One day after gazing at a pattern of red flowers on the tablecloth, I looked up to see that the ceiling, the windows, and the columns seemed to be plastered with the same red floral pattern. I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.
Yayoi Kusama,The Anatomic Explosion Happening, Central Park, NY,1969
In the manifesto for a 1960s Central Park Happening, Yayoi Kusama called herself “the Modern Alice in Wonderland.” Like Alice, she possesses a vivid and unruly imagination, and at age eighty-three continues to make bold and compelling works in a wide range of media. Even through the shifting cycles of the art world, she has never strayed from the purity of her own vision. For Kusama, art is a creed and in Infinity Net, the Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, she discusses her life and undying commitment to her art practice.
Kusama is best known for her polka dot and netted surfaces inspired by the hallucinations that began in her childhood. Kusama sees her work as a kind of therapy, a process through which to face and conquer her phobias. She enacts a gesture she calls self-obliteration as a form of liberation:
White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness. By the time the canvas reached 33ft it had transcended its nature as canvas to fill up the entire room. This was my ‘epic’ summing up all that I was. And the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious invisible power.
Kusama grew up in a well-to-do Japanese family with a cruel, oppressive mother and a philandering father. She attributes her mental disturbances in part to the stresses of her dysfunctional family. Kusama’s mother discouraged her daughter’s art making so vehemently that she even destroyed all of Yayoi’s materials. She wanted her daughter to be a proper Japanese girl with the simple goal of marriage. Kusama did not bow to her mother’s wishes and instead threw herself fully into her creative pursuits.
In 1957, at age twenty-seven, Kusama left her home in Matsumoto and made her way to New York after a stop to exhibit her work in Seattle. Even though her time in Japan offered little exposure to the art world, she was savvy enough to know she needed to get to New York to be taken seriously as an artist. She describes years of living hand-to-mouth, sustained only by her nearly uninterrupted studio sessions. In the fall of 1959, her hard work paid off with her first solo New York exhibit.
Kusama in her New York studio, c.1961 Image courtesy:Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / © Yayoi Kusama
Kusama became a player in the NY art scene and crossed paths with many art stars of the sixties, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, and Donald Judd who became a champion of her work. She had a ten-year relationship with Joseph Cornell who showered her with love letters and incessant phone calls. Kusama describes Cornell as a devout, poorly dressed misanthrope who lived with his eccentric and overbearing mother. Kusama and Cornell shared many nude-drawing sessions, but never consummated their relationship. Evidently, Cornell had sexual issues stemming from his mother’s frequent lectures about the dangers of “filthy women”.
Kusama had her own problems about sex. She was terrified of penetration and horrified by even the thought of a penis. Her phobia inspired the obsessive creation of phallic soft sculptures that grew to room-sized accumulations.
I began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust towards sex. Reproducing the objects again and again, was my way of conquering the fear. It was a kind of self-therapy, to which I gave the name ‘Psychosomatic art’.
Yayoi Kusama, Compulsion-Furniture, Accumulation, 1964
Later, Kusama became well known for her provocative nude Happenings that promoted sexual liberation. The media often blurred the line between Kusama and her work to portray her as a mysterious free-spirited personality. Kusama had no interest in sex and said her band of performers called her ‘Sister’ because to them “I was like a nun – but neither male or female. I am a person who has no sex.”
Kusama managed to pursue her work with an entrepreneurial zest despite her bouts of mental illness. In the mid to late 60s, she managed and produced a series Happenings around the globe. She used her studio to present the participatory body-painting project, the Nude Studio, the KOK social club and the Orgy Company also known as the Kusama Sex Company. All of these ventures aimed at sexual liberation through communal experience.
Kusama designed clothes for her Nude Fashion Company with the aim of bringing people together, literally with the Couple’s Dress, a sleeping-bag-like garb to be worn by two people at once. She also designed the Party Dress that featured cut out holes at the breasts and genitals to facilitate easy access for love-making. Kusama also made films, wrote poetry and fiction, and for a time published a newspaper called Kusama Orgy.
Kusama Presents an Orgy of Nudity, Love, Sex & Beauty Vol. 1, #2
While Kusama enjoyed noteriety though out the international art scene, Japan was not always wiling to embrace her wayward daughter. The Japanese media portrayed her as shameful exhibitionist and her family was mortified by all the bad press. In a letter, her mother wrote:
The fact that you have become a national disgrace is an insult to our ancestors, Yayoi, and I’ve just returned from the cemetery, where I went once again today to ask for their forgiveness. If only you had died of that bad throat infection you came down with as a child…
Even without the support and encouragement of her family, Kusama spent sixteen incredibly productive years working in New York. In the early 70s, her struggles with health issues became overwhelming and in 1973 she returned to the quieter life of Japan. In 1977 she voluntarily admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital where she still lives today. She constructed a studio across the street from the hospital where she works daily. In the years since her return to Japan she has mounted exhibitions around the world including the Venice Biennale in 1993, countless museum exhibits and her recent retrospective at the Tate that moves to the Whitney this week. As always, Kusama continues to grow her enterprise into new realms. Penguin recently published her illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and just this week, Louis Vuitton unveiled a fashion collaboration with the artist.
For Kusuma, the highest goal is total freedom in art and life and we can be assured that she will continue to tread steadily upon her innovative path.
I have been painting, sculpting, and writing for as long as I can remember. But to tell the truth, to this day I do not feel that I have ‘made it’ as an artist. All of my works are steps on my journey, a struggle for truth that I have waged with pen, canvas, and materials. Overhead is a distant, radiant star, and the more I stretch to reach it, the further it recedes.