Valentine’s Day has come early to Chelsea—in a love poem of an exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery. Showcasing recent works by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, I Who Have Arrived in Heaven consumes all three of the gallery’s West 19th Street locations and will continue to do so through December 21, 2013. The exhibition consists of two mirrored infinity rooms, a video projection of Kusama, and 36-foot square acrylic paintings. But those are merely the “specs,” Heaven assures us that in the realm of contemporary art—a desert of posturing phonies, counterfeit authenticity, and gimmicks posing as mystical experiences—genuine art can still be found. Kusama herself has been critiqued as a mere veneer, her ontologically-vested polka dots instruments of a slick self-promotion scheme—and that is what makes Heaven an oasis: artifice is genuine. Kusama’s art is life, and life, art. The chiasmus is honest, pinioned by a simple desire to spread joy, delight, and love (though the “Infinity Rooms” pander to that misguided impulse to mistake LED lighting, mirrors, and a few inches of water for profundity).
On ViewDavid Zwirner Gallery
Yayoi Kusama I Who Have Arrived In Heaven
November 8 – December 21, 2013
It would be presumptuous to litanize the virtues of Kusama’s paintings; they are a personal gift to masses of viewers whom the artist will never know. They also function as elegies, the proleptic, self-fashioned monuments of an artist keenly aware of her mortality. Each painting places decades of work into dialogue within singular canvases, the exhibition progressing like 30 variations on a fugue, from Kusama’s “Infinity Nets” of the late 1950s that spread like Spanish moss, to her zoetic polka dots, saturated chromatic fantasias, and obsessive reproductions of single shapes.
The exhibition is designed as an odyssey through the conventions, methods, and idiosyncrasies Kusama has adopted over the past six decades. It is not retrospective, however. Heaven militates against linearity, befuddles chronology. Synchrony is the compositional principle. Like the beauty of those entangled lines from T.S. Eliot, “And the end and the beginning were always there… / And all is always now,” the power of Kusama’s Catholic self-reflexivity is gorgeous if not immediately obvious.
The pilgrimage begins inauspiciously: the first location of Heaven houses an infinity room and video projection. Both underwhelming, they support the thesicle that Kusama is another classic huckster, successful but vacuous, her popularity an index to the supreme gullibility of the hopelessly hip. That hypothesis is nullified in the second and third galleries.
To experience a life’s work in a single canvas is a heady proposition, and Heaven approaches it cautiously. The second gallery contains “path” paintings. In each, the famed infinity nets are replaced with clusters of eyes that group and scatter like a charm of finches. Arterial paths of pure pigment traverse compositions ferrying an orderly array of circles to unknown destinations. There are dozens of these orbs, each a fragment of Kusama’s artistic history. Some circles are abstract or covered in dots, others are smirking faces, infinity nets, fields of lines, or fields of color. Others miniaturize familiar motifs. A life of work is present, but cautiously encapsulated in small, reassuringly regular circles.
At the third location, Kusama’s tiny circle worlds have grown unruly, breaching their orderly bounds and colonizing whole canvases in wild, orbific impulses complete with protozoa or crushed Thiebaud miniatures. The works—glorious cacophonies of color—are so persuasively heterocosmic that the gallery space likens to the interior of a Disneyland submarine; each painting is a window, revealing not plastic anenomes and false mermaids, but the wonders you long to see there. Decades of work gather here. In “A Woman with Pink Hair”(2013), forest green lands overspread with eyes that float in cerulean seas flanked by vibrantly colored infinity nets, disembodied impish faces, women in profile, and phallic roads covered in dots. These are not mere compositions; they are the visual equivalent of an entire life—and by composing works that encompass a lifetime in a canvas, Kusama collapses the linearity that determines how we understand that life.
And so, Heaven is, ultimately, an exhibition about life and art. The paintings featured are not simply “new works,” nor do they constitute yet another presentation—albeit in condensed, potent form—of the familiar story about how Kusama has contended with the perils of life through art. The works reveal something more: they expose the pain of that choice, though they relate turbulent experiences bound up with Kusama’s own mental illness with impossibly favonian joy. Kusama captures on canvas the vulnerabilities we rarely admit to ourselves—and she celebrates them in a carnival of pigments. She lovingly orphans intimacies for the pleasure of viewers whom she will never know. But the synchronous visions in these paintings are no mere love-fest. They are an act of entelechy that ensures Kusama is gathered—if only in the art, which she has welded to life—into the artifice of eternity.