Yayoi Kusama: Pop Princess of the Polka Dot

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This past weekend I went to check out the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Kusama is a Japanese artist, born in 1929, who, for a time, found herself at the center of a mid-20th century New York art scene that included Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. She’s best known for painting polka dots on naked people, covering furniture in stuffed phalluses, and creating immersive, psychedelic installations, like the one currently on view -- a winking, magical room called “Fireflies on the Water.” She’s also known for her escape from New York in 1973 -- ­to a mental hospital in Tokyo, which is her home to this day…as well as for being quite the underground inspiration.

I first heard her name as a shout-out in a 1999 song from New York post riot-grrl band Le Tigre. “Hot Topic” paid tribute to female cultural trailblazers, including Yoko Ono, Angela Davis, Aretha Franklin, and Kusama herself:

Running through her body of work (all sixty years of it) is the idea of “self-obliteration”: to merge art and artist. She writes of this experience first as a childhood hallucination: ‘One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.” Maybe it’s a bit literal, but the North Carolina indie band Superchunk dove into the dots headfirst on the song “Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama)” from their 2001 album Here’s To Shutting Up. “When your life is the art that you make,” Mac McCaughan sings, “Life is the art that you make”:

For all of the love coming back to Kusama from the indie world, she’s not averse to the mainstream. Most recently, the 83 year old artist teamed up with Louis Vuitton for a line that includes shoes, handbags, shirts, skirts and sunglasses. And back in 1993, she collaborated with singer and songwriter Peter Gabriel to create the visuals for “Lovetown,” a song originally included in the soundtrack to the film Philadelphia. In her vision of Lovetown, polka dotted mushrooms grace the front lawn. Shimmering rainbows course through the sky. And soft undulating sculptures spread like weeds.

Between the artwork and the ephemera (love notes from Joseph Cornell, correspondence with Georgia O’Keefe) the current exhibit, like any good retrospective, attempts to connect the dots between the various decades of Kusama. I only wish I had worn my polka dot dress, in order that I could self-obliterate, like the artist so often does. The exhibit is on view through September 30.