On Kusama: Are Her Mirrors And Dots Just Smoke And Mirrors?

Installation view, Yayoi Kusama: I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers, David Zwirner, New York, May 11-July 21, 2023
Courtesy of David Zwirner

Let's play "never have I ever."

Never have I ever seen Yayoi Kusama's artwork?

~ takes drink ~

Unlike myself and roughly two-million others, you're safe this round if you've never been within sight of the lucent polka-dotted pumpkins, flowers, and paintings by renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Or snapped a selfie inside her highly-publicized Infinity Mirror Rooms, one of which is currently on view at David Zwirner, I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers. Still, you've likely spotted the unsettling, hyper-realistic Kusama robots displayed in the windows of Louis Vuitton stores in New York and Paris that monopolized the buzz amidst their second collaboration earlier this year. Or, twice as likely, you've scrolled past or double-tapped her specked works on your Instagram 'explore' and 'for you' pages.

Kusama's recent showcases have given us a lot to discuss. For one, the works feel limited to her most popularized output. Elements of collections past, copied and pasted onto everything from mass produced novelties, to her hallmark structures and installations. Of late, the motif of polka dots feels more like a marketable poker chip than a marking of fine art. Take the underwhelming, luxury handbags Louis Vuitton slapped Kusama’s signature polka dots onto, and called it exclusive. The amount of reedition in Kusama's work has made me wonder whether it's smoke and mirrors to keep visitor capacity maxed and credit cards out. Much like a designer bag, a canvas signatured by her hand is a coveted item that collectors and gallerists know the value of. The jargon used in the press releases of her shows sound like advertisements, pumped full of colorful words that fuel your desire to be wherever her dots are. And these embellishments make you think twice about any doubts you may have about the brilliance of her creations. If all of these notable institutions declare her as one of the greatest woman artists of our time, who am I- a fan of her work- to naysay? When I take off the rose-colored glasses, I see the aggrandization of Yayoi Kusama. Her consent remains hazy. The language barrier, having everything translated by staff and PR personnel, factoring in her mental health and ripening age. She brings us into her world through each creation, but how much of what we're seeing in recent months is solely her? In recent appearances the artist has made, she waves almost expressionless from her wheelchair with a translator close at hand to recite her thoughts. The optics are haunting.

"My entire life has been painted here. Every day, any day. I will never cease dedicating my whole life to my love for the universe."

The consumer world has no problem taking all that Kusama gives; her words don't contest. Has good marketing, and enduring fame lowered the expectations for the consumer… I mean audience? I asked myself. Is it the prerogative to create so much by her own accord or just the modus operandi of the art world capitalizing on one's talent?

My first Kusama exhibition titled Give Me Love, in 2015, was coincidentally the year she was named the world's most famous artist across the internet. Waiting in line to enter The Obliteration Room, the building anticipation, being handed a sheet of neon dot stickers and instructed to stick them anywhere I wanted in this white furnished room made the child in my adult body happy. Stickering walls and furniture was never anything I did with permission. Her choice of colors made the paintings come alive, with an abundance of whimsical and intricate patterns and shapes that truly captivated. I always loved getting up close to the artwork, allowing me to catch the painterly brushstrokes and quiet details that might otherwise go unnoticed. And you know what? I actually loved how her polka dots weren't exact. They have an imperfect charm, with each dot possessing its own unique shape and size. Despite their nonconformity, they still managed to leave me utterly enthused. It was a powerful reminder that art extends far beyond the realm of hyper-realistic paintings. From that point on, attending her New York exhibitions became a mandatory affair. And with each show I attended, I witnessed the lines grow longer and longer. Still, the 30 seconds you're given to take in the endless refractions of color, light, and reflection inside her Infinity Mirror Rooms remedy the hours enduring Manhattan's brick winters.

This time, I had clearance to view Zwirner’s I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers minus the crowd, wait, and haste. This golden opportunity had an unexpected effect. I walked leisurely through the installation of outstretched pumpkins and exhibition’s namesake Flower sculptures, admiring the curvature and scale unobstructed by a constant stream of passersby. There was no fight to capture the angle I wanted. Then on to an empty room filled wall-to-wall with her paintings. Alone, I had enough time to count the amount of dots in a single painting. No awkward stares were signaling me to move out of frame to snap or pose for a photo. Instead, I found myself comparing this newer series with past works. The scale, mainly on the small side, the charming imperfections and pigmented strokes somehow felt different. The constellations of form and pattern I love to get lost in were far fewer in between. In previous times there was no shortage of paintings that served up the elements she effortlessly delivered. In this selection of paintings from Every Day I Pray for Love it was there, and it was not. I wanted more of the orange splotches fluorescing against turquoise fencing, and galactic stipples illuming the black of the canvas.

I stood in front of those pieces the longest, knowing I might not have the solitude the next time I encountered her works. Just shy of a century lived, could age play a role in this perceived change of stroke? I save the infinity room for last. An attendant opened and closed the door to the white lacquered cube, leaving me with my reflection. An experience my past self could only have in a daydream. With each 60 second interval that passed without someone telling me my time was up, the more awkward I felt. I switched between my eyes and the lens of my iPhone, surveying the multiplied refractions, filling my camera roll with an array of instaworthy shots. But how long could I stare at my selfsame form or the countless, primary-colored rounds that saturated the room? Subtle nostalgia for the transparent, plastic counters I used in elementary school waved over me.

Criticisms pointed at this room's lack of wow used this very comparison, though it wasn't where my indifference lay. How much time did I need to spend inside, alone and feeling awkward. I was happy to see the silhouette of another patron waiting outside the semicircle door and made my exit. Maybe they're onto something with the time constraints - the feeling of not having enough time always made me wish for more and relish in whatever I managed to hold on to. Before this, I never had enough time for the dopamine rush of light and mirrors to wear off. Like a magic show, the trick is over before the smoke clears, keeping the strings and trap-doors concealed.

Yayoi Kusama can paint a white dot on a blank canvas, and crowds will line up to see it in person. Whether she enjoys this fanaticism, we'll never know. While esteemed galleries and museums alike are privy to her generated success, the iconicism of her work and image is undeniable, but similar to the public's fixation, expectations are in decline - discounting the merit behind her continued practice. The industry has capitalized on her popularity, and the line where the artistry begins has become blurred.

I still admire the work of the most famous artist in the world. Whether it was good marketing or Instagram hype that brought her world into my view, I'm glad it did. I stuck around for the immersive, sensory-rich experiences she brings to the fore. I can't say with certainty that her present work is largely smoke and mirrors, because it certainly didn't begin that way. Kusama's magic and her echoic works' ability to charm audiences - to wait in endless lines or pay a pretty penny - is real.

Kusama Yayoi: I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers is on view at David Zwirner through July 21, 2023.