By Margot Clark-Junkins
It was 34 degrees when I left the house on a recent November morning. I stood in the frigid wind to gas up the car, bought a hot cup of coffee at McDonald’s, and nosed my car into rush-hour traffic before 8.
I was hurrying to the City to stand on a long line. I have an absolute aversion to waiting on lines, but this was special. I wanted to see the mirrored infinity rooms and famously wacky polka-dotted sculptures by the acclaimed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea.
Earlier in the year, I had missed my chance to see “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
The solo show — which had a strict cap on visitors and relied on timed tickets —accommodated 160,000 fans; overall museum attendance reached an all-time high of 475,000. The exhibit is on tour, currently at the Broad in Los Angeles, and moving to Toronto in March 2018.
By the time I parked the car and walked to the gallery on West 19th Street, it was 9:30 and the waiting line already snaked down the block towards the Hudson River. Swaddled in a down coat, hat, gloves, and boots, I was prepared to stand outside for hours.
Once the gallery opened at 10, we began to inch forward. People were starting to arrive in droves and I could no longer see the end of the line. We were asked not to block the entrance to David Zwirner’s first gallery, which contains Kusama’s spectacular paintings. (If you want to see the paintings only, you can bypass the line.)
After a total of one hour and 15 minutes on line, I reached the main entrance. Inside, I was disappointed to see two short lines, but the pace was picking up. I was steered to the left, toward an invisible door, which popped opened periodically and absorbed five people at a time. Behind them I could see a mirrored room filled with silvery globes, some on the floor and some hanging in mid-air.
I was somewhat aghast to see that I was surrounded by fashionistas who had removed their winter coats to reveal cunning outfits designed to complement the exhibit: black-and-white striped skirts, dotted shirts, chrome yellow sheath dresses. They were ready to take the perfect selfie, and I had somehow neglected to properly prepare for this moment. As Trump would say: #SAD!
Within 15 minutes, I reached the front of my little line. A group of us were instructed not to touch. We would have exactly one minute in the mirrored infinity room. Go!
Trying not to run, we entered the small room and the invisible door shut behind us. The world fell away and we quietly stared at millions of ourselves. We posed. We took selfies. We took pictures of each other. We tried to put down our phones and look with our eyeballs. 59 seconds later, a new door popped open in the wall and we were ushered out.
We slipped paper booties over our shoes and got on the other line. Another 15 minutes passed pleasantly enough (we were grateful to be indoors and warm), and then five of us were told that we would have 45 seconds to look at the next installation. Go! We rushed into a black room and shoved our faces into small oval windows, discovering an unending vista of mirrors, which included our own faces, <ad infinitum>. Pulsing lights changed rapidly from electric blue to chrome yellow to magenta. We hurried from one peephole to the next, admiring the arrangement of mirrors forming limitless patterns. It felt like walking inside a kaleidoscope.
Within 45 seconds we were politely asked to move on. Somewhat blinded, we walked toward the light, which turned out to be a brightly-lit universe where the walls, floor, ceiling, and several massive potted tulips were painted glossy white and populated with enormous red dots. The tulips were both wonderful and slightly ominous. I found myself thinking about the measles.
My sensory-overload arrow was starting to tip off the scale, so I made my way outside. I trotted past the poor souls still on line and cut through them at the designated break, waltzing straight into the gallery we had passed earlier, filled with Kusama’s paintings. This was a lovely surprise, turning out to be the most extraordinary part of my visit.
Two tiers of large paintings in super bright colors with intricate, Aboriginal patterns lined the loft-like gallery, covering the walls from floor to ceiling. I was astonished by the amount of labor that each one of these paintings represented. I went around the room looking at them then went round again and again. Three large glossy flowers painted with equally bright colors and covered with dots reclined on a white dais in the center of the gallery.
A gallery attendant explained to me that Kusama had produced all of these paintings in the last four years. She has been building a body of work with a singular vision since her arrival in New York in 1957. She was friends with Frank Stella and Donald Judd and had a relationship with Joseph Cornell. With museums around the world clamoring for Kusama to do solo shows, the 88-year-old has reached the pinnacle of artistic achievement and critical acclaim.
This fall, Kusama’s very own museum opened in Tokyo; the five-story building is based in the residential neighborhood of Shinjuku, near the psychiatric hospital where she has chosen to live since 1977. A few days ago, she posted a brief “message of gratitude” video on Instagram…it received 60,658 views and counting.
“Yayoi Kusama: Festival of Life” runs through December 16 at David Zwirner, 533 West 19th Street. Visit www.davidzwirner.com.