Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Ave.
Through Sept. 30
"Burn Wall Street…Wall Street men must stop all of this fake ‘business.’ Obliterate Wall Street men with polka-dots on their naked bodies.” This appeal wasn’t written on a sign at Zuccotti Park last fall — it was part of a press release penned by artist and writer Yayoi Kusama to help promote her “naked protest” outside of the New York Stock Exchange in 1968.
These “happenings” usually featured Kusama painting polka dots on protesters’ naked bodies in an attempt to bring attention to the antiwar movement.
Born in Japan in 1929, Kusama has long been a fringe-y figure. Her work has included a variety of mediums, such as painting, sculpture, fashion and performance. However, recent years have found her profile soaring into the upper reaches of international art world stardom, and a retrospective of her life’s work, entitled Yayoi Kusama, at the Whitney Museum is the latest chapter in this journey.
Kusama has made cogent, often pioneering work out of some of the biggest high-art ideas of the last 60 years — abstract expressionism, pop art, social happenings, psychoanalytical self-realization — all while managing to remain true to herself. Kusama’s art is about the life-giving “obliterations” of nature and the cosmos, a vision that was at its height in her youthful “infinity net” paintings. These large, abstract works (with names like No. AB and No. B White, both from 1959) gather simple little circles into unpredictable bouts of psychic distress or oceanic calm. Kusama is known for her fidelity to particular forms — the dot, the sphere, the phallus — but Kusama’s art is about more than just repetition. At its best, the power of her work comes from a neurotic yet cathartic place: a priestess communing with demons through an obsessive (or to use her term, “obsessional”) devotion.
Kusama’s protest events are a small but significant part of her Whitney retrospective. Sadly, the show doesn’t have anything from her Wall Street action in 1968, but it does include other highlights of her activism from the same year. There’s a photo of her Brooklyn Bridge “antiwar naked happening and flag burning,” as well as a letter to President Richard Nixon that she read aloud in front of the New York Board of Elections in 1968. In her appeal, she offers to have sex with Nixon in exchange for the end of the Vietnam War: “…truth is written in spheres with which I will lovingly, soothingly, adorn your hard masculine body. Gently! Gently! Dear Richard. Calm your manly fighting spirit!” That same year, Kusama presided over what she claimed was the first-ever gay wedding in United States, with the two grooms united in a single, dot-strewn costume of her own design.
Within the late-’60s counterculture, Kusama found a way to harness social upheaval through her own unique, personal expression. Her celebrations of freedom and universal oneness emerged out of a crisis, the human body used as an imperialist tool in Vietnam. It can be freeing to think of these protests as actual works of art. But, there’s something creepy about protest movements being siphoned through a single person’s endeavors. Kusama was seeking liberation and truth, but she was also looking for publicity and money.
Kusama is an inveterate self-mythologizer, positioning herself as a countercultural doyenne and a sort of disturbed, mystical genius. Some late-’60s flyers for her “Body Festivals” feature an image of Kusama as a cartoonish logo and, this July, Louis Vuitton released a collection of Kusama-inspired, polka-dot fashion accessories (the fashion house is also one of the exhibit’s sponsors). With these projects, Kusama becomes more than just a myth: she turns herself into a brand.
Kusama’s “happenings” get at the essence of the meaning of protest — the human body in public space, channeling the frighteningly vast potentialities of freedom, dignity and love. At cosmic levels, change involves creation and destruction and Kusama’s work shows us that protest (along with art) is a chance to feel that change within ourselves. Or, as she put it in a public performance from 1991: “…we become part of the unity of our environment, I become part of the eternal, and we obliterate ourselves in love.”