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Career retrospective of Yayoi Kusama opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art
Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), An Encounter with a Flowering Season, 2009. Synthetic polymer on canvas, 51 5/16 x 63 3/4 in. (130.3 x 162 cm). Collection of the artist. © Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Gagosian Gallery, New York.

NEW YORK, NY.- Yayoi Kusama—whose work spans more than six decades of intense productivity in Japan and the United States—is the subject of a retrospective opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art on July 12, 2012. Legendary, semi-reclusive, and still vibrant, Kusama, who turned 83 in March, has created an extensive body of work since the 1940s. Ranging from her earliest explorations in painting to new works made in the past few years, this survey—the artist’s first major exhibition in New York in fifteen years—celebrates a career of exceptional duration and distinction, tracing the development of Kusama into one of the most respected and influential artists of her time.

On view at the Whitney through September 30, the traveling exhibition is organized in collaboration with Tate Modern and has been seen over the past year in Madrid, Paris, and London; the Whitney is its final stop. It was curated by Frances Morris, Tate’s Head of Collections (International Art). The Whitney installation is overseen by curator David Kiehl. Both Tate and Whitney presentations are supported by Louis Vuitton.

In 1989, Kusama was given important solo exhibitions at the Center for International Contemporary Arts, New York, and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, England. In 1993, she participated in the 45th Venice Biennale. As Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern, notes in his foreword to the catalogue, “This is the first large-scale museum retrospective of Kusama’s career to be staged in the west since Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968, the seminal survey of her work organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Japan Foundation in 1998…Love Forever focused exclusively on Kusama’s production during her years in the United States. This exhibition, by contrast, seeks to show the full breadth of the artist’s output throughout her lengthy and varied career, contextualizing Kusama’s American sojourn with representations of her early and late career in Japan.”

Yayoi Kusama’s art encompasses an astonishing array of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance, and immersive installation. It ranges from works on paper featuring semi-abstract imagery, to soft sculptures known as Accumulations, to her Infinity Net paintings, made up of carefully repeated arcs of paint built up into large patterns, to the dense patterns of polka dots for which she is perhaps best known. Like her near contemporaries Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Nancy Spero, Kusama’s work has gained over time the recognition it deserves, following periods in which her work was received with acclaim and other periods in which she was almost completely overlooked.

The exhibition unfolds chronologically, in a sequence of rooms, each devoted to the emergence of a new artistic phase. Much of Kusama’s art has an almost hallucinatory intensity that reflects her unique vision of the world, whether through obsessively recurring imagery, a teeming accumulation of detail, or the dense patterns of nets and polka dots that have become her signature.

Kusama is also renowned for her environments, immersive, large-scale installations of dazzling power. The Whitney’s installation includes her extraordinary Fireflies on the Water (2002), shown here in our 2004 Biennial and now part of the Whitney’s collection. As described by Christian Rattemeyer in the 2004 Biennial catalogue: “The reflective interior environment consists of a small room lined with mirrors on all sides, a pool in the center of the space, and 150 small lights hanging from the ceiling, creating a dazzling effect of direct and reflected light emanating from both the mirrors and the water’s surface. Fireflies embodies an almost hallucinatory approach to reality, while shifting the mood from her earlier, more unsettling installations toward a more ethereal, almost spiritual experience.”

Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Japan, in 1929. In her early career she immersed herself in the study of art, integrating a wide range of Eastern and Western influences, training in traditional Japanese painting while also exploring the European and American avant-garde. Kusama arrived in New York in 1958, where she worked hard to gain recognition. In the 1960s and early 1970s she became a major figure in the New York avant-garde, associated with key developments in Pop, Minimalism, and performance art, and exhibiting alongside artists she came to know well, including Donald Judd (her downtown loft neighbor), Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, and Claes Oldenburg. The exhibition includes a group of Kusama’s first Infinity Net paintings from her early years in New York, canvases covered in unceasing, scalloped brushstrokes of a single color. Kusama forged her own direction in sculpture and installation, adopting techniques of montage and soft sculpture. The exhibition includes a significant selection of her classic Accumulation Sculptures dating from 1962 to 1968. As the 1960s progressed, Kusama moved from painting, sculpture, and collage to installations, films, performances, and happenings as well as political actions, counter-cultural events, fashion design, and publishing. The exhibition includes Kusama’s iconic film Kusama’s SelfObliteration (1968), capturing this period of performative experimentation, and an extensive selection of archival material revealing the ways in which Kusama’s artistic activity extended beyond the boundaries of the gallery.

After achieving fame and a certain prominence in New York through her groundbreaking and prescient art happenings and events, she returned to her country of birth in 1973. The exhibition includes a selection of the vibrant and evocative collages she created on her return, during a period in which she was also forging a parallel career as a poet and novelist. Major sculptural installations include The Clouds (1984), comprising one hundred unique black and white sprayed sewed stuffed cushions, and Heaven and Earth (1991), which features snake-like forms emerging from forty boxes. The exhibition concludes with a series of works from the last decade.

Yayoi Kusama is curated by Frances Morris, Head of Collections, International Art, Tate, with Rachel Taylor, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern. The exhibition has been organized by Tate Modern in collaboration with the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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