Seeing spots from the mind of Yayoi Kusama is not always a pleasant experience. An artist from Japan, now in her 80s, Kusama made her name in New York in the 1950s and 60s, in an artworld dominated by abstract expressionism, predominantly made by men.
Her early paintings made before she left for America feature red twisting vines, visceral flowers with gaping, spiky mouths and red cave spaces that look threatening and impossible to escape from, and this sense of menace never really leaves the work of this pioneering, experimental artist.
After writing to Georgia O’Keefe, whom she greatly admired, Kusama moved to New York, and her paintings quickly changed in style and scale. There is a beautifully hung room of Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings in this exhibition – large canvases of creamy white brushstrokes on coloured backgrounds, each made in tiny curved strokes, so that what shows through are dotlike shapes underneath. These have a certain Robert Ryman-like minimalism to them, as well as a sense of sprawling, infinite space, but I can’t help thinking that, if Agnes Martin’s paintings sometimes replicate that overwhelmingly uplifiting feeling of being in a sunny field, then these make one think of being trapped in a cloud, or a vast sea.
This concern with obliteration and overwhelment moves through Kusama’s work as we enter the 1960s. We see chairs, suitcases and boats that she covered with phallic, spongy white shapes, or jackets covered in silver macaroni. Her use of griddy, repetitious images on wallpaper prefigures what Andy Warhol would do with his cow prints a few years later. As psychadelia and hippy culture began to take off, Kusama began making performances, covering the naked bodies of participants in spots and dots, hosting orgies, gay weddings and experiences in which she hoped people could feel obliterated, connected to the universe.
I saw this exhibition at the Pompidou, and Tate have done a much better job with it here. The hang is cleaner, and there is a less wacky, more threatening atmosphere, emphasising Kusama’s mental illnesses and hallucinations. The spots are ominous in their domination in works like I’m Here, but Nothing (2000/2012), where bright fluoro dot stickers cover a dark, domestic room with sofa, tables, chairs and TV, every spot illuminated by UV light and blocking the world behind it. There’s no escape, they seem to say.