Yayoi Kusama reappeared on the international art scene in the early 1990s after two decades of relative obscurity. Ever since, she has seen her fame and critical acclaim grow as never before—along with speculations that her “mental illness” may be part of a lifelong publicity strategy. Arriving in America in 1957, the young Japanese artist had, by the mid-1960s, become one of New York’s most prolific, provocative and notorious characters. Yet in 1975 she returned to Japan and voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, where she still creates obsessively and therapeutically. Kusama’s autobiography, first published in Japanese in 2002, is finally available in English and may settle some key questions about her private world.
Titled after her New York debut painting series, Infinity Net is Kusama’s detailed account of seven decades dedicated to art, survival and the future—a future she constantly reinvents to counter the destructive effects of multiple physical, mental and social challenges. In recounting her traumas and accomplishments, however, she proffers no dramas or tears. Like her paintings, veiled with a lively yet chilling surface of dots, her book evokes the intensity and “insanity” of her life only remotely, through vivid, unsentimental descriptions of events. While she chronicles every detail of her life and career almost desperately (for example, she quotes at length from favorable reviews of her work and mentions all the awards she has received), she does so in minimal, straightforward prose. Focusing on facts and employing an impersonal tone, she writes as though she were presenting someone else’s biography rather than her own. In this rather paradoxical way, the book brings us subtly closer to Kusama, who remains, in both her private life and her work, extremely self-absorbed and self-expressive yet stubbornly evasive and mysterious.
The artist refers to this peculiar state as a “loss of personality,” a defensive reaction to the stresses of a painful world. Apparently, it’s an imperfect defense. “But the horrible suffering of depersonalisation is much greater than the pain of any reality,” she writes. “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.”
Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, where she was raised by a womanizing father and an oppressive mother who abused her youngest child physically and verbally. (The artist had an older sister and two older brothers, all of whom go unmentioned in her auto-biography.) Whenever her father went out to visit his mistresses, her mother ordered the little Yayoi to follow him and report his whereabouts; she would return home to be terrorized by the enraged woman. Kusama speculates that the dysfunctional household may have nurtured her fearful fascination with sex and its representations. Even as a girl, she drew pictures of dog-chewed vaginas and dung-smeared penises. Later, conflicted erotic feelings led her to create her scandalous 1960s phallus-covered sculptures and naked group performances that sometimes turned into orgies, resulting in her arrest. She would orchestrate the performances but never participate in the sex, and she would ask the participants to disrobe while she usually remained clothed.
Kusama began to experience regular visual and auditory hallucinations when she was about 12 years old. She soon developed the compulsive habit—or, as she sees it, self-cure—of recording them in her sketchbook. “The only way for me to elude these furtive apparitions,” she writes, “is to recreate them visually with paint, pen, or pencil in an attempt to decipher what they are; to gain control over them by remembering and drawing each one.” In fact, all of her trademark motifs (dots, nets, flowers and pumpkins) come from those early hallucinations. Eventually, afraid and unable to discuss her prob- lems with her parents, the adolescent Kusama developed additional mental and nervous ailments, including irregularities in her heart rate. Reality was too agonizing to bear, but every time she thought of ending her life, “what saved me was making my way—blindly and gropingly at first—down the path to art.”
In 1948 Kusama entered a four-year course of study at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, where she “signed up for the Nihonga or Japanese-style painting course but found it "unbearable” and often missed classes. She left Kyoto after two years and by 1955 had established herself as a prominent artist in Japan, with some acclaimed solo exhibitions on her resume. But she had also grown tired of a country “too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women.” In her view, “My art needed a more unlimited freedom, and a wider world.” She knew nothing about American art except for Georgia O’Keeffe, having randomly picked up a monograph on the painter in her hometown’s second-hand bookshop. She took a train six hours to the American Embassy in Tokyo to look up O’Keeffe’s address in their copy of Who’s Who. Upon receiving Kusama’s watercolors and fan letters seeking career advice, O’Keeffe replied with gentle cau- tion: “In this country the Artist has a hard time to make a living. . . . It seems to me very odd that you are so ambitious to show your paintings here, but I wish the best for you.” But the correspondence only increased Kusama’s desperate desire to find success in New York.
In May 1955, three of Kusama’s water-colors were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum’s “International Watercolor Exhibition: Eighteenth Biennial,” and upon seeing them, painter Kenneth Callahan introduced her work to Zoë Dusanne (owner of the Dusanne Gallery in Seattle), who had helped launch Mark Tobey. The dealer offered Kusama a solo, and she arrived in Seattle from Japan in November 1957. The next month, she exhibited 26 watercolors and pastels, before moving on to New York in June 1958. There she quickly attained fame— or at least notoriety—while her health deteriorated. Enduring hungry days and sleep-deprived nights (her abject studio, its windows broken, was punishingly cold), she soon fell under “the spell of the polka dot nets.” She reports that meshes of dots accumulated in the room, threatening to eat her up, and she began painting the dots madly and repetitively on canvases, the floor, the furniture and even her body.
Kusama doesn’t recall which came first, her hallucinations or her painting the dots: “Before and after creating a work I fall ill, menaced by obsessions that crawl through my body—although I cannot say whether they come from inside or outside of me.” However, when these paintings were exhibited at Brata Gallery on 10th Street in 1959, favorable reviews and invi- tations to exhibit in major cities in the U.S. and Europe ensued. She calls the show “my debut as an avant-garde artist,” the title of the book’s first section.
Ambitious, keen to succeed and sensitive to the zeitgeist, Kusama sees herself as always ahead of the times. She claims that her first three-dimensional production, the sewn phallic sculptures, were the original “soft sculptures,” which inspired Claes Oldenburg, and that the strategy of her first installation, which involved walls hung with hundreds of photos of a single image, was appropriated by Andy Warhol.
Neither of the American Pop artists ever validated Kusama’s claims, but in fact she first revealed her soft sculptures (an armchair and a couch covered with sewn phallic forms) at a Green Gallery group show in June 1962. In the same show, Oldenburg exhibited a suit with shirt and tie, all made of plaster-covered muslin. He premiered his soft sculptures a few months later, in a Green Gallery solo in September 1962.1 One could say that his soft sculptures were developed from his plaster-covered muslin works, independent of Kusama’s soft sculptures. She, however, maintains that at the September opening, Oldenburg’s then wife Patty Mucha “pulled me aside and said, ‘Yayoi, forgive us!’” Later, some 21⁄2 years before Warhol’s exhibition of his first Cow Wallpaper at Leo Castelli Gallery (April 1966), Kusama showed Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show at Gertrude Stein Gallery (December 1963), covering the walls and ceiling with 999 photographs of a boat sprouting myriad phallic protrusions, the thousandth boat being the actual object displayed in the center of the space.
Kusama also helped pioneer performance art inspired by the hippie counterculture. As early as 1966, she staged a Happening at the Venice Biennale, where she installed 1,500 mirrored balls and then, dressed in an eye- catching kimono, sold them for $2 each. By the late 1960s, she had established a public persona. Frequently appearing on tabloid covers and TV talk shows in New York, she became known as the Queen
of the Hippies for her pro-sex and antiwar work that attracted young followers. Not only did she direct flag-burning and body-painting events (where she invited people to take off their clothes and paint polka dots on one another’s bodies) but she also provided her hippie friends with lodging and fun work through various commercial enterprises, such as Kusama Fashion Company (fashion design), Kusama Orgy (a weekly newspaper) and KOK (a gay social club). Her first film, Kusama’s Self- Obliteration (1968), a collaboration with director Jud Yalkut, won several international film awards. But above all, her fashion business burgeoned, with her garments—featuring holes that revealed sexual parts—selling in some 400 stores, including Bloomingdale’s.
Adding glitter to Kusama’s memoir of 1960s New York are her up-close and personal encounters with some legendary American artists: the concerned O’Keeffe, who paid a visit to Kusama’s studio and invited her to move to New Mexico to live with her; Donald Judd, who became Kusama’s first critical proponent in New York; Andy Warhol, with whom she competed to find the prettiest entourage members. Most intriguingly, she had an eccentric love affair with Joseph Cornell, probably her only romantic relationship. She says she often drank with Salvador Dalí, hung out with Judd and had a crush on Frank Stella, but with Cornell she shared a genuine love that lasted more than 10 years. Like Kusama, Cornell had a controlling mother and was suffering from a psychological complex about sex. She claims that he was impotent because his mother had told him since his childhood that “women are filthy.” They kissed, she avows, but never had intercourse.
When Kusama returned to Japan for health reasons, her biggest obstacle was the Japanese press, which labeled her “a national disgrace” and persistently distorted her antiestablishment activities. The artist concentrated on creating work in her mental hospital, away from public view, and in time critical esteem began to accrue. In 1993 she became the first female artist to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, following her first retrospective in the U.S. (in 1989 at New York’s now defunct Center for International Contemporary Arts). When she was near 50, she debuted as a novelist and has since published at least 10 novels, most of them set in New York City. It was there, after all, that she was most productive, most liberated, most tormented, most desperate and most extreme—in other words, most fully herself.
Throughout Infinity Net, Kusama reminds us (and herself) that art keeps her sane. She was born into mental struggle, but she lives to create—and creates to live. In the book’s final pages, she identifies mortality as her latest and perhaps final theme. Her goal is now to produce work “that will shine after my death.” She certainly does not lack resolve: “And no matter how I may suffer for my art, I will have no regrets. This is the way I have lived my life, and it is the way I shall go on living.” A decade has passed since she wrote those words, and she continues to work with the same undying passion.
Coming Soon: “Yayoi Kusama,” Tate Modern, London, Feb. 9–June 5.
1 The Oldenburg-Kusama relationship is detailed in Midori Yamamura, “Re-Viewing Kusama, 1950-1975: Biography of Things,” in Diedrich Diederichsen et al., Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years, Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and Dijon, Le Consortium, 2009, pp. 63–109.
Soojin Lee teaches art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.