It took years of patient waiting and networking to bring the polka dots, infinity rooms and large-scale installations of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where a major retrospective of this still-active, 92-year-old artist opens November 15.
“It’s an exhibit of such scale,” said Suzanne Landau, the former head curator of the museum, who returned to put this colossal show together. “You can’t take it for granted. It takes years and discussions and logistics and budgets.”
That wait is finally over and tickets are already sold out for November.
The museum’s main galleries, including those in the new Amir building, are filled with Kusama’s artworks from her 80 years of creation for “Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective.”
The exhibit begins with two of Kusama’s crayon drawings from when she was five and nine years old — and already utilizing dots in her artworks — continuing through her massive canvases, sculpted works, mirrored infinity works and finishing with two installations created for this Israeli retrospective, which include a gallery full of hot pink with black polka dot inflatables that appear to be dinosaur tails towering above viewers.
It’s a staggering collection of 250 artworks, divided into Kusama’s different periods, starting with her upbringing in Matsumoto, Japan, moving into her first works created in the US where she moved temporarily in the late 1950s, and then in Europe and after she moved back to Japan, where she has lived for most of her long life.
“She can speak to all the ages and all the people, to people who know her art and those who don’t,” said Tania Coen-Uzielli, director of the museum.
Bringing Kusama’s artwork was Landau’s dream, said Coen-Uzielli, who replaced Landau in 2018. She pointed to the fierce female, avant garde spirit that pervades the exhibit.
Ironically, the opportunity to finally bring the renowned Japanese artist’s work to Israel finally became available at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, said Landau, when a colleague at Gropius Bau in Berlin proposed the exhibit.
For Landau, hosting a Kusama retrospective was high up on a long wish list of solo artist exhibits, after she joined the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2012, following 34 years as a curator at the Israel Museum. (Coen-Uzielli and chief curator Mira Lapidot, also present at the press tour of the Kusama exhibit, were Landau’s colleagues while at the Israel Museum.)
“I told Tania, ‘it’s now or never,'” said Landau.
It took months of work, said Landau, working closely with Kusama’s studio team in Japan who had to approve of every artwork, gallery placement and detail.
Several of Kusama’s staff members came to Israel for the final staging of the exhibit, with particular attention paid to the two installations made expressly for this exhibit, the Narcissus Garden of hot pink inflatables and the Endless Room, a collection of more recent black-and-white and vividly colorful artworks reflected in dozens of mirrored balls set on the floor of the room.
Once the decision was made to host the retrospective, regardless of the questionable future given the raging pandemic, Landau wanted to create an exhibit that would be an emotional experience for audiences, while offering the historical perspective of Kusama.
“It’s to see her art and who she is,” said Landau.
It’s an exhibit that envelops the viewer from the very first gallery, introducing viewers to Kusama’s lifelong attachment to dots — perfectly circular or oval shapes, overlapping, lined up or haphazardly trailing off.
As Kusama matured and developed, her artworks grew in size, and later became the installations and mirrored infinity rooms for which she became famous, examples of which are reprised in the Tel Aviv Museum retrospective.
The first infinity room is part of Kusama’s phallus phase, a mirrored room filled with soft white protrusions covered with red polka dots, creating a sea of the hand-sewn humps. The next infinity room allows viewers to peer through square windows into a revolving kaleidoscope of mirrors and neon lights, something akin to being inside a pinball machine.
The next gallery introduces viewers to Kusama’s black polka-dotted yellow painted pumpkins, an object that Kusama has viewed as her alter ego and that formed the core of her work after she returned to Japan in 1973. Besides the grand gold pumpkin forming the center of the gallery is her pumpkin infinity room, where yellow painted pumpkins are extended by mirrors into an alternative, polka-dotted pumpkin patch.
Kusama refers to her vast fields of polka dots as “infinity nets,” taken directly from her hallucinations. The exhibit refers in its texts and videos to Kusama’s well-documented lifelong battle with mental health problems and her use of art to fight pain, anxiety and fear. She famously checked herself into a Tokyo psychiatric institute in 1977 and has lived there ever since, working in her studio across the street.
For the curators, however, the exhibit represents optimism through this avant-garde rebel, and the very fact that they pulled it off, even as the pandemic continues.
“There’s nothing more appropriate after the pandemic, which is still here, but the exhibit gives expression to optimism,” said Landau.
Tickets for the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art are sold out through November, with some availability in December.
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