Extraordinary work by a truly unique mind
The Tate Modern’s new show, a retrospective of the work of Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most famous living artist, is an engorgement of colour, size and intensity.
Kusama’s work is a clear extension of her brilliantly volatile, unabashedly unusual mind. After a lengthy experimental period on the New York art scene (at one point she wrote to Richard Nixon and offered to have sex with him if he’d help stop the Vietnam War), Kusama returned to Japan in 1973, electing to take up residence in a mental hospital in Tokyo, where she has remained ever since (her studio is across the road).
The psychedelic, often frenetically sexual images – recurring spermatozoa, phalluses, spirals and the dots that both predict and far exceed in exuberance those of Damien Hirst – begin after her move to the US in the late 1950s. Her early paintings, done in Japan, are technically impressive but are also luscious, fecund images that anticipate the biological forms of her later work. Paintings such as Lingering Dream (a 1949 beauty in gleaming turquoise and purples showing some kind of vegetative movement) and Corpses, depicting fat brown tubes, are magnetically dark. These paintings look towards the 1960s “accumulation” series of sculptures, objects from coats to sofas stuffed and coated in macaroni and phalluses. The Infinity Net paintings, from the beginning of the US period, represent a drastic change in style for Kusama and the experience of leaving her dark, finely painted collage period (1950s) and entering a room of vast canvases covered in pale, obsessively scalloped paint, is head-spinning. The neutrality of the Infinity Net colour scheme only makes way for the intellectual intensity burning behind the pattern. Strangely, they are also peaceful: one would want them in one’s home.
There is sculpture and film, too – the artist’s dynamism knows no bounds – but among the show-stealers are the recent paintings. A cacophony of colour is belted out from 13 square canvases that, together, emit a high-octane energy unlike anything I have seen in a long while.
Also mesmerising is Infinity Mirrored Room – Kusama’s “largest mirrored room to date”. To enter this installation – an endless grid of flashing baubles – is to feel as though one is standing alone in the middle of mid-town Manhattan, or Tokyo.
I’m Here, But Nothing, is a dark room of househould furniture and objects covered in ultraviolet flourescent dots, with a TV set in a corner depicting Kusama chanting. One rather fancies moving in. Or having a drink, at least. The Clouds (1984) is a jigsaw puzzle-esque formation of sewn and stuffed cushions sitting in silvery clusters on the floor.
This is an eye-popping paean to easily the most interesting artist alive today and should not be missed.
● The Royal Academy’s blazingly popular David Hockney show, The Bigger Picture, will stay open until midnight on Friday and Saturdays until 9 April to provide extra access to the otherwise sold out show.