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Abstraction as Illusion

TIMES ART CRITIC

In September, the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood held a show of mostly recent work by 68-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, her solo debut in Los Angeles. The paintings were wonderful, the sculptures curious but unconvincing, the mirrored “infinity chamber” silly.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened Kusama’s first major American museum show, focusing on work she made between 1958 and 1968, the decade Kusama lived in New York. The paintings are wonderful, the sculptures curious but unconvincing, the mirrored “infinity chamber” silly.

A certain consistency, it would seem, marks Kusama’s 40-year career.

And well it might. Obsessive repetition is the leitmotif for her art, and her art has been inseparable from her life.

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Kusama’s work has been the subject of increasing critical attention since 1989, when the combined forces of a newly internationalized art world and an overheated market for contemporary painting and sculpture was bringing many minor historical figures to the foreground for reconsideration. Kusama was a fixture on the local New York scene in the 1960s, and she exhibited often in Europe. A waning of her reputation in Manhattan was fueled by her growing concentration on the ephemeral medium of performance art, capped by her return to her native Japan in 1973.

“Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968" seeks to give full consideration, for the very first time, to the artist’s formative output; it does so with elegant thoroughness. Curators Lynn Zelevansky (from LACMA) and Laura Hoptman (from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where the show travels next) have brought together 15 paintings, 29 works on paper, three dozen sculptures and installations and some performance documentation to chart her course.

The show opens with a colossal whisper--a room of five white, subtly inflected, abstract paintings of the sort that gained Kusama her initial critical support in 1959. In them, the format for most all her subsequent paintings was established.

Whether the size is modest or huge--a few feet on a side or, in one case, 7 feet tall and 13 feet long--the compositional structure remains the same. On top of a flat field of monochrome color, which sometimes appears to have been scraped so that the tooth of the canvas shows and the field seems airy and atmospheric, an all-over pattern is painted.

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The pattern resembles the scales of a fish, the magnified surface of skin, or (as Kusama thinks of it) a net. Small, semicircular strokes of paint are linked and repeated, over and over across the surface.

Not long after the first white paintings she began to employ color. Five of those are also on view: a navy blue net over a terra cotta field; a terra cotta, Kelly green or marigold net over a black field; a red net over a red field, scraped to a milky pinkish hue.

As a composition, the all-over field was then an established staple of Abstract Expressionist painting. Rather than the bodily rhythms traced in the paint of an artist like Jackson Pollock, though, or the graceful inflections of the wrist characteristic of Willem de Kooning, Kusama gives us something starkly different: the almost imperceptible movement of the thumb and forefinger, holding a small brush the way one might a pencil, and moving obsessively back and forth across the atmospheric field.

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The result is a network of mechanically repetitive marks that still bristle with intense organic energy. The organic impulse is most literally spelled out in the show’s exquisite selection of small gouaches and pastels, where figural allusions to plants, amoebas, bodily tissue and other such substances are prominent. But it courses through the powerful paintings, too.

Optically, as your eye moves across the field, the small net patterns group and regroup into larger, ever-shifting clusters. Sometimes the pattern of linked arcs breaks down, turning into a linear crosshatch of blunt lines that create a sudden visual rupture or disturbance. Kusama’s paintings seem to be in constant motion, like the surface of the sea, and appear to radiate an inner life of their own.

That “inner life of their own” is what makes these abstractions so pungent. By contrast, the dominant mythology of 1950s New York School painting had located the inner life of the artist within the abstract field. Kusama’s organic yet mechanically repetitive markings challenged that doctrine.

They also ran afoul of a newly entrenched prohibition against illusionism in painting. Instead, Kusama’s paintings thrive on it. You see the net pattern as physical marks, but you also seem to look “through” it, into softly illusionistic space. The lateral, edge-to-edge spread of the shallow pattern adds another implication of infinite expansion.

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With a marvelous economy of means, Kusama’s paintings exploit the inherent capacity for marks made on canvas to create evocative spatial and temporal illusions. In New York, she focused on painting for less than four years (1958 to 1961), but these works are the standouts of the show.

The sculptures Kusama began to make in 1962 are far less compelling. Beginning with an upholstered armchair, Kusama began to cover the surfaces of a wide variety of domestic objects with hundreds of protuberances made from canvas stuffed with kapok. Then, she painted the fetishized assemblages a uniform white, gold or silver.

The tuberous, sometimes overtly phallic encrustations make ordinary household objects--sofa, ironing board, stepladder, stool, baking pan, women’s shoes--feel both fecund and diseased, sensual and pathological. Unlike the paintings, they also feel static and discrete.

Why? The space of painting is fictive, but the space of sculpture is actual. The attempt to shift her mode of infinite obsessiveness from a fictive realm to an actual one fails. Such sculpture is merely anecdotal.

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In 1964, Kusama showed an encrusted white rowboat in a room papered over with a repeated photograph of the same sculpture, and the following year she lined a sculpture-filled room with mirrors. Plainly trying to endow the work with a manic sense of infinite expansiveness, which is essential to an art whose guiding rudder is the mystery of compulsion, she forced an illusion. Neither tactic succeeded.

The compulsive quality of Kusama’s art is what speaks most directly to contemporary sensibilities, but the comic, even cartoonish playfulness of these sculptures is unsatisfyingly thin. By decisive contrast, the marvelous paintings embody an irresistible, irrational, repeated activity in a manner viewers can experience fully. In them Kusama casts her magical nets, and we’re happily ensnared.

A word about the show’s catalog. It includes an interesting subsidiary essay about Kusama’s early life as a student and artist in Japan, by Tokyo-based critic and poet Akira Tatehata. But, bizarrely, the lead essay by curator Zelevansky, which means to establish the critical and historical framework for Kusama’s art, relegates its few comments about those years to one or two minor footnotes. Kusama is portrayed instead as a kind of cultural blank slate--an innately gifted personality who, upon entering New York’s rigorous milieu, was changed into an artist.

At 29, Kusama was in fact a mature adult when she arrived in Manhattan. Surely her cultural situation in the first three decades of her life--the omnipresence of traditional Japanese culture, her art schooling in Matsumoto and Kyoto, the 1954 eruption of a performance-based and publicity-savvy Japanese avant-garde and much more--bears some significance.

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The unspoken implication is that, in Japan, Kusama merely had a personal life, which New York transformed into an art life. The myth of Manhattan’s inevitable superiority as the crucible for serious contemporary art is erected and maintained through distortions such as this. What’s startling in 1998 is to see the myth still being promulgated by an art museum in L.A.

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* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through June 8. Closed Wednesdays.


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