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Yayoi Kusama x Louis Vuitton: Is She Selling Out?
Polka dots, big brands and old age
Yayoi Kusama is one of the most popular contemporary artists of our time. If you’re familiar with her work, you’ll probably know her mirror room installations in which little coloured lights flash as you walk through the space. Or her polka dot paintings. Or her dancing pumpkins. Or maybe her brightly coloured large flower sculptures.
And if you follow the fashion or art news you’ll have seen Kusama’s current collaboration with the luxury brand Louis Vuitton. It’s their second partnership in a decade. The Vuitton PR and marketing machines have been working on overdrive to promote the hell out of the collab, which includes polka dot clothes, handbags, trainers and sunglasses. There are online ads and videos, billboards and posters, and a robot representation of Kusama in the flagship New York store window.
Kusama is 93 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. Her work sells like hotcakes, she has collectors all over the world and she’s constantly in major museum shows. Tate Modern has been flogging tickets for her Infinity Room show for months on end now. She’s prolific. And it helps that her work is so easily shareable on social media: google her and you’ll see thousands of images of her work.
Her art is undeniably popular, but she gets absolutely hammered by the art critics. On the current installation at Tate Modern one critic had this to say:
In her Infinity Mirrored Room little hanging lights glow and dim as they cycle through their programmed sequence of colour changes. My cheapo garden fairy lights do that too, even when I don’t want them to…The mechanics of Kusama’s looking-glass theatres snag me, but not in particularly interesting ways.
For a show at the Victoria Miro gallery in London back in 2018 another art critic said,
Her mirror installation will inspire selfies – but if she’s the greatest artist of our time, it doesn’t say much for our time….I can’t take this installation too seriously…it is on about the same artistic level as a lava lamp.
And on the Kusama x LV collaboration we are told by the Art Newspaper that ‘the latest works are just a tired reiteration of all that has gone before’. Long gone are the days back in the 1960s and 70s when Kusama was producing pioneering work. She made some strikingly innovative art, inspiring other big-name artists of her generation.
In 1962, for example, she exhibited a work called Accumulation No 1, otherwise known as the ‘penis chair’, a sculpture with sewn and stuffed phallic shapes attached to it. The pop artist Claes Oldenburg had a papier-mache artwork hanging in the same exhibition, and soon afterwards he started making the soft sewn sculptures that became his signature style. Kusama said that Oldenburg’s wife later apologised to her.
After that Kusama made her first installation work, 1000 Boats. It was a rowboat covered with stuffed soft sculpture protrusions which she then photographed to make posters, and covered the walls of the gallery with them. By doing this Kusama was breaking all the boundaries of space, and took away the viewer’s ability to focus on the object. She then had herself photographed naked in front of the boat in the installation. Andy Warhol came to see the show, and told her how much he liked it. Three years later he produced his Cow wallpaper.
Then followed another innovation. Kusama developed her first infinity room, which in its early format was a mirrored octagonal room with a series of lights set up on the ceiling, and openings where the audience could stick their heads in to view it. In this work Kusama was forcing the audience to think about the process of looking at space and perspective, a concern that artists have had for centuries. A few months later the artist Lucas Samaras showed a similar construction, a mirrored room, in an exhibition at one of the established New York galleries.
Kusama was incredibly diverse in her output in these early days, and always had an eye on what would catch the media’s attention. In 1966 she participated in the Venice Biennale without an invitation, setting up an installation with hundreds of mirrored balls on the grass outside the Italian pavilion. And as people came by Kusama, who was dressed in a golden kimono, began selling the balls for $2 a pop. By doing so she was drawing attention to the nature of art as an exclusive commodity, once again challenging conventions.
There were other innovations too. Kusama was interested in breaking taboos, particularly around sex and nudity. She started staging naked love-ins in public places and burned American flags, Bibles, and draft cards, catching the anti-Vietnam sentiment of the time. In her studio she created a room lined with mirrors and invited news crews to film a group of young men having sex inside. There was a permanent troupe of young people who lived in her studio, ready to perform whenever she wanted them whilst she painted their bodies with polka dots.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Kusama’s life and career I’d recommend watching the documentary Kusama: Infinity, released back in 2018. It’s a slice of US history and contemporary art history, and it’s fascinating.
Looking at the endless reiterations of polka dots and mirrored rooms in her output now, one might ask what happened to this radical artist? Is it just not possible for artists to continue making new and innovative art throughout such a long career? For some, maybe not. But I don’t think Kusama’s interested in that anymore. She has always been a hugely ambitious artist, and a terrific self-publicist. She has a good eye for what will catch on, and what will be taken up by the media. And like Andy Warhol, she has no problem with the concept of art-as-commodity. She talks about wanting to sell sell sell, and about her desire to be the Biggest Artist Ever. Some people may be repelled by this attitude, but I believe it’s what drives all of her current output and projects.
Kusama has famously struggled with her mental health, and since 1977 she has lived in a sheltered medical facility in Japan. Every day she goes to a nearby studio to make her art - she says it’s what keeps her sane. In an article about the Louis Vuitton collaboration in The Art Newspaper last week a journalist wrote:
Other artists have exploited their creativity to produce market-friendly tchotchkes (Damien Hirst springs to mind, among others) but in those cases market exploitation is an integral part of their practice. In Kusama’s case, I wonder who exactly is signing on the (polka) dotted line—and how aware she is of everything that is being sold in her name today?
Is it because she is really old now and has struggled with her mental health over the years that she is being discussed in a way that suggests she has no agency? It seems to me that she has a very clear plan: to make certain that she firmly takes her place in the art halls of fame before she dies. In that case collaborating with one of the world’s biggest luxury brands is a pretty canny decision, not a sign of vulnerability in her old age. People might suggest that through collaborations like this one she is ‘selling out’ and diluting her artistic principles to chase the money. This is what was often said of Andy Warhol in his late career. But I think that misreads Kusama’s deliberate purpose.
I’d love to know what you think of Kusama’s work so please tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
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