For a career retrospective, there’s not a lot of Yayoi Kusama’s work on display at The Whitney. Her exhibition (through September 30) spans only the fourth floor of the museum, a small amount of space when you consider that her work has filled Gagosian’s monster-sized exhibition spaces nine times since 2007. She’s been making work since 1949.
I mention this for context, not criticism. A lot of the Gagosian-friendly work Kusama has produced over the last few years has a tasteful, fun quality to it, characteristics that are harder to locate in this show. Curators Frances Morris and Rachel Taylor have instead opted to focus on work that looks more diseased than playful.
This is a good thing, and I’m not saying that because I have a secret desire for cancer. It tells viewers that Kusama’s work doesn’t stem from polite visions of cupcakes and roses but rather a near-compulsive vision that imposes itself on virtually anything she touches.
Kusama sometimes refers to this as self-obliteration, and a number of black and white posters from her 60s performances, on view in a back room, literally spell this out in the header text. There are dots all over a lot of these collages, a patterning inspired by the hallucinatory spots she’s been seeing since about age 10. Covering things with dots is by now a hallmark of Kusama’s work, but she doesn’t limit herself to the shape. In a scene in nearby video from 1968, Kusama covers a naked friend in leaves. It is set to psychedelic tunes.
This kind of physicality gets to the heart of Kusama’s work, which is about producing representations of a disintegrating body. The most disconcerting results of this process are showcased in the Accumulation Sculpture room, which is filled with cream-painted furniture covered in potato-like outgrowths. Scattered in front of a couch and a nightstand, a smattering of women’s shoes look particularly grotesque, each unwearable thanks to the fungus growing out of them. Unlike with her later work, there’s nothing fun about these objects; they simply look infected.
That kind of power is moving, and once you experience it, the show is transformed. The early paintings without this touch seem empty—in particular, I’m thinking of “On The Table” (1950), an aggressively painted abstraction that relies heavily on black line and evokes the early work of Lee Krasner—while the newer work resembles a sickness in its late stages. “Revived Soul” (1995) is an enormous black and white acrylic painting filled with white dots. The dots flow together to form undulating log-like patterns that feel awkward and ugly, but close up the black has a luscious velour texture. The piece is at once repulsive and seductive.
In the last gallery, the salon-hung walls are filled with the brightly colored paintings Kusama’s completed over the last four years. I would have thought they’d look really garish, but they don’t look so bad if you read the work as being forced into being. That interpretation feels slightly forced—they are probably just bad—but it means something that the works in the other rooms leave such an impression. It’s Kusama imposing her vision on your own, and that’s a force to be reckoned with.