The painter Yayoi Kusama seems to be poised on the brink of art star status, with a blockbuster show that drew enormous crowds at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC and is now scheduled for a multi-city tour of the U.S. The surge of interest in Kusama’s work may be largely thanks to her signature polka-dot style, which is highly decorative and accessible, almost pop-arty in spirit. At the same time, her personal story is compelling and quirky. Having made her home by choice in a mental hospital for many years, Kusama may appeal to the public imagination as an artistic genius in the great tradition of Vincent Van Gogh – inspired by intense personal vision and a touch of madness.
Kusama’s paintings are not only highly accessible but they have great spiritual depth. The work that I find most compelling is the series of paintings she refers to as Infinity Nets. This is a mode she has been working in for many years. Kusama initially composed these Infinity Net paintings with arrays of dots that sprawled across the canvas; on closer inspection each dot can be discerned as a small, crescent shaped brushstroke daubed thick with paint. The overall effect is both luminous and hypnotic, sort of the visual equivalent of what you see when you meditate with your eyes closed, and your entire visual field pulsates with energy and speckled light. These paintings are very contemporary in look and feel, being steeped in the vernacular of abstract expressionism; but at the same time they are also infused with a primitivism and decorative glee, which reminds me of a cosmic Aboriginal wall painting as well as the great and obsessive patterning you see adorning the finest outsider artwork.
Over the years she has further developed her technique, and begun to incorporate new materials to create Infinity Net displays that are even more dazzling in effect. Using lights and mirrors to create room-sized environments, Kusama has created work that takes us far beyond the confines of the canvas, in which the sense of infinity becomes palpable and no mere abstraction.
While the art world is now embracing Kusama and offering her a place in the pantheon of contemporary Abstract Expressionist artists, it’s important and illuminating to recognize that her work can also be understood in reference to a much older artistic and spiritual tradition. Whatever influence Abstract Expressionism may have exerted on her work, Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings and room environments are infused with a Buddhist spirit. This is evident even though the paintings do not include any discernible Buddhist imagery or iconography. In fact, the very impulse that underlies Kusama’s work is to depict the infinitude of the cosmos, which has been one of the central aspirations of Buddhist art and aesthetics over the last two millennia.
Now, please don’t get me wrong, I have no idea if Kusama herself is a practicing Buddhist or fellow traveler of one stripe or another. It doesn’t really matter. Whatever her personal beliefs may be, Kusama’s work can be understood as developing out of a grand tradition of Buddhist art that has sought various ways, over the course of the millennia, to represent the infinite extent and interconnectedness of all phenomena and all living things. These are major themes evident in the mandalas, wall paintings and prayer flags on display throughout Asia, in the temples and stupas from Varanasi to Phnom Penh to the mountain monasteries of Tibet. Considered alongside a wall painting with hundreds of nearly identical Bodhisattvas sitting in meditation on their Lotus platforms, it’s easy to recognize the connection between Kusama’s Infinity Nets and the more conventional ways that Buddhist artists have tried to convey the idea of infinite space and time, subject to the confines of a shrine or temple’s wall space.
There’s a particularly striking parallel to Kusama’s artwork that dates back to 8th Century China. That was when a Buddhist monk by the name of Fa Zang, came up with an idea for creating a work of art that would demonstrate the iterative nature and infinite reach of Indra’s Net. The immediate purpose of this art project was to provide China’s Empress Wu with a better understanding of the fine points of Buddhist doctrine of the Flower Garland school. In order to do so Fa Zang placed large brass mirrors all around the inside walls of one of the rooms in the palace; then he placed a statue of the Buddha, along with a lamplight, at the center of a room. As Fa Zang explained this arrangement to the Empress, the statue of Buddha in the middle embodied the concept of Emptiness, while the image of the statue reflected in each of the surrounding mirrors represented the phenomena of the world – mere reflections of Emptiness. Then looking more carefully into each of the mirrors, Fa Zang showed the Empress how each mirror reflected all the other mirrors in the room – a way to experience first hand the infinite reach and iterative nature of each jewel that makes up the fabric of Indra’s Net. Although Fa Zang’s artwork has not survived to the present day, it can be inferred that his demonstration worked well, since the Empress Wu went on to become one of the staunchest supporters of Buddhism in China’s long run of dynastic succession.
In any case, Fa Zang’s demonstration with mirrors stands as a direct precursor of Kusama’s Infinity Nets – it’s an attempt to draw the infinite into the realm of our immediate aesthetic experience; making the cosmos palpable in the microcosm. It also may be one of the earliest recorded examples of conceptual art – undertaken more than a millennium before such happenings and conceptual art projects became a staple of the art scene.
The art historian James Romaine has noted that Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings share this same quality evident in Fa Zang’s work – they are not merely pictorial representations. They are also experiential. As Romaine has written:
Kusama participates in a tradition of the sublime expressed in abstract painting. Her, Infinity Nets, first emerged in the late 1950s as Abstract Expressionism was both triumphant and waning. In the work of an artist like Willem de Kooning, the gestures are grand, boisterous, unique and directional. They are repositories of bursting energy. By comparison, Kusama’s gestures are unpretentious and repetitive, without relinquishing their individuality; yet, collectively, they build and generate energy latent in the material paint and capture (remember, these are nets) light. The Infinity Nets shift from pictorialism, in which a painting suggests a vicarious experience, to a more direct perceptual experience. This process draws the infinite into the imminent.
This is a wonderful way to describe the challenge faced by any artist of a spiritual bent, hoping to create an imminent experience instead of a mere depiction of the spirit that resides within. If you want to better understand how art can powerfully convey an imminent sense of the immanence indwelling, leading us into this realm where spirit and metaphor reign supreme, then it’s most definitely worth a visit to one of the museums that will be hosting the Kusama exhibit on the upcoming tour.
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