What Becomes a Legend Most? Kusama grand in garden setting

Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature, at New York Botanical Garden (The Bronx), through October 31, 2022.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is arguably the most famous living artist globally, her art widely appreciated and sometimes disparaged by diverse constituencies among both cognoscenti and the general public.  As she claimed decades ago, even more true today, her only rival in postwar art renown and notoriety has been Andy Warhol.  Her backstory is so well known, expounded by herself in innumerable candid interviews, that it has become part of her art in a way that exceeds the obvious intrinsic connection between any artist and her work.  Kusama has created for herself fashions that match her installations and collages that feature photos of herself interacting closely with her art. She has described her art activity as a life-saving compulsion that fills an emotional lack—a kind of neurosis for which she has been treated by mental health professionals as well.  A long-term symptom has been hallucinations, which at times “obliterate” (in her terms) her being.  Most prevalent are blizzard-like masses of dots, represented throughout her oeuvre. However, among her earliest such episodes, according to her self-propelled legend, was a flower pattern that extended from a tablecloth throughout a room; related representations tied in with her close examination of nature early in her art training (in the nihonga school). And so, an apropos and grand return to a garden in NYC, where she pushed her way into the avant-garde scene in the mid-1960s but also succumbed to mounting mental stress that led her back to Japan permanently in about a decade. From there, she laid low, art-wise, although she continued to make art and exhibited sporadically. She turned to literature in an equally frenetic way (including stories, novels, and poems, several awarding-winning; and she has continued, with a recent autobiography). A gradual shift back to the center of the art world was spurred by her appearance at the Venice Biennale in 1993–officially representing Japan.  Not debatable: a committed, prolific trajectory, from small works on paper to expansive canvases to sculpture and gallery-scale installations to an army of production assistants, and manufacturing and commercial design partners.  So what is hype and what is boring (you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all?) and what is purposefully, consciously repetitious to hypnotic aesthetic effect? Well, a lot of postwar art that is very interesting — imo. In these (and other) aspects, there’s a strong connection between Kusama’s oeuvre and Minimalism; mainly, it’s about the space around and between, as much as or in some cases more than particular images and objects.  Whether or whatever influence or osmosis of work by predecessors and peers (she has always claimed not – or at least “not much”), it is clear that, as in the case of Van Gogh, it is hardly the result of “madness,” although conveying insight into extreme psychological disturbance.  Hers is a a practiced, knowledgeable, studied oeuvre, vis-a-vis techniques, materials, surface, color, line, mass, scale, et al.

For my money (more on that below), veritably any Kusama show is exhilarating in some way or many. Bold and riotous; idiosyncratic and bombastic; predictable and inventive; individualistic and universal in its limited elements – namely, dots, and, secondarily, a netting motif, each possibly borne of deconstructed, isolated flower parts.  Thirdly, phallic forms, increasingly plant-like, which she derived as an apotropaic strategy to address her decried fear of sex (along with intimacy overall). Intermittent additions include pumpkins and eyes. Despite the immense size of and “workshop” participation in realizing her grandiose sculptural projects in recent decades, an authenticity of artistic mien and mission comes through.  Along with a wild and wacky sensibility that is freeing from the very idea of art analysis, contemplation, and, to some degree feeling. It’s nearly pure optical phenomena with a few thorny, metastasizing, tromp l’oeil effects that can suggest diseased sight. 

The exhibit spans Kusama’s career, extrapolating from the nature theme that is foundational equally with her psychic motivations. Displayed in three main indoor spaces and outdoors on the grounds, it’s a good walk to see it all, although it’s not as big a spread as several international traveling solo shows for the artist over the past two decades. Of course, you get the great NYBG as well–indeed, you pay extra for Kusama. Access to it all is a steep $35 (adults).  The current entry system, with tiered fees for varied indoor permanent and special exhibit points is confusing and not conducive to efficient navigation of the campus. Perhaps it’s time for museums to scale back increasing extravaganzas in lieu of reasonable visitor costs, or to otherwise limit according to specialized fundraising. Not to mention, it’s “rain or shine” ticketing and the stormy day of my reservation really put a damper on things — though still well worth it imo if you can swing the full fare.

I started in the lower library building, not far past NYBG’s main Moshulu Parkway entrance.  In the foyer area, a glass vitrines foyer hold strange sculptural “growths” that suggest alien, perhaps poisonous specimens; while a floor piece of glittering serpentine “phalli” rises in a cluster like luminescent tentacles.

From the exhibition, “Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library building (4/12/21)

Further inside are a few exquisite, very early works on paper that reveal a formative blending of botanical and cosmic with Surrealist inflection. Also introduced here are her complete repertoire of media and forms, including a relatively recent wall-sized, segmented painting with graffiti-like, all-over short-hand symbols, and an array of sculptures embellished—or blighted—with spots and sparkles. Pumpkins (as mentioned) are another staple–as they were in the war-time Japan of Kusama’s youth (as she has recalled).  They also evoke fairy tale play and Halloween-ish magic—the latter especially in a small, dark gallery found near the main visitor center/gift shop that you’ll come to later.  It features dotted pumpkin-shaped lanterns in a box of mirrors—not as fantastical as some of her past “mirror room” installations, but still engaging for its illusionistic infinity via simple concept and contraption, mashing up nothingness with stream-of-consciousness associations.    

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

In another part of the library building (one must go out and enter through another door) is a small “info” gallery with a mundanely presented timeline and small slide show of an early Kusama performance piece. You could skip that and just google later (if you didn’t already).  

Approaching the gorgeous conservatory building is a huge, hollow painted steel pumpkin sprouting “legs.” Inside, Kusama’s wide-eyed, over-blown Pop art flowers, along with a shining, half-hidden pumpkin piece, are inserted into bright floral displays—perfect.  A bit Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, Kusama loved the bronze of Alice and cohorts at the giant mushroom tea table by Jose de Creeft in Central Park, which she incorporated into staged “happenings” in the 1960s.

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; inside the Enid Haupt Conservatory (4/12/21)

Along a main thoroughfare, selected towering trees are animated with with red-and-white polka dot fabric wraps. From a distance, the brightly bandaged branches may signal Anthropocene distress, but also facilitate an impression of a costumed tree ballet. 

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Elsewhere, depicted cheery hybrid “organisms” can evoke the more forthright feminist biomorphism of Nikki de Saint-Phalle (playing over at PS 1 at the moment).   

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

A tour de force is the siting of a 1966-conceived installation, Narcissus Garden, in a pooling section of a stream (as in the header photo above).  Comprised of bowling-ball-sized silver spheres, it was first exhibited, unofficially, on a lawn at the 1966 Venice Biennial, where it caused a success de scandal, especially as Kusama tried selling off the orbs for a few dollars each.  Here, the myth of Narcissus—i.e., the death-drive inhered in his magnetic attraction to his own image, is brilliantly conjured up in the fractured pull of bouncing reflections into the dark water.   Jarring in its juxtaposition of nature and artifice from close up, as one approaches and recedes, the flickery elements blend, like Seurat’s pointillism, into a buzzy and beatific environmental scrim.      

A stand-alone “cottage” installation returns to the early flower hallucination described above (and other of her work through the decades), with visitors handed plastic flower tokens to participate. As you go through the motions, you may find yourself musing once again on the timeless metaphorical trickery of Lewis Carroll’s fun and frightening fantasy. A shrine to and sharing of potent poetic vision.

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“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Garden” at NYBG (4/12/21)

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