In 2013, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room was the surprise hit of the art world, the piece that launched thousands of selfies on its way to becoming an international cultural phenomenon. By the end of her exhibition I Who Have Arrived in Heaven's run at David Zwirner Gallery in New York, the waits to see the show had grown to eight hours long. (On an average day, the exhibition received around 2,500 visitors, each allotted less than a minute of time in the space.) So the question hanging over her second Zwirner show, Give Me Love, was if Kusama could once again channel the zeitgeist.
Kusama's first visit to New York in 1957 was something of a glorious, cosmic flameout. At 28, she left her native Japan for the city like so many before and after her, with a one-way ticket and a dream. The enigmatic artist began staging a series of high-profile "happenings" that, in keeping with the experimental tenor of the era, were often laced with nudity and tinged with political and feminist undertones. Like Yoko Ono and the FLUXUS movement, Kusama created a series of instructions and "invitations" that could be re-replicated, her most famous a series of be-in style protests in the late 60s that involved naked men and women, covered in polka dots, stationed outside the UN, the New York Stock Exchange, the Statue of Liberty, and elsewhere. As the Vietnam War raged abroad, and Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, Kusama sought to spread the gospel of "LOVE FOREVER." She garnered praise for her work and met high-profile friends and lovers, like the sculptor Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd. But she was also broke, and hopelessly so.
When she began to deteriorate both physically and emotionally in 1973, she returned to her native country for treatment, to commence what would turn into a decades-long stint in a mental hospital. As she recovered, she acquired her own unique, some have said therapeutic, visual style, the most recognizable her polka dot and infinity net works. With her success of the Infinity Mirrored Room, 60 years after her initial arrival in the city Kusama finally achieved the New York welcome she'd so longed for, an adoration that extended far beyond the cloistered world of the city's arts institutions—the Guardian even called her the "world's most popular artist of 2014." So what has she done for an encore?
The new show, which will be up through mid-June, features the artist's intricate paintings, large-form pumpkin sculptures, and Obliteration Room, an interactive project inspired by a makeshift "American middle-class house." The design is based on the urban planning initiatives of Levittown, New York, widely considered to be the first suburb and prototype for many of the country's postwar communities. As part of Obliteration Room, which was previously staged in Australia, visitors are given colorful polka dot stickers to place wherever they like inside the all-white house. Eventually, the faux TV, dinner table, sofa, and desk will all become a pastiche of color swatches, transforming the calm, blank slate into a space that is overwhelming with radiant life. Gallery visitors become willing participants in both the project's destruction and renewal, in keeping with Kusama's prior themes of life, death, and rebirth.
Although Kusama's work today is in high demand, just a few decades earlier Kusama was so obscure that an intern at the Paula Cooper Gallery was able to buy one of her "carbuncle chairs" at a local thrift store for a mere $250. Glenn Scott Wright, co-director of the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, is credited as being one of the first to champion the Kusama revival. "She did have a moment," Wright told me at the preview, "a rather long moment, from the early 70s to 1993 [her year as Japan's representative at the Venice Biennale]… when she was not really being looked at."
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The most recent reason for Kusama's resurgence is the social media effect. Infinity Mirrored Room was one of the most Instagrammed and selfied art events of 2013, and perhaps of all time. But you can't measure her influence merely in likes and reblogs, says Hanna Schouwink, a senior partner at David Zwirner.
"[Kusama]'s a genius, someone who's really been able to tap into what it means to be human, whether you live in America or Tokyo or Russia," explains Schowink. "People from all over the world tune in to her message. Every museum, every single venue where these shows have shown, has broken [attendance] records for its institution. And then she breaks them doubly. It's a phenomenon that I don't think we've ever seen before."
David Zwirner himself says, "Very few artists have this gift to really transcend the art world. It's rare. Jeff Koons has that gift, of course. What Kusama does is very life-affirming. It's very positive, and it asks you to enter. It's not opaque, and she doesn't hold back as an artist. She's had difficult times in her life, and I think that transports to the work and people really react to it."
Though the sheer volume of Infinity Room selfies puts it in a league with such tourist traps as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, the photo-friendly nature of the exhibit wasn't a calculated move by Zwirner to court the smartphone set.
"I hate to admit it, and it dates me a little, but it hit me by surprise," admits Zwirner at the preview. "The moment I saw what a selfie would do in there I thought, Of course! But none of us had thought of it. It was just a beautiful thing that made us at the center of that world for a moment, and we loved it." (In case you're wondering, Zwirner also took a selfie, though he says, "It was probably the worst of all of them.")
The day of the preview, insiders as well as super-fans like Sasha Kalachnikoff, a pint-sized, be-wigged "gallery kid" known as "little Kusama," arrived at nine to be the first to experience Obliteration Room.
While the line was relatively short, writer and journalist Antwaun Sargent predicts a surge: "The initial line is going to be people very into her work, and know who Kusama is. Then it [will become] social because of Instagram. It's a cultural currency thing in New York. The last show she had, it was about the art but also, 'Have you been to Kusama's room?' I was seeing people in my Instagram feed who had no orientation towards art, but were all going."
JiaJia Fei, associate director of digital marketing at the Guggenheim Museum, who has visited Kusama exhibits from Shanghai to Buenos Aires, also anticipates a wave of buzz.
"Her shows always draw such huge crowds, there's lines around the block, worldwide," says Fei. "It's great because these are shows where you don't really need any prior knowledge of art history or scholarship to really understand and enjoy it. She's very colorful, and has all of the visual things people respond to."
But why do visitors respond to Kusama's work? Easy: "It just makes people happy," Fei said.
And as is often the case with happiness, sometimes you've just got to wait.
Yayoi Kusama's Give Me Love is on view at David Zwirner Gallery in New York through June 13, 2015 with extended hours during New York Frieze Week.
Laura Feinstein is Brooklyn-based editor and writer. Follow Laura on Twitter.