There are 14 rooms in Tate Modern’s extensive retrospective of 82-year-old Yayoi Kusama, of which 13 offer pretty standard fare. Through a long career, Kusama has commanded a pair of simple forms – polka spots referencing childhood hallucinations, phallic shapes expressing her horror of sex. But within that personal iconography she has traversed art’s major trends with such chameleon skill that this show reads like a dot-and-prick parody of recent cultural history: witty, sometimes outright funny, though rarely touching a nerve.
Like Louise Bourgeois, the artist whom she most often recalls, Kusama as a young woman in provincial Japan co-opted the language of surrealism to indicate her unease in a rigidly patriarchal society. At 20 she painted the opening work here, “Lingering Dream”: spiky crimson plants rising like clawed tentacles against a flat brown/blue ground. “Accumulation of the Corpses (Prisoners Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalization)”, blood-red circling lines converging into a tunnel, is as claustrophobic. Early 1950s gestural watercolours employ a vocabulary of biomorphic, organic forms evoking aquatic or subterranean worlds; already the dot dominates. Though derivative – Max Ernst, Joan Miro – these garnered attention; a Japanese psychiatrist named Kusama “Genius with Schizoid Tendencies”.
Kusama has lived in a Tokyo mental hospital since 1977: was this early interpretation prescient, or did it actually inspire her madwoman-persona? Either way, Kusama, again like Bourgeois, felt constrained at home and craved the scope and dynamism of New York. She arrived there, via Seattle, in the late 1950s, and quickly produced “Dot Abstraction”, “No F”. “No. White A.Z”, “No B White” – an impressively American series of monumental canvases built up from countless small loops of white paint to form surfaces of what Kusama called “infinity nets”. “Pacific Ocean”, touched with blue, a recollection of her view above the clouds travelling from Japan to Seattle, is the strongest. The all-over effect is reminiscent of Pollock, but calmer, even boring. Kusama is no painterly painter, but with her mantra, “accumulation repetition obliteration infinity”, her infinity net monochromes remarkably caught a key moment of change, when abstract expressionism ceded to minimalism. Donald Judd and Frank Stella were among her first buyers.
Judd then helped stuff thousands of fabric phalluses – three-dimensional versions of the loops – adorning Kusama’s 1960s “accumulation sculptures”: sofas, chairs, shoes, heaped with swollen white penis-forms which surely mock the macho New York art scene. Her isolation, at sea in a foreign art world, is poignantly suggested in an early immersive installation “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show” (1963), a salvaged rowboat and oars covered by white cotton phallic plaster castings and a pair of women’s shoes, set in a room lined with 999 black and white posters depicting the sculpture.
Kusama’s romance with assemblage artist Joseph Cornell (“I disliked sex, and he was impotent; we suited each other very well”) influenced the obsessive collages – stamps, air-mail stickers – which take up too much space here. At the same time, documented in films such as “Kusama’s Obliteration” (1968), were happenings in which an unsmiling Kusama daubed naked dancers – and on occasion a horse – with her trademark spots. Advertising orgies at her studio and attempting a fashion business, she briefly rivalled Andy Warhol’s notoriety before retreating to decades of obscurity in Tokyo.
As feminist art was excavated in the 1990s, Kusama drew fresh interest, but it was the Noughties global biennale crowd who really embraced her dotted pumpkin and tulip sculptures and giant primary-coloured balloons: as cheerfully branded as Damien Hirst’s or Takashi Murakami’s factory productions. What next? If Kusama is fashion’s canny slave, in old age she also learnt to be fun. “Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life” (2011) turns the cube-shaped, mirror-clad gallery 14 into her vision of infinity: twinkling with hundreds of pinprick lights suspended from the ceiling, reflected in water, in endlessly changing colour combinations – turquoise, purple, gold, emerald – it suggests day and night, summer, winter, sea, sky, with our own mirror images rendered small and insignificant. Here, by the way, is an answer to Tate’s annual Unilever Series problem: not since Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project” in 2003 has anything so visually arresting filled Turbine Hall. Bring on the latest Kusama – de-politicised, glamorised, reinvented for our age of spectacle.
Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern, London, February 9-June 5; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 12-September 30