Last week, a much heralded retrospective of Yayoi Kusama's work opened at the Tate Modern. Cited as the most important and influential Japanese artist alive today, it showcases work across her long and prolific career, from the 1940's until present day.
The show kicks off with a look at Kusama's early career, revealing the seeds of an artist finding her feet in the late 1940's. Throughout a series of expressive paintings she wears influences from the period on her sleeves. Traces of Miro and Dorethea Tanning surface through dark and dream-like imagery tinged with surrealism. In 'Lingering Dream, 1949' a highlight from her work of this era, blood red flowers wilt and die, their petals cast into gaping mouths, gasping for air. This work initially seems very distant from her later work, fore-going her trademark playfulness and use of colour. The trauma of a post-war Japan, is writ large here, with devastation and tragedy still a recent memory to many of her generation. It was a birthplace it seems she was desperate to escape, describing it at the time as 'Feudal and artistically inhibiting'.
Her subsequent move to New York in the 1950's marks a clear progression in her work. Exposure to the abstract expressionist and pop-art movements seemed to stimulate a new rigour and emerging style to her approach. Giant Canvases, seemingly at first a minimal wash of muted tones, reveal themselves to be obsessively constructed landscapes of staccato brushwork, almost machinelike in their regularity. It is an approach which she described as a 'meditative process', but which also in retrospect signalled a growing obsessiveness which marked a slow slide into mental illness.
A defining point of the show, are the 'whole room installations', bold sculptural pieces where items from everyday life are festooned in fleshy white phallic growths. In 'Boat, 1964' a rowing boat submits to this unique fate, spot-lit in a shadowed room, with repeated photostats of the incident wallpapered from floor to ceiling. The effect is both dramatic and unsettling.
Walking through the exhibition reveals an artist constantly adapting to her cultural surroundings. Perhaps the most pertinent example of this was her induction into the flower generation of the late 60's. Psychedelic film footage documents her artistic experiments with group performance, where shots of body painting are manically edited into dizzying celluloid trips. Out of context of the swinging 60's, this work does seem at times a little trite, but did as the exhibition proceeds to reveal, pave the way for a riotous exploration of colour for which she became famous.
The 1970's onwards marked the appearance of her signature polka dot, a device which she has explored with vigor across a series of sculptures, and installations. One particular gallery space was flooded in almost-darkness, dimly lit in ultra-violet. Small fluorescent polka dot stickers peek out of the shadows, covering the forms of a domestic interior; a table, a lamp, yet radically recasting them as something mysterious and otherworldly. The show stealing final piece draws viewers into a winding tunnel of wall-to-wall mirrors and sparkling lights, conjuring an infinite horizon, magical and absorbing.
Stepping away from this riotous world, it struck me how much the curation of this exhibition really plays to the strength of Kusama's work. Building a story across 50 years which seems to both deeply expose her drive and character, whilst equally reflecting the cultural and stylistic shifts of half a century. In short, it's a ride well worth taking.