Yayoi Kusama

kusama by Michael Leavitt

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is a Japanese artist whose paintings, collages, soft sculptures, performance art and environmental installations all share an obsession with repetition, pattern, and accumulation (she has described herself as an ‘obsessive artist’). Kusama’s work is based in Conceptual art (in which the concepts or ideas involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns) and shows some attributes of feminism, minimalism, surrealism, Art Brut, pop art, and abstract expressionism, and is infused with autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content.

Kusama is also a published novelist and poet, and has created notable work in film and fashion design. She has long struggled with mental illness, and has experienced hallucinations and severe obsessive thoughts since childhood, often of a suicidal nature. She claims that as a small child she suffered physical abuse by her mother. In 2008, a work by her sold for $5.1 million, a record for a living female artist.

By 1950, Kusama was depicting abstracted natural forms in watercolor, gouache and oil, primarily on paper. She began covering surfaces (walls, floors, canvases, and later, household objects and naked assistants) with the polka dots that would become a trademark of her work. The vast fields of polka dots, or ‘infinity nets,’ as she called them, were taken directly from her hallucinations. In the early 1960s Kusama began to cover items such as ladders, shoes and chairs with white phallic protrusions. Since 1963, Kusama has continued her series of ‘Mirror/Infinity’ rooms. In these complex installations, purpose-built rooms lined with mirrored glass contain scores of neon colored balls, hanging at various heights above the viewer. Standing inside on a small platform, light is repeatedly reflected off the mirrored surfaces to create the illusion of a never-ending space.

After living in Tokyo and France, Kusama left Japan at the age of 27 for New York City, following correspondence with Georgia O’Keeffe in which she became interested in joining the limelight in the city. During her time in the U.S., she quickly established her reputation as a leader in the avant-garde movement. She organized outlandish happenings in conspicuous spots like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, often involving nudity and designed to protest the Vietnam War. Between 1967 and 1969 she concentrated on performances held with the maximum publicity, usually involving Kusama painting dots on her naked performers, as in the ‘Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead,’ which took place at the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art. She was enormously productive, and counted Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd among her friends and supporters, but did not profit financially from her work.

In 1966, Kusama first participated in the 33rd Venice Biennale. Her ‘Narcissus Garden’ comprised hundreds of mirrored spheres outdoors in what she called a ‘kinetic carpet.’ As soon as the piece was installed, Kusama began selling each individual sphere for $2, until the Biennale organisers put an end to her enterprise. Perhaps one of Kusama’s most notorious works, ‘Narcissus Garden’ was as much about the promotion of the artist through the media as it was an opportunity to offer a critique of the mechanization and commodification of the art market.

In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan in ill health, where she began writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories, and poetry. Today she lives, by choice, in a mental hospital in Tokyo, where she has continued to produce work since the mid-1970s. Her studio is a short distance from the hospital. Kusama is often quoted as saying: ‘If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.’

Yayoi Kusama said about her 1954 painting titled ‘Flower (D.S.P.S),’ ‘One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.’

Another quote of hers: ‘…a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.’

Her organically abstract paintings of one or two colors (the ‘Infinity Nets’ series), which she began upon arriving in New York, garnered comparisons to the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. When she left New York she was practically forgotten as an artist until the late 1980s and 1990s, when a number of retrospectives revived international interest.

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