Andy Warhol would’ve adored selfie culture. The filters, the screens, the outsized concern-trolling over authorship and frivolity in portraiture, likes, faves, addiction—all of it. He died too soon to see the entire culture follow him like a pied piper over the edge. For Yayoi Kusama, Warhol’s dotty yin-yang twin, selfies mean something more like redemption. Her mirror-lined installations, once pointy-headed, are mobile-phone honey-traps today. Every snap helps her to realize her wish: to disappear completely, to be scattered like the light in a limitless illusion.
Infinity Mirrors, possibly the most highly anticipated exhibit in the history of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, marks the fulfillment of Kusama’s dream of obliteration. An aesthetic and psychic pursuit for the artist, also something of a mantra for the Hirshhorn show, “obliteration” takes on several forms at the museum: from Kusama’s restless “infinity net” paintings to her fan-favorite “infinity mirror” rooms. Obliteration best describes how the artist’s own interest has been folded into that of the viewer. Where Kusama disappears, her fans emerge.
Six of the Japanese artist’s world-famous infinity installations are on view at the Hirshhorn. Viewers won’t get endless time with them. No more than 20 seconds to survey fields of poisonous polka-dotted pumpkins stretching out toward every horizon in “Infinity Mirrored Room—All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” (2016). Just one-third of one minute to take in the ethereal hanging lanterns of “Infinity Mirrored Room—Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” (2009). Twenty seconds isn’t much time for phone-toggling between Snapchat and Instagram, nevermind taking in anything the work might be saying.
That meaning has changed since 1965, when Kusama created her first mirror room, “Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (Floor Show),” a piece that was ahead of its time. Its closest cousin then was Walter De Maria’s first Earth Room, installed in Munich in 1968. With “Phalli’s Field,” Kusama reconciled her stuffed-cotton soft sculptures with the swirling scene of happenings and counterculture in New York, where Kusama lived between 1958 and 1973.
Back then, Kusama’s mirrors were convergence points for several vectors zipping through the art world. Her installations were scaled to the body, a principal concern for an artist obsessed (albeit comically) with the phallus. For one piece, “14th Street Happening” (1966), Kusama took the polka-dotted sculptures from “Phalli’s Field” and installed them in the street, where she lay down on top of, adjacent to, and beside them for photographs. While her infinity rooms stretch the imagination, they are also resolutely cubic, a potent form in post–Abstract Expressionist art. Kusama’s performative, deliberate, almost minimalist activities fit the academic milieu of New York at that time, even if her style—polka dots and pumpkins—was a mod outlier.
Mika Yoshitake, the curator for Infinity Rooms, which will travel to five museums in the U.S. and Canada through 2019, connects all these threads obligingly. There are ample archival materials on view, including Kusama’s hand-drawn proposal for building “Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever” (1966/1994), although the Hirshhorn might have given their display more prominence.
It goes understated, for example, that Kusama’s installations represent conceptual art: Her studio sends diagrams and guidelines for re-creating her infinity rooms, much as with a Sol LeWitt painting. Nevertheless, the exhibit capably traces how Kusama’s career evolved from orgiastic anti-establishment happenings in the 1960s to the honors that followed: representing Japan in the Venice Biennale in 1993 and receiving the Praemium Imperiale and the Order of the Rising Sun in 2006, for example. And the catalog is one of the better surveys the museum has ever produced.
The highlight of the exhibit—after her irresistible mirrors—are Kusama’s paintings. “Infinity Nets Yellow” (1960), “Infinity-Nets” (2005), and several net paintings in between, show how she has traced the grid, that familiar post-war art structure, throughout her career. (Softly, loosely, like Agnes Martin, but with a more textured brushstroke.) Several of Kusama’s sculptures, including “Arm Chair” (1963) and “Accumulation” (1962–64), anticipate contemporary trends in furniture, namely designing furniture that isn’t for sitting. Smaller acrylic works from the 1950s are easily the weirdest works in the show: minimal but not austere, organic but unnatural.
During what was supposed to be a brief visit home in 1973, the hallucinations that haunted Kusama (including visions of dots) compelled her to remain in Japan. She was hospitalized in Tokyo in 1975 and has spent most of her life since in psychiatric care. Yoshitake’s survey largely skirts the question of the artist’s mental health, although a large installation of Kusama’s recent paintings and sculptures demonstrates her endless repetition, the ceaselessness of her work. Once-fashionable questions over insider-versus-outsider art don’t hold as much sway in a world that is rethinking its standards for neurotypicality whole-cloth.
The Hirshhorn show can’t help but raise questions about what it means to see artworks more than 50 years after they were made. No doubt, Kusama’s mirror rooms will raise finger-wagging objections from critics who will say that social media influencer–types are missing the point by looking through a lens. It may prompt misgivings from viewers, too, who come away from a 20-second glimpse at a cosmic tableau with a nagging feeling that they totally missed it—despite photographic evidence to the contrary.
Kusama, like Warhol, anticipated mass participation in art. “The Obliteration Room” (2002–present) is the best example at the Hirshhorn: It’s a living room and dining room, complete with personal effects, rendered in an arctic, null white. The piece is completed by its viewers, who will, over the course of the show, obliterate the room with colorful polka-dot stickers. That work is perhaps the logical extension of the theme she started in 1952 with “Infinity,” a 9-by-12-inch ink drawing of dots on paper.
What neither Kusama nor Warhol anticipated was how removed their own concerns would be as art entered the age of viral reproduction. Consent of a subject for his or her image to be taken, the politics and etiquette of sharing, the problematization of the image—these aren’t ideas that would be familiar or comfortable in the art world of the 1960s.
The thing that Infinity Mirrors obliterates isn’t the self that disappears into Kusama’s endless hall of mirrors. It’s the self that is broadcast outward from her rooms and the universe of concerns that trail behind.
To May 14 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. 700 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 633-4674. hirshhorn.si.edu.