 2, 1962

Kusama refers to her phallus-covered works as the SEX OBSESSION series. A parallel sculptural project is her FOOD OBSESSION series, consisting of objects covered with dry macaroni.

Just as the phalluses suggest anxieties around sex, the macaroni can be seen as embodying a disgust at the overabundance of food during the post-war boom in the United States.
Closer look at Macaroni Suitcase.
Macaroni Pants, 1968 Bronze Coat, 1962
Sewn and stuffed fabric, raincoat, clothes hangar, and paint
Phallic Dress, 1968
Dress, sewn and stuffed fabric, and paint
Early photograph of Kusama with Accumulations.
David D'Arcy (The Art Newspaper) and Wendy Moonan (1stdibs).
Art critic Jason Kaufman

"Kusama's work, like the art world in which she struggled for recognition, bristles with male members. She and other women, like Louis Bourgeois, had to wait for acclaim. But is the current city-wide Kusama-rama the result of changed cultural attitudes post feminism, or the market's endless need for more product? Judging from the LVMH extravaganzas, it must be a little of both."
In December 1963, Kusama exhibited Aggregation: One Thousand Boat Show for the first time at the Gertrude Stein gallery in New York. This work featured a white-painted, fabric phallus–encrusted rowboat complete with oars.

The boat that formed the support for this sculpture was scavenged by Kusama and Donald Judd from the street. The completed work was installed in a room whose walls, floor, and ceiling were covered with black-and-white posters depicting the same boat seen from above.
Now in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Aggregation: One Thousand Boat Show was Kusama's first complete room installation.
Air Mail Stickers 17A, 1962
Collage on Canvas
This piece is in the Whitney's collection
Walking Piece, 1966

Four frames from video installation.

Kusama was acutely aware of her position as a female Asian artist in the predominantly white, male New York art world.

Walking Piece is a performance documented in a series of color slides photographed by Eikoh Hosoe.
Wearing a bright pink floral-patterened kimono and with her long hair in braids affixed with pink flowers, Kusama walks through the streets of New York.
She carries a large umbrella, which is also bedecked with colorful flowers.
Yet while her dress and parasol suggest festivity and deliberate exoticism, her path through the city takes in empty and industrial streets and a homeless man sleeping under a tree along the FDR drive.
1980s AND 1990s
Leftover Snow in a Dream (1982)

Kusama's transition to life back in Japan was difficult. Her art-dealing business folded after a few years. As Kusama adjusted to more confined living arrangements as a voluntary in-patient, her approach to art-making changed. She used the hospital as a base, initially setting up a studio within the facility. There she returned to sculpture, making objects by hand. The scale of the individual objects she created was small, but she combined these to create large multipart installations. The Clouds (1984) consists of one hundred unique black-and-white-painted, sewn stuffed cushions arranged on the floor, creating a constellation of singular yet interrelated forms.
Yellow Trees, 1994
Acrylic on canvas in three parts
Lilly Wei writes for Art in America. What did she think of the show? "Wow!" she responded. "I especially love the Infinity Nets."
Love Forever Collage, 1966
Photocollage on paper
Man Catching the Insect, 1972
Collage with oil on paper
Flowers and Self-Portrait, 1973
Collage with watercolor and ink on paper

In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan. Following an unsuccessful attempt to introduce her naked happenings to a conservative Tokyo audience earlier in the decade, she set herself up in an apartment in Shinjuku. She returned to object-making and began making a series of mixed media works on paper.

Here, collages from this period speak of her close association with Joseph Cornell, whom she had met in the early 1960s and with whom she had a relationship that she describes as romantic and passionate, but platonic.
Detail of Flowers and Self-Portrait

Her intricate tableaux contain cut-outs from magazines and found materials given to Kusama by Cornell prior to her departure from America.

The collage elements are arranged and over-painted to produce surreal visions of plants, birds, and insects emerging jewel-like from a dark background. Kusama intended these works in part as an elegy to Cornell, whose death in 1972 deeply affected her.

Her collages are my favorite pieces in the show.
These are Joseph Cornell frames in the artist's collection. Kusama has "collaborated" with her friend to produce these finished works.
On far left you can see a photograph of Kusama with Joseph Cornell.
Recent works, 31 of them painted by Kusama through 2009 and 2010, fill an entire gallery.

In recent years Kusama has returned with fresh enthusiasm to drawing and painting, now working from a large studio across the road from her hospital home. This is the first museum exhibition of this body of work.

These works, which Kusama has been making since 2009, feature a visual language that recalls elements from her earlier years: flowers, eyes, the artist's hieroglyphic self-portrait in profile, and, as ever, dots and nets.
Each painting begins with an even, monochrome ground, frequently in an intense bright color.

Kusama applies patterns to the surface of the canvases, often using strong linear gestures to give a sense of space. These new paintings tend to rely on a limited palette of strong colors, often resulting in jarring visual contrasts. like the larger paintings of the 1990s, these new canvases have a shallow picture surface, but rather than repeating the same motif Kusama now boldly combines different imagery. More complex paintings contain numerous small figures including doll-like little girls, smiling dogs, pumpkins, sprouting flowers, and multicolored net patterns.
Yves Carcelle (the CEO of Vuitton), David Kiehl (Whitney curator who organized the exhibit), Valerie Chapoulaud-Floquet (President and CEO of Louis Vuitton North America), and Adam Weinberg (Whitney Director).

Monsieur Carcelle: "This is the happiest moment of my life--to view Kusama's work in totality. This show indicates where she has come from and where she is going. Nothing is more rewarding than when we invite artists to collaborate with our products. It started with Stephen Sprouse and now, thanks to Marc Jacobs, continues with Yayoi Kusama."
11 AM: Time for the press conference.

Whitney director Adam Weinberg welcomes invited guests.
Lee Rosenbaum and Jan Aaron.
Donna De Salvo, the Whitney' Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs. David Kiehl organized the Kusama exhibition in New York. He only had nine months to put it all together.

"I have nicknames for every piece in this show. Welcome to my rooms."
Sai Morikawa blogs for Makoto Kido is a correspondent for Tokyo Broadcasting System Television. Stephanie Fontenoy and Donna De Salvo. Ms. Fontenoy writes for the Belgium Express Magazine, a weekly.

There are Dots on Fontenoy's bag and on De Salvo's scarf.
Security guards Ramon Cintron, who has worked at the Whitney for 25 years, and John Williams – "Only 19 on the job."
Trio from Beijing, China. From left to right,
Hugu Yu, Executive Fashion Editor of Harper's Bazaar, Johnny Tan with Louis Vuitton (China), and Neil Xu, Editor-in-Chief, Harper's Bazaar China.
Adam Weinberg, Chrissie Iles, and Louise Neri. Ms. Iles is the Whitney curator of both the Sharon Hayes and Oskar Fischinger exhibits on view at the museum.

Ms. Meri's silver sandals match the rowboat behind her (in case you didn't notice).
Katya Kazakina writes for Bloomberg. My assistant Maria Escalante.
Small brochures for visitors--available near the elevator bank on the sixth floor. One of the best "freebie" brochures I've seen. Get one.

Cover image: Self-Obliteration ©1966
Exhibition Catalogue: The soft cover is $38, the hard cover is $49.95. The contributors are Frances Morris, Jo Applin, Juliet Mitchell, Mignon Nixon, Rachel Taylor, and Midori Yamamura. Published by Tate.

An exceptional publication, I think, and well worth buying.
1 PM: On to the flagship store of Louis Vuitton on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street where the windows will be "unveiled by the artist herself." It is a madhouse. The sidewalk is packed.
The front facade of Louis Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.
Monique Lodi, the manager of Louis Vuitton's flagship store on Fifth Avenue.
Controlled chaos outside the store was supervised by these two LVMH managers. Outside the barricades, but confidently heading for their VIP access.
Alexander Cheney and Ray Smith. Ms. Cheney is a lead writer and reporter for "Speakeasy", the Wall Street Journal's blog about media, entertainment, celebrity and the arts. Her column also runs in the print editions of the Journal. Mr. Smith is the paper's fashion reporter.

We stood side by side, sweltering in the heat, packed like sardines in the crowd, as we waited for Kusama to emerge from the store onto the sidewalk. I now regard them as my fox-hole friends.
Finally! Yayoi Kusama makes her grand entrance, a vision in yellow with her trademark orange wig. Polka dots everywhere.
Even her wheel chair is covered with polka dots.
The Polka-Dot Princess waves to the fans who are broiling in the sun.
There are orange-wigged women everywhere--on the sidewalks and in the the windows behind her. The older woman at far left of this photo (wearing sunglasses with dots on the frames) looks like a doppelgänger of Kusama. At this point I am so hot I feel I am having a Kusama hallucinatory experience.
Orange-wigged models were standing like statues in each of the Vuitton windows.
Window displays.
Photo op with CEO's of LVMH. That's Donna De Salvo standing behind Kusama.
Sidewalk displays.
The artist says a few words, but I was too busy trying not to be trampled to pay much attention to what she was saying.
A wave goodbye. I guess you could say it's a sayonara moment.
OMG! Look at the white sneakers behind Kusama. Now we are ALL hallucinating.
Finally--Inside the air-conditioned Louis Vuitton store. Even the stairway is filled with models in orange wigs.
Polka dots on everything: scarves, bags, books, shoes, luggage and even sunglasses.
A bemused-looking David Kiehl stands inside the Fifth Avenue entrance. Mr. Kiehl, as I mentioned earlier, organized the Whitney exhibition.
A few pieces of traditional LV luggage, and on top of it, another reminder of New York's newest rock star. A Louis Vuitton employee with scarf combining traditional LVs bordered with Kusama dots.
Air conditioning not withstanding, I am feeling faint. Goodbye LVMH. Goodbye Dots.
Click here for Part 2 of Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney.

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.