You might want to go to the corner of Wilshire and Ogden before entering LACMA to see “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968,” a revisionism-at-its-best survey of one of the most important 20th-century artists, period. There, you'll come across the 1,500 or so mirrored “bubble” balls of Narcissus Garden, a re-creation of Kusama's uninvited contribution to the 1966 Venice Biennale. It's been given new life here as some sort of highly organized alien hail – post-El Nino, post-Tar Pits. Scandalous 30 years ago because Kusama had the nerve not only to do something without permission, but even more so because she was hawking her wares to curious passers-by for $2 each (that is, until officials forced her to stop), it's a vision worth burning into your brain before going inside. In the museum itself, all of the work is more than agile enough to overcome a sometimes awkward presentation (a sort of “plop-it-down-in-a-row” approach applied to too much of the sculpture); still, we find ourselves again and again on the verge of losing (all of) it: the work, the artist and ourselves. (Not to worry: No one will go mad – but many are sure to gain a personal level of focus – dare I say rapture? – rarely known today in art or anywhere else.) So, standing or crouching in the grass now, you may not be all that surprised to learn that, at that Biennale, Kusama's promotional sign actually read, “YOUR NARCISUM [sic] FOR SALE.” Her work is us – what we see with our eyes is the point.
Originally functioning as a stage for the “decorated” artist (either encased in a red leotard and lying in the balls' midst, or decked out in a gold kimono and throwing them in the air), Narcissus Garden ultimately gives even the uninitiated viewer valuable clues to the complexities of Kusama's entire enterprise: spectacle, accumulation, obsession and – the big one here – “self-obliteration.” (In the informative exhibition catalog, Alexandra Munroe's essay on the artist's later work in fiction writing relates “self-obliteration” – jiko shometsu – to the mental illness known as rijin-sho, or, literally, “separate-person symptom.”) Kusama's contradictory and consistent need to take herself out of the picture while always being present in it is in the heart of everything she does, its origins a fascinating personal history in which the trauma of oppression is transcended through a deliberate and ongoing refusal to submit. With this said, her (ongoing) self-institutionalization since returning to Japan in the mid-'70s has in my opinion been misleading, helping to create for some an exploitive, made-for-TV trope: the “crazy” (woman) artist. Fortunately, rather than perpetuate tired, stereotypical views of just how obsessive her work “must” be, this exhibition presents more than enough evidence of calm, self-control and self-determination – all of which reminds us that “insane” remains a suspect position as long as oppression exists.
Born near Nagano in 1929, Kusama survived a domineering mother and absent father; made massive amounts of work, which in the early 1950s drew the attention of some widely respected psychiatrists in Japan; and moved to New York in 1958 (after corresponding with Georgia O'Keeffe) with approximately 2,000 works on paper ready to sell for survival. Spending a decade or so in the center of the New York art world, Kusama quickly achieved success among the leading (male) artists of the time – not only the “new” ones, like Frank Stella and Donald Judd (who was functioning more as a critic at this time, becoming one of Kusama's most ardent supporters), but also the likes of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and, most poignantly, Joseph Cornell, with whom she had a nonsexual “romance” until his death in 1972. Finally, she was arguably more famous in the early '60s than even Andy Warhol, a status suggested in the show in essential photographs taken by the likes of Rudy Burkhardt.
It is also a fact that, like many women artists of the time, Kusama found it necessary to create a “working” relationship with male privilege – an arrangement best kept in mind while exploring, in particular, the middle part of this exhibition and its explosion of castrated, spray-painted phallic forms on domestic objects: for example, Ironing Board (1963), Baby Carriage (c. 1964-66), and the riotously symbolic Traveling Life (1964), a ladder made unscalable by sprouting women's shoes and phallic fabric forms all painted a “universalizing” white. Coming after a series of gorgeous, absorbing “Infinity Net” paintings (1958-61), which emerged out of the artist's childhood hallucinations and are beautifully installed in the first two rooms of the show (white ones in the first, monochromatic colored ones in the second), the sculpture in particular demonstrates that Kusama should be seen as an artist who, beginning in the late '50s, made work in a “pre-feminist” decade such that her “feminist position” was not readable in subject matter but in her use of materials. Like other women artists of the time – for example, Lee Bontecou, who made imposing abstract wall reliefs and posed with her welding torch in Life magazine; or Carolee Schneemann, who worked out of Abstract Expressionism and into performance (see “Out of Actions” at MOCA); or Kate Millett, a Fluxus sculptor as well as author of the well-known Sexual Politics (and, coincidentally, a chronicle of her own institutionalization, The Loony Bin Trip) – Kusama remained committed to “stuff as stuff” for good reason. The unwavering physical presence of her works remains the best in-your-face evidence of a sound and focused rejection of being told what to do. Judging from a 1993 statement, Kusama has known the fight for some time: “Except for childbearing, something men consider an act of nature, men monopolize all rights to a full life, granting women nothing but an unproductive place in society.” Witness the “Food Obsession” series, from 1963 to 1965, done with dried pasta applied to dresses, handbags, suitcases, etc. – Kusama's point proves so well-aimed that it still hits us hard.
It's no accident that the end of the exhibition tends to dribble off in terms of the amount of actual, material works: Like many other artists, by the end of the decade Kusama was moving fully into “de-materialized” performance. The last work in the show is the 1967 film Kusama's Self-Obliteration, which begins in Woodstock, New York, and consists of the artist applying dots, first in the form of stickers, paint and leaves to a cat, a horse and an orgy full of naked humans, followed by special-effects dots appearing on images of the Empire State Building (a passing nod to Warhol) and various other powerful-looking buildings in NYC. A couple of large black-and-white photographs nearby document more overtly politicized performances at the likes of the Museum of Modern Art, at the Board of Elections, and on Wall Street (“OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA*DOTS”).
Kusama was all but forgotten after she left New York, not so much due to her abandoning her “high-profile” presence in the city, but more because she refused to give up “stuff” completely after all. Hence her rediscovery in the late '80s, when materials re-emerged as meaningful to many young artists. This was also a time when Kusama happened to be fabricating some of her best work, fantastic examples of which were seen in L.A. last September at Margo Leavin in a rock-solid installation that served as an apt introduction to this must-see, historic exhibition.