Yayoi Kusama Occupies NYC!!!

Kusama Fashion, New York, 1970.  Published in Yayoi Kusama.

It almost requires a concentrated effort to avoid the work of Yayoi Kusama in New York City this summer.  After her Fireflies on the Water installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art opened to the public in June, in rapid succession the city has seen the arrival of her retrospective exhibition from the Tate Modern, the installation of her work Guidepost to the New Space at Pier 45 at Hudson River Park (accompanied by a concept store), a showing of new paintings and sculpture at Gagosian Gallery, and the endless wallpapering of subways, buses and billboards throughout the city.

On top of all this, the artist has collaborated with the fashion luxury brand Louis Vuitton (a sponsor for the exhibition) to launch a collection of accessories and clothing for the label.  Multiple stores in New York feature window installations and the flagship LV store on 5th avenue is completely wrapped in a polka-dotted façade.

Yayoi Kusama in British Vogue, 2012.  Photo: Norbert Schoerner

The art/fashion fusion of this endeavor is not a new venture for Kusama as an emphasis on corporeality and experimentation with adornment has featured prominently in her work since the 1960s.  Louis Vuitton has also notably worked with fine artists such as Sol Lewitt, Takashi Murakami, and the designer and artist Stephen Sprouse to name only a few.

When viewing the Kusama exhibition at the Whitney, I was excited to find a variety of archival materials on display that documented Kusama’s forays into fashion including photographs from a 1968 fashion show that the artist staged, as well as a press release from April of 1969, detailing the opening of a designer boutique at 404 Sixth Avenue in New York City.  In one document Kusama is referred to as the “Priestess of Nudity”, while her fashion concoctions are described as a mix of, “nude, see-through, and mod”.

Photo: Louis Vuitton Flagship Store, 5th Avenue & 57th street, New York City

When discussing her approach to design Kusama claims: “Fashions are connected to the naked body.  For society to be new, we must innovate and not bring back what has been done in the past”. [1]

Photo: Louis Vuitton Flagship Store, 5th Avenue & 57th street, New York City

Admittedly, I’m always happy to find dress spill over into the arena of fine art.  When it comes to expression, the human body is one of the most immediate and poignant vehicles to communicate ideas and it is precisely this possibility that makes dress history so interesting to me.  Yet, looking at her fashions (which I am under the impression were still viewed as fine art more so then design), I was somewhat struck by the blatant appropriation of pre-existing fashion ideas into her work.  Just a quick glimpse at the canon of fashion history quickly reveals designers like Courrèges, Rabanne, Cardin and Gernreich establishing this mod look in fashion and playing with ways to reveal and conceal the body just prior to Kusama’s debut of her clothing and textile line.  In New York City, other stores like Paraphernalia were already heavily promoting plastic see-through clothing, paper dresses, and other op art influenced designs that rivaled the bold appeal of Kusama’s adopted polka-dots years before she opened her own boutique.  My interest here, lies not within who specifically introduced what first, as all of these ideas were clearly part of the general zeitgeist and can not be truly credited to any single designer, but more within how cultural cache (or cultural capital to be more specific) is often the true product that is purchased within these fine art and design collaborations such as the current Kusama/Vuitton venture.

Photo: Louis Vuitton Flagship Store, 5th Avenue & 57th street, New York City

This is not a new discussion topic, and the history of such partnerships has long been an area of contention, especially for Louis Vuitton.  While the price tag on a piece of couture clothing can sometimes be astonishing, generally speaking the cost of clothing–while tiered within its own hierarchy—rests within a framework that changes only slowly over time and then in relation to the general market.  Art, on the other hand can shift dramatically in value based on social attitudes and market demands.  (From this equation, I exclude vintage and antique auction sales of both clothing and fine art, instead focusing on the contemporary direct channels of distribution via galleries and dealers vs. retail stores and design houses.)

Photo: Louis Vuitton Flagship Store, 5th Avenue & 57th street, New York City

Just as there are those that revel in the opportunity to buy a piece of Kusama for Louis Vuitton luggage, there are those that harshly criticize artists for branching out into design.  Within this history, there have been gray areas where the overlap between what constitutes fine art and what is considered mere product has caused trouble.  When Murakami collaborated with LV and opted to take excess textiles used for handbags to stretch on frames and sell as fine art canvases, one buyer, Clint Arthur, took the label to court as he felt that he’d been duped into purchasing remnants of the design process.  In his perception the artwork changed from a $6,000 steal, to an object that was rendered worthless with his comprehension of the design process.  But how different is this use of textile mills to produce an artist-dictated material, compared to the use of studio assistants in the same manner?

Photos: 1968 Fashion Show, Kusama’s Studio, New York.  Yayoi Kusama website.

While observing the mayhem that surrounded the Kusama counter at the LV flagship store after my museum visit, as much as I questioned the validation that an artist stamp provides to fashion objects that have no real standout appeal aside from the branding associated with them, I also considered the broader accessibility that such a collaboration offers.  Although there is a large population that cannot afford Louis Vuitton products, there is an even larger group that will never be able to afford a Kusama fine art work.

Photo: Louis Vuitton Flagship Store, 5th Avenue & 57th street, New York City

During a lecture for the Central Academy of Fine Art Takashi Murakami claimed that “the significance of art is nullified when it discards the connection with human desires…thus, it’s a necessary evil to be in touch with capitalism, the prevalent monster in the world.”[2]

When asked why she’s drawn to public art installations in a past interview Kusama remarked: “People and their enthusiasm help to animate, and thus complete, my work.” [3] Along these lines, the continuous crowds of onlookers that gathered around the 5th avenue Louis Vuitton storefront taking photographs, video, and contemplating the strikingly naturalistic rendering of the artist’s figure in wax (some unsure of what they were even looking at in the first place!) seemed to perfectly fulfill the necessary element of interaction so valued by the artist in this comment.  It is accessible to anyone without museum lines or ticket prices, and it offers the ability to enjoy art from a variety of different perspectives.

[1] Press Release, Opening of Kusama Fashion Boutique.  1969.  On display at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

[2] Kan Hsuang, Lin.  “Controversial Artist Takashi Murakami defends his anime-based style”.  The Global Times, May 23, 2011.

[3] Stolias, Helen.  The Art Newspaper.  December 5, 2009. (http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/%E2%80%9CI-ve-never-installed-my-work-in-such-an-exotic-environment%E2%80%9D/19829)

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