Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (ABCETO), 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 57" x 57."
Yayoi Kusama, like Francis Bacon, seems doomed to eternally have her work discussed through the prism of her her own life story. Reading the reviews of the Kusama exhibit at Gagosian and the big Bacon retrospective at the Met are essentially like reading biographies with occasional digressions into the discussion of pictures. But even then, these asides mainly serve to illuminate the more prurient aspects of the artists' tortured lives. This is a fate that they both by and large chose by wearing their tragic flaws on their sleeves; in Kusama's case, her psychological instability, in Bacon's, his sexual deviance. But there is a big difference between these two artists. If you made a decision to discuss only the art and not the maker, there would still be much to say about Kusama, and almost nothing to say about Bacon.
To be sure, Kusama has made some silly stuff, like the polka-dot self-portrait that greets viewers as they enter the Gagosian show. But those nets, those nets! She started making these in 1959, when a generation of artists were still figuring out what to do with the implications of Pollock's drip paintings. The "all-over composition," in which the pictorial field was arranged in such a way that no area of the canvas was more important than another, was being used by Frank Stella contemporaneously with Kusama, and would later be employed to great effect by the color painters like Jules Olitski, Gene Davis, and Ken Noland, and the op painters like Bridget Riley, Larry Poons, Richard Anuskiewicz, and Julian Stanczak. This conception of space and surface opened the door for the one-thing-after-another approach of minimalism, and Kusama's work, like Stella's, has to be considered an early model of the minimalist aesthetic. Kusama certainly made waves at the time, but not to the extent of the other artists mentioned above, and gender and ethnicity played a role in the second-tier reception of her top-shelf work. But look here, I'm digressing into biography.
Several of the nets on display at the Gagosian show have a new feature; the paint is thinned to varying degrees across the picture as opposed to the consistent impasto of her more typical net picture. The new pictures retain the ambiguous figure-ground relationships, in which either the nets themselves or the dots which make up the negative spaces can be viewed as mass or void. They also lose just a bit of the non-hierarchical reading of the "all-over" composition, not so much laterally, but in terms of perceived depth: the places where the paint is thinnest tend to recede and the thicker paint tends to proceed. This move toward a more representational mode yields surprising results: they breath in and out and can be read as photographic records of gauzy fabric in the wind or x-rays of microscopic organic tissue. They also look like abstract paintings; like paint on canvas.
She uses two color modes in the newer net paintings: either a close value complimentary or near-complimentary pair, or black and white. In both cases the thinned paint creates many levels of transparency which blend the net color and the ground color to varying degrees. The black and white pictures more aggressively court the afore-mentioned photographic reading, like in a David Reed, even though the figuration is not explicitly representational. The complimentary pictures tend to create the illusion of "film color," or the detachment of color from surface, in the areas where the net is more opaque. The thinned areas tend to recede in much the same way that representational pictures would, and the result is a picture that seems to exist both behind and in front of the picture plane in different areas. They are endlessly interesting to look at.
Gagosian Gallery is located at 555 W 24th St. in Chelsea, and the show stays up until June 27th. I highly recommend it. Feel free to skip the Francis Bacon.