Yayoi Kusama’s Biggest New York Show in Years Is a Late-Career Triumph

Yayoi Kusama belongs to a select class of 20th-century artists whose work is instantly recognizable the world over. She stands alongside figures such as Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, and Basquiat, all of whom produced work that today draws crowds. But their crowds are not quite like the ones brought by Kusama, whose shows bring lines wrapping around blocks, often just so that visitors can spend less than a minute in her iconic “Infinity Rooms,” take a selfie, and post it to social media. 

That’s been the case since at least 2013, when the artist had her first exhibition with David Zwirner in New York. And it will likely be the case again with her latest one at the gallery, which opens Thursday evening and runs until July 21. This latest show is spread across three connected spaces on West 19th Street in Chelsea, making it David Zwirner’s biggest show by her to date.

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The grand scale is likely to be met by huge attendance numbers. David Zwirner’s 2021 Kusama show welcomed over 94,000 people. If that’s any indication, this one will likely to break the 100,000 mark. (The gallery will once again offer updates across its social media platforms for expected waiting times for this first-come, first-served exhibition.)

The works on view in the current New York show are certainly recognizable as Kusama’s. There are works in the vein of her well-known spotted pumpkins, sculptures depicting whimsical flowers, and, of course, an “Infinity Room.”

Still, this show represents a significant departure for the 94-year-old artist, who proves she is still in fine form. These works are pared down, approaching the minimalism that Kusama utilized when she first arrived in New York in 1958. This contrast will likely come as a surprise to the casual Kusama fan, but for those familiar with her extensive and expansive oeuvre, it may be less shocking.

Three large floral sculptures by Yayoi Kusama.
Installation view of “Yayoi Kusama: I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers,” 2023, at David Zwirner, New York.

As you approach the gallery from 10th Avenue, you’ll notice that the garage-like doors have been raised, giving a sneak preview of the work inside. In this space are three towering sculptures of flowers, with multiple layers of petals and brightly hued dot decorations. These are playful reminders that, during this second week of May, spring has sprung and summer is just around the corner. 

As Kusama writes in the press release for the show, titled “I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers”: 

I’ve Sung the Mind of Kusama Day by Day, a Song from the Heart.
O Youth of Today, Let Us Sing Together a Song from the Heart of the Universe!

Down a short hallway is the second gallery, which contains the long-awaited new “Infinity Room” (more on that in a bit) and a suite of 35 new paintings, the majority of which are titled EVERY DAY I PRAY FOR LOVE and dated to either 2021 or 2022. 

Recently, Kusama’s longstanding painting practice has come into clearer focus, no doubt in part due to Zwirner, which is likely capitalizing on the fact that paintings are much easier to sell than large-scale installations. Kusama, the painter, is still woefully under-known. She got her start creating sumptuous paintings, first as part of her “Infinity Nets” series begun in the late 1950s; they reward close looking, begging viewers to gaze obediently at each slightly varied brushstroke. She’s a formalist whose use of repetition, often deployed as a way to find inner peace and assuage the hallucinations she experiences, is sublime.

A detail of a Yayoi Kusama painting that has a light blue background and orange flecks.
Yayoi Kusama, EVERY DAY I PRAY FOR LOVE (detail), 2022.

The paintings on view here are less technically precise than ones Zwirner has previously shown and the ones on view at her current M+ retrospective, which includes several completed in 2019 and 2020. In some cases, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a looseness to these works, the kind that can only be achieved in the later stages of one’s career, when an artist has mastered their medium.

One of these paintings in particular caught my eye: a vertical canvas with a light blue background covered with vibrantly orange uneven specks. The use of opposites on the color wheel causes this canvas to vibrate. Upon closer inspection, you begin to notice some of the work’s deliberate messiness: almost spectral traces of orange pigment that fade into blue. When you move your head to stop the canvas from pulsating before your eyes, you’re left with exquisite afterimages. It is really something. 

The exterior of a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room, that is a white cube with cutouts in circles and semi-circles with a yellow door ajar.
Yayoi Kusama, Dreaming of Earth’s Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love, 2023, installation view.

That effect mirrors what visitors will experience when they step into the latest “Infinity Room,” titled Dreaming of Earth’s Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love (2023), one of Kusama’s largest to date. For the first time, the room, which you enter by crouching down through a half-semicircle door, is illuminated entirely by the natural light that pours in. 

This “Infinity Room” is relatively minimal compared to the others most people will be familiar with. It consists of various circular cutouts in red, yellow, blue, and green, evoking something between a ’90s-inflected clubhouse—I mean that in a complimentary way—and the stained glass of a cathedral, brought down from the clerestory level. Because there is nothing else in the room, it is a contemplative space. The piece isn’t so much reaching for infinity but something beyond it. 

A man walks through three undulating pumpkin sculptures by Yayoi Kusama.
Installation view of “Yayoi Kusama: I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers,” 2023, at David Zwirner, New York.

The final room of this exhibition is a tour de force. It features three gigantic pumpkins that appear to undulate. Any sense of motion is stilled: they look frozen in time. They tower over viewers, with the tallest of the three rising to well over 11 feet. 

The three sculptures, all titled Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love, the Love in My Heart (all 2023), are arranged in such a way that they form a path for visitors to navigate. In a way, they are reminiscent of Richard Serra’s steel sculptures, but where his are claustrophobia-inducing, Kusama’s have a lightness and joy to them. 

Bringing airiness to the monumental is a feat that only an artist like Kusama can accomplish. It speaks to the restraint exhibited in the show. Gone is the all-overness for which she has become increasingly known, and now, in its place is something new and utterly transcendent. 

Source: artnews.com

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