You may recognize some of Yayoi Kusama’s most iconic work, like the bright color canvases or sculptures covered in polka dots.
But you probably know little about the “nude-ins” she used to stage at public attractions around New York City in the 1960s.
The “nude-ins” were events where Kusama and a group of fellow artists/ friends would collectively undress in front of large crowds of people to protest the Vietnam War, among other issues. She also hosted public body-painting parties and orgies in her New York art studio.
She wrote an open letter to Richard Nixon, offering to have sex with him if he would end the war.
She also began a fashion line, featuring clothing with holes in very revealing places.
These are just a few of the shocking things you will see at Kusama’s new exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show is a retrospective of more than 60 years of Kusama’s work both here in New York and in Japan. A diverse collection of painting, sculpture, collage, film, and fashion, the exhibit seeks to show Kusama’s extraordinary stylistic evolution, from surrealism and expressionism to psychedelic avant garde.
Kusama is not American- she was actually born in Japan in 1929 and lived there until adulthood. While already showing her artwork in Japan in the 1950s, Kusama dreamt of moving to New York and living a less restrictive life there. She moved in 1957 and stayed until 1973, making a significant impact on New York’s art scene and becoming a leader of the avant garde art movement. Her identity as an artist blossomed into the revolutionary and neurotic work she is known for today, and she influenced the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Odenburg.
Kusama’s famed polka dot motif also emerged from her 1960s experimentalism, a product of her neurotic tendencies. Since returning to Japan in 1973, Kusama has been voluntarily living in a mental hospital to deal with her psychological problems.
The Whitney exhibit is a fascinating look at artistic transformation. Seeing one of Kusama’s paintings from 1952, vs. one of her paintings from 2010, is startling. You would never guess they were done by the same artist. The same thing could be said with Kusama’s fabric sculptures- a pattern of stuffed fabric pieces, shaped like phalluses, attached to chairs and couches. The furniture pieces are just a small selection of Kusama’s highly sexual and hallucinogenic work portfolio.
While certainly not the most controversial, Kusama’s later works are the best pieces in the collection- bright, robustly colored paintings with repetitive symbols and designs. They are the best representation of Yayoi Kusama as a modern artist still very relevant in the modern art scene.
Most of these paintings are displayed together in the final room of the exhibition. At once over-stimulating and inspiring, this room will leave a lasting impression. It will probably leave you speechless too.
If you have time to see just one art exhibit this summer, make it Yayoi Kusama’s at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
*Exhibit is running now through September 30.