November 19, 2019 8:30 PM

In Yayoi Kusama’s world, everything is a polka dot — the cosmos, the earth, the world, stars, the moon, and people. Her obsession with them defines her art: dots mark pumpkin sculptures, have covered her body, filled rooms, and even decorate the wheelchair she uses to get around. They have come to make up a significant part of her massive oeuvre. The 83-year-old Japanese avant-garde artist’s deep piercing stare, serious expression, and brightly hued wigs make her image un- forgettable to those who have seen her in photographs. Despite being holed up at Seiwa Hospital, a Tokyo psychiatric facility, by choice for the last 34 years, the avant-garde Japanese artist has remained prolific. 2012 can be considered the year of Yayoi Kusama. A retrospective of her 60-year career ended its stint at Paris’s Centre Pompidou January 9 and is currently on view at London’s Tate Modern (Kusama left the institution where she lives for the first time in 12 years to attend the opening) before it heads to New York’s Whitney Museum in July. A spring show of Kusama’s new work is at London’s Victoria Miro gallery. Two large new paintings will headline Arsenale 2012, the Kiev Biennale, this year. Louis Vuitton will debut a line of accessories Kusama helped design this summer. “I think it is very important that my works are viewed by as many people as possible,” wrote Kusama by email. “I am really grateful for those opportunities.”Born into a wealthy, conservative Japanese family, Kusama’s traumatic childhood consisted of a philandering father and abusive mother. At age five, the young Kusama picked up a paint brush. “It was when I was at about the age of 10 that I harbored a strong desire to be a painter,” she wrote.Wartime Japan drafted Kusama, along with all school-age children to work to support the war. She endured long hours in a textile factory that helped produce parachutes and military uniforms. Still, she painted and drew in her free time, eventually earning exhibitions as a teenager. She took an unusual step for a Japanese female and enrolled in art school against her family’s wishes to learn Japanese Nihonga painting, which uses water-based pigments to create delicate brush strokes. Her family sent her to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her as having schizoid tendencies. Her father’s wandering eye caused her to have an intense disdain for sex. She coped through the phalli she constantly incorporates in her artwork, using the process as a form of therapy. Her hallucinatory visions have regularly provided the Japanese avant-garde artist with inspiration over her 60-year career, assisting her in creating her whimsical pieces. Kusama’s work spans over several mediums, from staged happenings to film to sculpture to painting to interactive installations. She left behind Japan and her dysfunctional family life, adamant about making it in the art world.

Kusama arrived in New York at the age of 27 in 1958, after a series of correspondence between herself and Georgia O’Keeffe, whose work she admired, stopping along the way in Seattle, where she would have her first U.S. exhibition. The artist had only a few possessions: a large amount of money sewn into her dress; pastel, ink, and gouache drawings in her suitcase; and a letter from O’Keeffe. Kusama’s first few months in New York were unpleasant; lack of food and heat introduced her to the harsh realities of a new country — she became the embodiment of the term “starving artist.”

During her time in New York, Kusama made her most seminal works: the “Infinity Net” series—large-scale paintings defined by endless minute circular shapes, splotches, and curves; the “Infinity/Mirror Rooms”—mirrored environments that were intended to replicate her hallucinations; her surrealist sculptures covered with stuffed penises; and the film “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration.” The themes in her work represented a compulsion for repetition and a sense of obsession.

By 1962, she was showing alongside Claes Oldenberg and Andy Warhol. But being one of the only females did not daunt her, nor did she feel she had to persevere to be at the same level as her male counterparts. “I have not encountered any obstacles as yet,” she said in the email, when recently asked about the challenges she faced being a female in a predominantly male industry. Since the ‘60s, Kusama’s art has also served as political and social statements. One nude 1968 happening on the Brooklyn Bridge consisted of an orgy and flag burning. Its purpose: to protest the Vietnam War. Another one that year on Walker Street was called “Homosexual Wedding.” “I have been struggling with art over the past six decades or so, praying every day for ‘peace and love’ on earth,” said Kusama in the email. “With the power of art, I want to solve various problems existing in the world, working together with the peoples of other nations in order that we can ‘humanity.’”

The happenings still have an impact today, having come long before the fight for gay marriage became mainstream. “In the ‘60s, there were times I was taken into police custody for staging nude happenings,” wrote Kusama in the email. “I am pleased to see that such pioneer- ing activities have come to gain the recognition of society now (such as gay marriages) after so many years.”Kusama had an odd decade-long love affair with assemblage sculptor Joseph Cornell. The relationship was that between a notorious recluse and a woman afraid of sex—but it thrived. The photos of the two of them together in 1970 are among the few where Kusama is smiling, looking genuinely happy.

After Cornell’s death in 1973 Kusama had enough of New York. Wheth- er it was overexposure, disenchantment, mental illness, a need to re- treat, a broken heart, or if she simply had had enough is unclear. By this time, she was, by many accounts, as famous as Warhol. Four years later, she checked herself into the mental hospital. Under the advice of a psy- chiatrist, Kusama took up permanent residence there, still practicing art, until she resurfaced in 1993 with a solo show at the Japanese Pavil- ion at the Venice Biennale. Fifteen years later, in 2008, a white-on-white Infinity Net painting was sold at Christie’s for $5.8 million, one of the highest prices paid for a living female painter.

Kusama continues to work from her studio, which is walking distance from the hospital. “I do all the paintings myself at Kusama Studio,” said the artist, who made a wisecrack in the British broadsheet the Daily Telegraph earlier this year about artists who use assistants. “As for large pieces such as open-air sculptures, I need the help from my assistants,” she wrote. “Based on small models that I made for the work, they pro- duce the work under my supervision.”

For Kusama, who has spent her life as an outsider, her art is not only a refuge, but also a form of communication, a plight for good: “I believe that my art would contribute to the peace of humankind, overcoming con- flicts among people and those around the world,” she said. In some ways she has, her magical artwork providing a sense of mesmerizing delight.


Copyright of Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.


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