Kudos to Kusama, during her prolific 80-plus years on this earth, she has breached the divides between East and West, male and female, darkness and light, insider and outsider. Still painting obsessively every day in her native Japan (read our interview with Kusama here), she has been influential for artists the world over, especially so during her long stint in New York from 1958 To 1973, where this major retrospective (also visiting the Reina Sofía, the Centre Pompidou and the Whitney) really excels.
She wandered the mean streets of NYC in a pink kimono, twirling a floral umbrella and captivating America with her obvious beauty, free-spirited naked happenings and orgiastic body-painting performances. Not just a feminist icon, she befriended leading figures from the inner and outer circles of the art world including Georgia O'Keefe, Donald Judd and Joseph Cornell, the ultimate human butterfly collector himself, who was so taken with Kusama that he sent her barely coded love letters in the form of fetishistic collages.
Creatively, these were her most fertile years too, when she developed her elegant monochrome, moonscaped 'Infinity Net' paintings and sculptures of suitcases, sofas, shoes and ladders sprouting fat, fingery, potato-shaped protuberances, her famously fun and phallic 'Accumulations'. Alas, an overabundance of these sensual, blobby objects and environments shifts this survey towards an attempt to rubber-stamp her importance alongside other great female artists of that era such as Eva Hesse or Louise Bourgeois. This curatorial stance is understandable but rather whitewashes the before and after – of what Kusama might mean in a Japanese context, rather than in our particular pantheon of art historical heroines.
Given her disturbing early life and work, shadowed by war and the onset of mental illness, it's obvious why Kusama might have wanted to leave her homeland and torch much of her formative nihonga-style painting. What she left unburned are horrific pictures of corpse-laden landscapes, surreal plant forms struggling towards a long-set sun and dark nebula of amoebic clouds, stippled with her first dots (circa 1955). Kusama's alarming, spotted hallucinations inform so much of her subsequently obsessive practice that a deeper exploration of her troubling condition might have been welcome, if handled delicately, of course. Otherwise, we are left to navigate her polka fields and various rooms flecked with luminous points of light without much guidance. Frankly, like contemplating those infuriating 'magic eye' pictures, no matter how long I stare at these spots, I just don't see it.
Kusama's repatriation also remains puzzling. Perhaps she was disenchanted by the US involvement in the Vietnam War, as is suggested in the catalogue, but her return to Japan was far from triumphant. Her nudist antics, combined with a psychological affliction, would surely have made her persona non grata in the buttoned-up Tokyo of the mid-'70s, where she voluntarily checked herself in to the institution that houses her still. Since then she has tirelessly reproduced her psychedelic patterns on public sculpture, canvas (her most recent paintings can be seen at Victoria Miro Gallery) and in mirrored room installations, one of which provides the crowning, disorienting moment of this show. Despite a willingness to empathise, I simply find her endless repetitions headache-inducing rather than mind expanding or synapse firing. In fact, I'm in need of a lie-down myself no