The Eiffel Tower or the Great Mosque of Mecca; the new iPhone or the latest Harry Potter book; Di Fara Pizza or that bakery that made Cronuts happen a few years back. For some experiences you just have to wait — and the exhibitions of Yayoi Kusama, the 90-year-old Japanese mastermind of obsessively dotted paintings, hallucinatory pumpkins and sometimes blandly decorative installations, have become the art world’s equivalent of Star Wars premieres.
Ignored for decades in New York and Tokyo, driven to madness, even plagiarized by less talented men, Ms. Kusama is enjoying a late and not unmerited surge in public visibility. (She even warrants her own balloon in this month’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, alongside Pikachu, SpongeBob and the Elf on the Shelf.) She has become a brand — a process she has enjoyed and fully participated in — and drawn tens of thousands of fans worldwide to her “Infinity Mirrored Rooms,” which produce an infinite regress of colored reflections.
The David Zwirner gallery, commendably, is treating “Yayoi Kusama: Every Day I Pray for Love,” which opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 14, like any other exhibition: free to the public. (It anticipates 100,000 visitors and promises to update the public on wait times via Twitter and Instagram.) If you want to see her newest “Infinity” room in New York, subtitled “Dancing Lights That Flew Up to the Universe,” prepare to wait up to two hours, and don’t expect to stay inside longer than a minute.
Worth the wait? That depends on how much you value your time — and what you expect of art in the age of Instagram. The smartphone, with its ever-finer cameras and ever-shinier screens, now shapes our experience of art as thoroughly as the church did in 14th-century Italy or the unadorned, white-cube galleries did for midcentury abstract painters. Ms. Kusama’s art eases into the smartphone screen with stunning elegance; but troubling that screen is another matter.
No wait will be required to see the rest of the exhibition, which occupies two floors of the gallery’s 20th Street location. A compelling suite of 42 new paintings on the ground floor is most worth your time. These hot-colored, square-format paintings, hung on a single wall like a cryptic frieze, deploy Ms. Kusama’s own hermetic symbology of floating cells, bristling cilia, a calligraphic woman’s profile and countless stippled dots.
In the same large gallery is an icy sculpture installation, scattered around the floor like puddles after the rain. These repeated steel forms, aiming for what Ms. Kusama called “self-obliteration” in a 1968 film, feel like a welcome throwback to her earlier work in sculpture and installation. Certainly it’s more challenging than the garden-ornament sculptures upstairs, some sporting smiley faces and all covered in dots: her most frequent self-obliteration motif, though one that too often becomes cute and tame.
Ms. Kusama first produced a mirrored installation in 1965, at the Castellane Gallery in New York, where she placed thousands of soft, polka-dot-studded phalli against reflective surfaces. In her newest “Infinity” room, a single, suspended globe of light illuminates the mirrored chamber, then a second, then a third, until the room becomes a constellation of lanterns with you at its nucleus. Then, in a flash, the white globes flash to red; you have a few seconds of colored light, and the room goes dark again.
It’s a beautiful effect. (Or it was for me, alone in the room; you’ll be sharing the experience with up to three other visitors at a time.) But you needn’t be Dr. Freud to diagnose that the narcissism of a new selfie-devoted public has canceled, utterly, the goals of self-obliteration that Ms. Kusama intends her infinite installations to achieve. The self cannot dissolve when the selfie is the goal.
And the erotic or psychedelic excesses of Ms. Kusama’s early art are long gone, too. In her orgiastic “body festivals” of the 1960s, she encouraged audiences to slather one another with paint; now others must be cropped out of the cameraphone frame. Sex and drugs are nothing compared with the thrill of “likes.”
This is not necessarily to fault Ms. Kusama’s art for becoming more contemplative and isolating in her later years. But those lines outside confirm that the “Infinity” rooms have become perhaps the paradigmatic art of the cameraphone age, which has seen the interactive (or “relational”) art of the 1990s and early 2000s give way to art condemned to be treated as backdrops for photo shoots. Other examples include Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, James Turrell’s “Aten Reign” at the Guggenheim in 2013, but also fun-house amusements that are only sort of art, like the Rain Room, Random International’s 2013 immersive environment, or the fluorescent “art experiences” called Meow Wolf.
Keep your phone in your pocket, or pull it out and strike a pose. There’s no “wrong way” to see art. What concerns me, instead, is how artists respond to new in an era of smartphones. Artists can respond by reflecting and distorting this new visual field, like the painters Jacqueline Humphries and Laura Owens. They can incorporate phones into their artistic project — like the brilliant Lithuanians behind the performance “Sun & Sea (Marina),” winner of this year’s Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, who positioned their phone-wielding audience above the singers. They can shut them out entirely, like Tania Bruguera or Marina Abramovic … or, indeed, like Madonna.
The project of the contemporary artist has to be to query and rumble this new visual regime, rather than to ease into the smartphone frame. Otherwise … well, last year I went to a bat mitzvah in Westchester that featured, in addition to the usual sushi station and party favors, a counterfeit Infinity Room with perfect lighting. It wasn’t a Kusama, but the selfies my boyfriend and I took looked fantastic.
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