2017-02-23 18:50:11
Art Review: Into the Land of Polka Dots and Mirrors, With Yayoi Kusama

WASHINGTON — The exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshhorn Museum is great fun if you like to be dazzled by rooms whose mirrored interiors create countless, ever-diminishing reflections of themselves and anything in them. And who doesn’t?

Ms. Kusama, who was born in Japan in 1929, made her first Infinity Mirror room, “Phalli’s Field,” in New York in 1965, filling the 15-square-foot floor of a mirrored space with hundreds of her signature stuffed phalli, or tubers, covered in red-on-white polka-dot fabric. The effect was glorious, beguiling. And still is: “Phalli’s Field” is the first mirrored environment in the Hirshhorn show. Step into it and you enter another world, an eye-popping garden of benign cactuses spreading out in all directions, or an underwater wonderland of coral or sea anemones.

Over the past several decades, “Phalli’s Field” and the 19 other mirrored rooms Ms. Kusama has made since have established her as a beloved figure. Crowds line up around the block to enter her rooms, one person at a time; absorb their illusionistic, sometimes meditative effects; and step out, usually after the requisite selfie. Some time ago, she transcended the art world to become a fixture of popular culture, in a league with Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Keith Haring, all of whom she preceded and probably influenced, not least in her grasp of publicity.

The Hirshhorn show is the first to focus so intently on her mirrored-room environments. Organized by Mika Yoshitake, the museum’s associate curator, it brings together six of them, more than in any previous show. Evenly spaced around one of the Hirshhorn’s rings, the rooms have their own waiting areas, where visitors will line up in manageable numbers, the museum says, because the show has timed tickets. Depending upon the length of the lines, each visitor may be permitted only 30 seconds in a room.

The wide fame of Ms. Kusama and artists like her is usually built on serious art-world street cred. By the time she made “Phalli’s Field,” Ms. Kusama was already a phenomenon. She had arrived in 1958 and, within two years, established herself as a major artist in a thoroughly male-dominated art world.

Ms. Kusama’s critical triumph was based on her abstract “Infinity Net” paintings, which she unveiled in her first gallery show, in 1960, along with the slightly later “Accumulations” sculptures. They first made manifest the willful intensity in nearly everything she does, as well as an almost compulsive use of repetition.

The “Net” paintings were among the first to completely absorb and transform Jackson Pollock’s radical drip paintings. They showed a way beyond Abstract Expressionism, which was by then dwindling to empty, overblown gestures. Ms. Kusama reduced them to miniature, possibly taunting, feminine gestures. She covered expanses of canvas painted a monochrome of red, green, white or goldenrod yellow with open patterns of tiny, comma-like strokes — a form of craft, almost, but a very expressive one — often in marathon work sessions. The background color peeks through, while the inevitable irregularities of the handmade curls create a hypnotic, energized field, arguably the best Op Art ever made.

There are four ’60s “Net” paintings at the Hirshhorn, but you can also see the motif germinating in a clutch of visionary works on paper that Ms. Kusama made while still in Japan. The “Net” motif was further spurred by the sight of the Pacific Ocean as she flew to America, and her impatience with Abstract Expressionism once she got here.

The “Accumulations” sculptures and installations are pieces of furniture bristling with the stuffed phalli, usually painted white. The results, as seen at the Hirshhorn in two armchairs from the early ’60s and a 1994 version of a rowboat piece redone in a sparkling violet synthetic fabric, create a sense of occupation or possession. These objects seem to have been overtaken by a horde of alien creatures. They announce their independence from human use while exuding a visual and tactile magnetism.

As early as 1962, Ms. Kusama was also staging solo performances in her mirrored studio and was soon organizing orgiastic Happenings that involved other people, usually naked and painted with polka dots. Some took place indoors; others erupted spontaneously in public — the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Square Park, Wall Street. For a period, she organized them weekly. As the ’60s progressed, these events became more clearly protests against not just the button-down, intolerant nature of society but also against the war in Vietnam. Sometimes they attracted the police; more often they drew journalists and made front-page news.

Cameras have been a constant in Ms. Kusama’s life, both as a means of getting attention and of asserting herself and her body. She had herself regularly photographed with, or in, her pieces, sometimes in polka-dot garments. Her performances and Happenings were often recorded, most notably in the variously tedious, psychedelic and erotic “Kusama’s Self Obliteration,” by the experimental filmmaker and installation artist Jud Yalkut.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Kusama’s nonstop, multifront productivity took its toll on her fragile psyche (as reflected by a dark 2014 painting titled “I Who Have Taken an Anti-Depressant”). In the early 1970s, she withdrew from the art world to write. In 1973, she returned to Japan with plans to become a private dealer in blue-chip art. In 1975, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. In 1977, another breakdown sent her back to the hospital for good. Since then she has lived and worked in the same institution or nearby, but has hardly been idle.

She has published at least two novels, including “Manhattan Suicide Addict,” about her experiences here, and has built a substantial reputation in Japan, which she represented in the 1993 Venice Biennale. Her art production may actually have increased. First, she made new versions of earlier work; then, in 2009, she turned to joyful paintings that connect to peasant and folk art. She intended this series, “My Eternal Soul,” to number 200 canvases but has so far produced 500. Fourteen are on display toward the end of the show. Some are wonderful, but in keeping with Ms. Kusama’s habit of accumulation, they are hung cheek by jowl and guarded by a line of infantile, toylike sculptures, which makes it hard to tell.

The mirrored rooms include “Love Forever,” from 1966, which presents a floor of tiny lights whose changing patterns and colors you view through a peephole. “Dots Obsession — Love Transformed Into Dots,” from 2007, both contains, and is surrounded by, black-dotted hot-pink beach-ball-like spheres of several sizes. The most affecting mirrored rooms are “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” (2009) and “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” (2013), in which tiny colored lights or ones in lantern shapes create the impression of overlooking a sprawling city or drifting in an immense galaxy. The most inventive piece may be a tiny peephole work whose interior is painted with black dots that are reflected on stainless-steel hanging spheres, turning each orb into an inside-out infinity room unto itself.

The light scattering of paintings, sculptures and works on paper placed in the gaps between the environments offer a tasting menu of Ms. Kusama’s greatness. They seem intended to make the mirrored rooms the ultimate expressions of her vision, her repetitive motifs and her obsession with infinity, which she also likens to obliteration, or a form of death. But this doesn’t quite work. This is partly because the show sanitizes Ms. Kusama; it gives very little sense of her psychological problems or of her genuine wildness, a glossing-over that may be necessary in the capital’s new climate. Mr. Yalkut’s film will be screened once during the entire show, in the museum’s theater, when it really should be on constant view in the galleries.

But the main problem is that the mirrored environments themselves wear thin, even when their effects are exploited as expertly as here. Their expansions of light and space can be magical, but they are also impersonal and inevitable. They have a modern-day Kunstkammer quality leaning more toward some fusion of science, technology and nature than toward art. They also seem too in step with our narcissistic times. Ultimately, they create a desire for Kusama works that are more subtly engulfing and immersive, like the paintings and sculptures of the ’50s and ’60s. These are her great achievement. The Infinity Mirror rooms are as dazzling as can be, but they are also Kusama Lite.