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Yayoi Kusama at Ota Fine Arts

by Monty DiPietro

Two years after the triumph of Love Forever, the large-scale American-curated retrospective that earned Yayoi Kusama long-overdue recognition here at home, Japan's premiere visual artist is back with an intimate and wonderful Tokyo gallery show.

The 20 paintings, sculptures and objet dating from the 1970s to present make a good, light introduction for those new to Kusama's work. The show at Ota Fine Arts in Ebisu should also appeal to the artist's dedicated followers, as it effectively uses color (or rather a lack of color) to bring different styles and periods together. Although Kusama has often painted from a vibrant palette, the works here were all done in blacks, whites and grays, and this proves a simple but effective way of unifying the show.

A two-meter-tall stuffed cotton cactus stands in the center of the 50 square meter space, and it, like many other pieces in this show, is covered with dots. A field of dots or net-like designs, and more importantly, the obsessive repetition of these and other patterns, is Kusama's leitmotif. The style stems from a daydream stuck in the middle of a "truly miserable" Matsumoto childhood: The pattern of a tablecloth began to spread out over the entire room Kusama was sitting in, making everything that was different somehow the same, spreading out to envelop even young Kusama, who fell down a flight of stairs while running from the frightening phantasma.

Ultimately, there was to be no escape. Kusama struck out to New York City in the 1950s, where she began to use repetition in her intense, obsessive art. A Kusama piece in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art comprises thousands of air mail stickers affixed to a canvas, while an early gallery show featured repeated silk-screens of boats -- pop art experimentation that influenced one of Kusama's contemporaries, an also new-in-town artist from Pittsburgh named Andy Warhol.

Kusama was a leading architect of the art happenings of the 1960s, making the cover of the New York Daily News, even, with the unauthorized "Grand Orgy to Wake the Dead," at the Museum of Modern Art. Kusama et al were evicted from the museum grounds after the nude performance, adding irony to the honor of being awarded the solo show there 30 years later.

But the demons continued closing in on Kusama. In the early 1970s she repatriated, and soon afterward moved into the psychiatric hospital where she has lived ever since. Kusama now works out of a studio located a short walk from the hospital, and this has become therapy for her. "If it hadnít been for art," she has said, "I would have killed myself a long time ago."

In America, at least, Kusama is still regarded as the most important Japanese artist of the second half of the 20th century. But for decades she was ignored by Japanese critics and curators. Only after the sweeping Love Forever had visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Walker Center in Minneapolis (the three most important contemporary art spaces in America) did Kusama get her first Japanese museum show, at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art. There, horror, she was made to share the spotlight with lubricious art pornographer Nobuyoshi Araki, MoT curators proving once again that theirs is the largest provincial museum on earth.

Kusama turns 72 this year, and at the Ota Fine Arts opening party she moves slowly through a room filled not with hype but with love. She walks past a new infinity net painting and a half-dozen phallic-stuffed baking pans from the 1970s. Instead of chatter there is silence as Kusama stops in front of one of her stuffed sofas, then sits to rest. Friends and fans arc around, keeping a respectful distance, and they stare at the frail woman in the red and gold dress and black porkpie hat. For the thinking young artists in attendance, she is not an idol, she is something like a living inspiration. Kusama remains on the sofa awhile, staring back with some of the wild that remains in her eyes.

The old girl's still got it -- even in the new work here, there is the stubborn refusal to stop, the immutable dedication to a vision -- the special genius of Yayoi Kusama.

Notes: Yayoi Kusama is at Ota Fine Arts (3780-0450) to August 4, 2001.
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