The exhibition, curated by Frances Morris, aims to show the width and profoundness of Kusama's production, giving priority to the artist's most intense moments of innovation through 150 pieces from her own collection, galleries and private collections, as well as some of the most important museums in the world. The show takes the visitor in a journey through time to explore, in a series of 'ambients', Kusama's body of work and her approach to different materials and techniques - drawing, painting, collage and assemblage, installation, film, performance, edition and design.
Curated by Frances Morris
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía presents a comprehensive retrospective monographic exhibition about Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (Matsumoto, Prefecture of Nagano, 1929). It is organised in collaboration with Tate Modern (London), and it will offer a global vision of her career, that spans six decades. For the Spanish public, this is the first chance to visit a large scale Kusama exhibition. She is considered to be the most famous living artist in Japan. After the show in Spain, the exhibition will travel to other main international art centres: the Centre Pompidou in Paris (19 October 2011 – 09 January 2012), the Tate Modern in London (25 January – 27 May 2012) and the Whitney Museum in New York (June – September 2012).
The exhibition on display at Museo Reina Sofía, curated by Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s Permanent Collections Curator (International Art), aims to show the width and profoundness of Kusama’s production, giving priority to the artist’s most intense moments of innovation through 150 pieces from her own collection, galleries and private collections, as well as some of the most important museums in the world: the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), MoMA – Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington), The National Museum of Modern Art (Tokio) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (Tokio), among others.
The show takes the visitor in a journey through time to explore, in a series of “ambients”, Kusama’s body of work and her approach to different materials and techniques —drawing, painting, collage and assemblage, installation, film, performance, edition and design—. “This exhibition in focused on the moments when she worked for the first time with specific languages that are reflected exactly as they were when they appeared and absorbed the artist’s creative energy”, says Frances Morris, curator of the exhibition.
Amongst the main pieces on display, there is a selection of her first works on paper, rarely exhibited before; captivating series, less known, like the hallucinated photographic collage that she created when she went to Japan (1973); and also her most praised and significative projects, such as Infinity Net (1960–1970) and the Accumulation Sculptures (1960–1965). The show also includes several large-scale installations like I’m Here, But Nothing (2000), or a new depiction of infinite space, according to the Japanese artist, in Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011), a montage specifically designed for the occasion.
Lastly, the exhibition will conclude documentarily with the projection of some of her most polemic performances, such as Walking piece or Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, and a room devoted exclusively to graphic documentation, where there will be photographs, newspaper and magazine covers or posters of some of her exhibitions, that will help the visitor to contextualise the artist.
Exploring technique and matter: first paintings and works on paper Kusama’s first paintings show the catastrophic state in which Japan was left after World War II, not only for its apocalyptic theme but also for the improvised use of materials. Facing the impossibility of getting oil paintings, Kusama experimented with home made paint mixed with sand and used seed bags taken from her parent’s business instead of canvases. During the following years, Kusama kept on developing her techniques on paper, from which she created hundreds of works in the early 50s. She executed them using different techniques: ink, pastel, watercolours, wash and tempera, all of which give testimony of the constant exploration of shape and colour that the artist pursued. This works vary in their content, but often they include abstract shapes that evoke natural phenomena: eggs, seeds, trees and flowers.
1960 – 1970: Infinity Net, Accumulation Sculptures and first collages In the mid 50s, Kusama began to establish bonds with the United States, until finally, in 1958, she moved to New York. Like many other artists, she struggled to survive with small resources while gradually getting to exhibit her work. At the same time, she radically transformed her pictorial positions. It was then when she started painting her famous Infinity Net, a group of large-scale canvases that openly show her creative process. The networks are composed of repeated versions of a unique and simple gesture: a subtle wrist movement by the artist, expressed through her brush like a painted arch. The constant uniformity of this gesture denotes both obsession and meditation. For her, networks and visible “points” between painted arches would become the key motifs of her personal image vocabulary.
Just when she was beginning to enjoy some recognition for her paintings both in the States and Europe, Kusama changed her tactics again and started working in her first sculptures. Rooted in the obsessive technique of Infinity Nets, Accumulation Sculptures included everyday elements, covered by a proliferation of repeated shapes. In the first examples, Kusama recovered the surface of several domestic objects like furniture, clothes and accessories with multiple fabric phalluses, stuffed and sewn. Accumulation Sculptures were shown for the first time in one of the first exhibitions of the blooming pop art movement, next to works by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal and James Rosenquist.
In the early 70s, Kusama started making collages. These works were intimately linked to the Infinity Nets and the Accumulation Sculptures, since she used identical or similar proliferation of motifs. In fact, some of the first examples were born from photographs from the Infinity Net paintings, other were composed by dense accumulations of air mail stickers or stamps repeated ad infinitum, until the recognisable clashed with the abstract. The use of serial repetition in these works connects them with the advances in minimalism and conceptual art that were taking place in the same period, while the collage made with toy money (1962–1963) is closely linked to the serigraph dollar bills that Warhol was making in those days.
Performances and happenings: Walking Piece (1966) and Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967). Kusama was aware of what being an Asian female artist meant in New York’s art world in the 60s, which was prominently masculine and white. In 1966 she created a piece that explicitly reflected on her double condition of “foreigner”. Walking Piece (1966) is a performance documented in a colour slideshow by Eijo Hosoe. In them, the artist is seen dressed with a pink flower kimono walking around New York. Her festive attire gives a shocking contrast with the empty or industrial streets where she strolls. The figure that Kusama depicts in this work seems lost and homeless in a strange and stark urban landscape.
Both Walking Piece (1966) and the performance 14th Street Happening marked the first key points in which the artist’s image becomes an explicit part of her work, when her production starts to derive from sculpture and installation to performance and happening, and where audience participation was fundamental. In her Body Festivals (1967) she encouraged all participants, who were naked, to paint polka dots in each other’s bodies. Many of these 1967 events were filmed by director Jud Yalkut. Kusama used these sequences, along with images of her own paintings and installations, in the film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967). The film, with an original soundtrack by pop-rock band The Group Image, begins with images of the artist in the countryside dressed with a polka dot dress while covering animals, plants and the body of a naked man with polka dots and leaves. The following scenes show happenings of body painting and orgies, staged around the artist’s installations. The film achieved some popularity in art film festivals and won awards in the United States and Europe.
1973, return to Japan: Kusama reinvents herself
In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan. After a failed attempt, a few years earlier, to present the happenings in which she appeared naked to the public conservator in Tokyo, she tried to prosper in the art business but after a couple of years her project didn’t work out. The collages of that period show her close collaboration with American artist Joseph Cornell, whom she met in the early sixties and with whom she had a relationship that she described as romantic and passionate, but platonic. In 1977 her physical and psychological fragility took her to voluntarily enter the hospital that is still her home to this day. From the relative calm and security that her hospital life provides her, Kusama launched her literary career. From 1978 on, she has explored this facet in line with her artistic production and she has published several novels, a poetry collection and her autobiography.
In her new home, the artist went back to sculpture and to creating hand-made objects. The objects she made were small, but she combined them in order to create bigger installations made out of different pieces. The Clouds (1984) is composed by a hundred cushions stuffed and sewn, with different shapes and painted in white and silver. In the 80s and 90s, along with her sculpture production, Kusama went back to painting with renewed vigor. She began experimenting with paintings of several panels that suggest an unlimited expansion of the field of view. The evoke micro or macroscopic worlds with repetitions of abstract patterns that remind astronomical or biological images. Around 1988 a new motif appears in her paintings: a shape similar to a spermatozoid that reminds us of some of her early works on paper.
I’m Here, but Nothing (2000)
In the late 90s, after a parenthesis of almost thirty years, Kusama returned to creating large- scale installations. I’m Here, but Nothing (2000) is a darkened domestic interior with simple and anodyne accessories and furniture. The image of bourgeois stability that might arise from this scene becomes somewhat surrealistic and strange in Kusama’s installation. The fluorescent stickers that shine in the faint light cover the whole room and the furniture can be understood as a visual simplification of the artist’s hallucinating episodes.
In the last few years, Kusama has returned with renewed enthusiasm to drawing and painting. Museo Reina Sofía displays for the very first time works created between 2009 and 2010, her largest series of paintings to this day. In these pieces there is a prominent presence of visual language that reminds us of her early paintings: repeated motifs such as flowers, eyes, hieroglyph self-portrait from the side and, as usual, dots and networks.
The experience of infinite time: Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011)
One of Kusama’s permanent obsessions is the depiction of infinite space. In her vast artistic career, the Japanese author has maintained her exploration of this field until achieving a magical effect in her Infinity Mirror Rooms. In 1965 she created the first large-scale installation, called Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field. Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011) is the name of the montage that Kusama has designed specifically for her exhibition at Museo Reina Sofía. Visitors can enter and explore it, surrounded by their own reflection.
The artist: Yayoi Kusama
Kusama belongs to a series of notorious women artists that, against all odds, made it to get recognition in an art world overwhelmingly dominated by men in 1950s and 1960s’ New York. With the double disadvantage of being a woman and a foreigner, Kusama achieved critical acclaim from commentators and critics and the respect of her colleagues. She was born on March 22, 1929, in Matsumoto, a provincial city located in the mountainous region of Nagano’s prefecture, approximately 209 km West of Tokyo. She was born, the youngest of four children, to a high-middle class family that achieved wealth from managing nurseries and seed wholesale. Wishing to release herself from Japan’s profoundly conservative customs and conventions in both family and society, she moved to Kyoto to study Fine Arts. In 1958 she made the most radical decision and moved to New York, with no patron or protector, to begin an independent career in the city that had become the epicentre of contemporary art since the ending of World War II.
In her autobiography, Kusama remembers: “For an art like mine —art that fights in the frontier between life and death and questions what we are and what it means to live or die— [Japan] was too small, too servile, too feudal and too disdainful with women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom and a much wider world”. Kusama’s first paintings and drawings are inspired in surrealism, although they are inimitably her own. They were widely praised by some of the most prominent art experts, as would her first large-scale paintings, unprecedented, and made during her first years in New York. These enormous canvases, or, like they finally were called, Infinity Net, were covered by one-colour brushstrokes, endlessly repeated. With this she anticipated the birth of a monochrome painting and the appearance of serial techniques, characteristic of the 60s’ minimal and conceptual art.
Kusama would not abandon this precocious experimentation with new artistic possibilities when she forged her own ways in sculpture and installation, adopting montage and soft sculpture techniques that can vindicate her precedence —and verifiable influence— in younger avant-garde artists, such as Andy Warhol or Claus Oldenburg. Innovation was followed by more innovation and, in less than five years, Kusama created the half dozen themes that would mark her long career and still support her remarkable creativity: the “infinite” paintings, objects and ambients covered by phalluses or macaroni, approaching obsessions related to sex and food, respectively; her spectacular rooms full of mirrors; fantasy collages and photomontages; projects with film and slideshows; and the set up of radical and counterculture performances.
In New York, against all odds, she achieved recognition in an art world overwhelmingly dominated by men during the 50s and 60s. Nevertheless, shortly after, her most radical performances were confronted with a growing hostility from the artistic environment. The increasing forsaking of the critics, poverty and mental sickness forced Kusama to retire from the New York’s art scene. In 1973 she went back to Japan, where she started anew and continued to reinvent herself —as a novelist, poet, collage maker, painter and sculptor—, creating works in the protected environment of the Tokyo hospital in which she has been living since 1977, but also in her nearby atelier, where she still spends her working days. Yayoi Kusama is still working to this day, widening the fan of “ambients” to which she owes her fame —her sparkling and intense large-scale installations—, while tirelessly painting by hand an extensive series of fantasy figurative drawings, full of obsessive details.
On the occasion of the exhibition, Museo Reina Sofía will publish a catalogue that will include texts by some of the most important experts in Kusama’s work, such as Midori Yamamura, Jo Applin, Mignon Nixon or Juliet Mitchell.
Meeting about Yayoi Kusama with Frances Morris
Date: 11 May 2011
Place: Nouvel Auditorium 200
Entrance: Free until full occupation
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