Pox Populi

Yayoi Kusama
David Zwirner Gallery, NYC
Thru December 16th, 2017

Spots are a disease -- a "Pop Art" pox; a sign of madness, an hallucination. As Tony Hancock says in his brilliant comic movie The Rebel (1961) where he plays a modern artist: "I get the spots before my eyes, the red mist, and I'm off."

Yayoi Kusama is off again at David Zwirner Gallery on 533 West 19th Street in Chelsea. You will have to queue around the block to see her new installations. But you can just walk into a room on 19th street and see 66 of her new paintings. This is a review of the work in that room.

Paranoia is lonely, ironically the sense you have of being watched belies the fact that no one's taking any notice at all. The putting on of spots was an act, for Kusama, of "field" being used to cover neurosis. Kusama's paintings of the '60s jumped forward, out of "art for art's sake" formalism into using narrative to give context to Abstraction. For her, an allegory on anxiety. She was raised in Nagano to a wealthy merchant family. Her life, famously, enshrouding her art, As a child her mother had her spy on her cheating father. Endangering her daughter's sense of self-worth and creating both a fear of and an obsession with sex.

Yayoi Kusama came to New York in '58, alone, at the age of 27. She made paintings, installations and performances that Up-ended Western expectations of Japanese women

She returned home in 1968 to field her dotty orgies in Tokyo, traveling fully clothed in the paddy wagon afterward, with her daubed performers. Her trust fund was cut off by her horrified family and she was left to make a career of it on her own.

Now at the age of 88 she makes another elaborately radical move -- she revolts against the spot and fills the Gallery with dozens of new approaches to painting, anything but Kusama-style.

It's a painted polity. 'Eyes without a face' Like a Gary Panter crowd scene. An organic host seen in a Petri dish. A comic book colored bacteria pullulating on the painting's surface. The Pox Populi

Her palette is not a usual oil painters palette but closer to fabric colors like the groovy polyester kimonos and happis of the Japanese '60s. All chimney reds and deep aqua. Perhaps some are meant to be tweaky versions of the ancient "forbidden" colors relegated to the robes of high ranking priests and noblemen. A glimmer purple, a hot burnt orange and the full sun yellow that in the Confucian system represents '"deep sincerity."

And they noodle in all directions, unmoored at times. Filling up the space and emptying out the middle, crosses, vortices the knotty understructures of abstraction that she's not previously explored. Some in hypnotized geographies connoting Aboriginal dreamtime. Others like ever-changing new thoughts but with no rubbing out. I wonder if the canvases are on some fabulous rig, allowing her to run the line across the surface with this agility. Not with Joan Mitchell-ish elegance but more like a finger of frosting moving in a constant squish across an epic "birthday cake."

Some of the paintings seem to represent a limerence of sexual desire itself. Like the enlarged yoni and the flowing waters of yin in erotic shunga But here free of the body. Become the material of ecstasy itself. About sex, but not sexy. A state of extreme agitation with no release. Apparently like Warhol she preferred not to engage in the orgies she "staged." Even her famous relationship with Joseph Cornell may have been not much more than heavy petting (which for him was a LOT).

But just as you can't drink and paint, you can't paint mad. You need your wits about you. Kusama makes it very clear where she is, what she wants you to see, and who she wants you to see.

Despite being a hugely popular artist, she distances herself from the production values and slick auction-orientated head of some of her contemporaries at the top of the market. She refers to psych pop, manga, ritual art. A kind of rave and/or free festival tribalism that positions itself outside the tent. She is vouching for the personal over the corporate. The "Vision Quest" is expressed as a search for unconscious connections.

I find it easier to see her career as not being about her harnessing her obsessions but as something much more proactive. A series of revolutions. First against the obstructions placed on their women by Japanese culture, then with the counterculture against prurience and the Vietnam War, then from within Modern Painting against the masculinist limitations of strict formalism -- its lack of poetry and emotion. And finally against her own style, the claustrophobia of the Net and the Spot.

There's too much context where art is reported. Who did what to who when. Taking priority over what the work is doing. Her Japaneseness, her gender, her story are all background, all undertow.

As kids, art teachers urged us to "take a line for a walk" in an effort to promote creativity. It always struck me as a way to marshall forces that were already in full array. Far better to follow where the picture is taking you. I've always admired Kusama's ability to make where she is emotionally, the reason to make the painting, art. But I prefer to see the art take over. Here she lets the paintings rule! They go wherever they want. -- Milree Hughes

Mr. Hughes was born in North Wales in 1960, son of an Anglican priest. He began making art on the computer in 1998 in NYC.

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