Follow the Dots to Yayoi Kusama, at the Whitney
The show that was already at the Tate Modern is now in the city where Kusama, now 83, let her hair down. She fell in with hippies in the late 1960’s – and she never got the psychedelia out of her system – or the Op Art. The polka dots are everywhere, from the street style around town to the accessories that cost in the high four figures.
And Kusama outlasted a lot of her peers who were taking dots and biomorphs and throbbing lights from medium to medium. (She committed herself to a mental institution in the early 1970’s, which may have something to do with it.) She’s also done the Louis Vuitton store in New York – which just happens to be supporting the exhibition. You’ll see her evolution in the Whitney Show – bear in mind that initiating anything rebellious was rare for a Japanese woman in those days – and you’ll see lots of parallels with her contemporary Yoko Ono, plus shapes and satirical directions that prefigure those taken by Andy Warhol. In the first room, a painting of a landscape that looks as if it could have been made by Max Ernst shows her roots in surrealism’s message of sexual suggestion. She then moves to monochromatic abstraction, where broad minimalist canvases are thick with paint and light with dots, in a palette of gray-white stucco. Then she steps into what’s now a trademark – her constructions that are accretions of pods that look like potatoes or bananas or little phalluses. Bear in mind that she agreed to have sex with US President Richard Milhouse Nixon if he would stop the Vietnam War. It didn’t work.
Think of another surrealist, Meret Oppenheim, also a woman in a world of men, who made all sorts of objects out of fur. The key for Oppenheim was their improbability. For Kusama, these crude building blocks were modular – Arte Povera bricks that suggest that everything’s all made of the same base material, perfect for the Woodstock Generation. She makes chairs of these pods that she dares you to sit on, maybe in the hope that some of the life force will rub off, and there’s a boat that looks like an homage to Joseph Beuys that has the pallor of the River Styx from Greek mythology. People called them hallucinations then – a perfect word for an era when artists were swallowing hallucinogens to promote creativity, or just for fun.
Kusama’s later paintings borrow from the black-light poster aesthetic. If the line at the Whitney is too long, head down to St. Mark’s Place for a free sample of psychedelia.
Even back then in the late 1960’s, the marketers were out to connect with a young audience that loved weird bright colors and dressed in polka dots. Look back at the retailers of those days, and you’ll see much of Kusama’s palette already there. The opportunity for purveyors of fashion is that you can bring these styles back again, and you get a new generation of consumers, plus the nostalgia. Perfect for cross-over marketing. Hippie style is now yoked to the job of selling luxury goods at Louis Vuitton, where no photographs are allowed.
Depending on your perspective, Kusama has either taken over the 5th Avenue flagship store, or has been taken over by it. We’ve seen Occupy Wall Street, which is now back in Zucotti Park downtown. Louis Vuitton is Mondo Kusama, and you can take away a little bit of it for a lot of money.
Kusama, now in her 80’s, with red hair that extends her psychedelic palette, brings you a taste of the happenings where people dressed like children, and crowds chanted to make the Pentagon levitate. It was a way to make you forget a war that was tearing Southeast Asia apart. The Kusama time capsule at the Whitney is an afternoon’s whimsy that takes you back to those days. Two afternoons, if you visit the galleries of Louis Vuitton. A lot longer, if you buy anything.