Yayoi Kusama is 82 years old. But when she is wheeled in, on her blue polka-dotted wheelchair, she looks more like a baby, the sort you might see played by an adult in a British pantomime. Her face is large for a Japanese woman and at odds with her smallish frame. Apart from her intense, saucer-shaped eyes and the arc of deep red lipstick across her mouth, there is something masculine about her features. She wears a lurid red wig and a dress covered in engorged polka dots. Coiled around her neck is a long red scarf decorated with worm-like black squiggles.
When she is out of the spotlight, without her splashy red wig and garish outfits, she looks like a nice, grey-haired old lady. But in public situations Kusama’s art and Kusama the artist converge. It is as if the patterns she has obsessively replicated since childhood have seeped off the canvas and into the three-dimensional world of flesh and blood. Rarely has an artist so clearly articulated the art of the Sixties as the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. The significance of her work has to do with the specific time period in which she grew up and her perception of art is determined by an inner energy.
Her work also transcends earlier established and traditional border lines between disciplines of art and between art and life itself. Kusama’s career is rooted in her Japanese origin. Born in Matsumoto in 1929 she studied at the Arts and Crafts School in Kyoto. In 1957 she moved to New York, which was at the time the world center of contemporary. This move was based on her early awareness that only in New York could she continue her development as a contemporary artist.
During the years she lived in New York it become apparent that compared to the conventional image of the Japanese woman, she was a human dynamo of creative energies and abundant human resources. The results of these first years in the art of Kusama were large paintings, one of them 33 feet long, of white nets which, without center and compositional features, obsessively covered the canvas with such intensity that one had the feeling the nets could continue beyond the borders. “My nets grew beyond myself and beyond the canvasses I was covering them with.
They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe. I was standing at the center of the obsession over the passionate accretion and repetition inside me. ” (Kusama) These early works with their radical and hypnotic repetitive energies were first exhibited in small, unknown galleries in New York and Washington. It wasn’t long before they made an international impact and were shown in the Monochrome Painting Exhibition in the Museum Schloss Morsbroich in Leverjusen, Germany in 1960.
This international exhibition was a comprehensive documentation of a new concept in the arts after World War II and included works by Lucio Ponatana and Piero Manzoni from Italy, Mark Rothko from the USA, Yves Klein from France, and Otto Piene and Guenter Uekcker from Germany. Yayoi Kusama was the only representative from Japan, and her work was a unique and independent articulation of the new art. The early Sixties in New York were years of experimentation, and one of the prime innovators in context became the Japanese immigrant Kusama.
She expanded the thematic core of her work into themes like sex obsession and repetitive imagery which only much later were related to terms such as Pop Art and artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. Since 1962 Kusama has created soft sculptures, sometimes also referred to as a sewing-machine sculptures, and pieces of phallic furniture which gave expression to her underlying obsessive motif of sex.
In connection with one of her early shows in the Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York in 1963 she said “these new types of sculptural works arose from a deep driving compulsion to realize in visible form the repetitive image inside of me. When this image is given freedom, it overflows the limits of time and space. People have said that presents an irresistible force…that goes by its own momentum once it has started. ” It is evident that the artist liked to be part of these new works of sculpture as she often posed in the nude on her own creations of phallic furniture.
The Infinity Nets helped Kusama stay absorbed in her life. She wasn’t concerned about Surrealism, Pop Art, Minimal Art, or whatever, just staying in her own head. I interpret the dot motifs as representing a hallucinatory vision. Proliferating dots append themselves to scenes around Kusama, trying to flee from psychic obsession by choosing to paint the very vision of fear, from which a person would ordinarily avert their eyes. The dots make you lose yourself and then that makes you face more of what’s real within your mind.
Kusama said “I paint them in quantity; in doing so, I try to escape”. Mirror Room (Pumpkin) was an installation with a neat conflation of two of her mirror installations from the mid 1960s, the Peep Show and the Infinity Mirror Room, the 1993 Mirror Room (Pumpkin) consisted of a large gallery papered floor to ceiling with a yellow and black polka dot pattern. In the centre of the space stood a mirrored box the size of a small room, with a single window in a manner reminiscent of the 1965 Peep Show.
At the opening of the exhibition Kusama appeared in the room dressed in a long sorcerer’s robe and peeked hat, both of which matched her surroundings and caused her to merge with them in a manner that recalled early interactions with her Infinity Nets and Accumulations. Visually a part of the installation, Kusama was also an active agent, offering tiny yellow and black polka dotted pumpkins to anyone who entered the space.
These little pumpkins were a direct reference to the 2,000 lire mirror balls that the artist had outrageously hawked from her Narcissus Garden at her first Venice Biennale. In recent years, the practice of Yayoi Kusama, now in her eighties, has developed in astounding ways. Already, she has transcended gender and generation, coming to resemble no less than some eternal being liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. But, come to think of it, Kusama has defied categorization for a long time, perhaps even transcending our very notion of art.
In the Asian view of the cosmos — in particular, the ancient Indian cosmology of the Vedic period — the fundamental principle of the universe involves that of Brahman, enveloping the entire cosmos, and Atman, the self, with the two connected by an invisible energy; while the unification of Brahman and Atman allows an escape from reincarnation and the endless cycle of life and death. This is an idea widely accepted by Brahmanism, Hinduism and the Jains.
In Buddhism, however, though the idea of reincarnation and escape from its cycle by attaining nirvana is accepted, the Buddha stressed the cosmic connectedness of all things as causal interdependence, or pratityasamutpada. This way of thinking, which views human existence, consciously or unconsciously, as one part of the whole of creation believes in an invisible connectedness or relationship of cause and effect, and could also be described as the spatial concept underlying everything Eastern. Contemplating Yayoi Kusama’s practice in light of this cosmic view, we begin o see how her awareness of existence shares this same vast sense of scale. The hallucinations, both visual and auditory, Kusama experienced from her younger years have been attributed to a nervous disorder known as depersonalization syndrome. Those afflicted are said to perceive and experience the self as if observing from outside, divorced from their own mental processes and corporeal body. This is also explained by Kusama’s comment that, through the acts of painting and performance, ‘I have released this into a chaotic vacuum’; ‘this’ being the mysterious something that only she can see and hear. I do find the small works on paper from the Fifties and Sixties has this world in a grain of sand, this minute but galactic quality to it. When looking, you have that feeling of, ‘my God what scale am I? ’ You get lost in this extraordinary cosmos and then are taken aback when you consider that they’re only four inches wide. I think these macroscopic realms are really extraordinary. And they’re incredibly beautiful. I was completely stunned when I first saw them. I managed to see her exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.
I think it’s extraordinary that somebody so young, so far away and brought up in such a traditional environment was so able to absorb the influence of Miro and Ernst and Klee whose work she probably only saw in reproduction, then taking it all on and going on to produce work of such originality and in such great quantity. What I love is the idea that all the dayglow “brandiness” of her spots all comes back to this incredible energy from her early twenties. She also staged dozens of Happenings—what you could call “Body Festivals”—in her studio and in public spaces around New York.
Some were sites of authority, such as MoMA or Wall Street. Other sites, such as Tompkins Square Park and Washington Square Park, were associated with New York’s psychedelic hippie culture. She played the role of high priestess and painted the nude bodies of models on the stage with polka dots in five colors. When a Happening was staged at Times Square under her direction, a huge crowd flocked to it. Yayoi was never nude, publicly or privately. At the homosexual orgies she directed, she always stayed at a safe place with a manager in the studio to avoid being arrested by police.
The studio would have been thrown into utter confusion if she had ever been arrested. The police were primarily after a bribe. When she was arrested while directing a Happening in Wall Street and taken into police custody, they demanded that she pay them if I wanted to be set free. Bribes ranged from $400 to $1,000. Since she paid them every time I was arrested, my Happenings ended up as a good out-of-the-way place for them to make money. Painting bodies with the patterns of Kusama’s hallucinations obliterated their individual selves and returned them to the infinite universe. This is magic.
Nudity was central to Kusama’s work in those years: in addition to the Happenings, she opened a fashion boutique offering clothes she designed that were “nude, see-through, and mod. ” The shop had private studios and nude models available for body painting or photographing. Kusama also opened the Church of Self-Obliteration in a SoHo loft, appointing herself the “High Priestess of Polka Dots” so she could officiate at a wedding of two gay men in 1968. She designed a large bridal gown that both men wore. Minimal art, or Minimalism, was one of the major artistic tendencies to emerge from the United States in the 1960s.
Though never a unified movement — the majority of the artists associated with it actively rejected the term — it described a significant trend toward interrogating the communicative authority of the artist and the exalted status of the art object by reducing it to its basic components. The term is notoriously slippery, but it has generally come to be associated with the reductive paintings, sculptures and ‘specific objects’ — neither paintings nor sculptures — of Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Blinky Palermo, Richard Serra and Frank Stella, occasionally extending to Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Anne Truitt and others.
Unlike many of their abstract expressionist predecessors, the minimalists steadfastly avoided emotionally charged gestures, often to the point of having their works industrially produced. Minimalism did not emerge in isolation, developing in dialogue with Pop art, color field painting and concrete art. Nor was its prominence particularly long-lasting; indeed, part of the tendency’s importance was the influence that its questioning of artistic convention had on subsequent developments like conceptual art and Postmodernism.
When Kusama arrived in New York in 1958, the city’s powerful art scene was still in thrall to the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. The net paintings she began producing shortly after her arrival, and first exhibited the following year, were therefore received as a major revelation. Abstract expressionist critic Dore Ashton called her show a ‘striking tour de force’, while Sidney Tillim declared the artist ‘one of the most promising new talents to appear on the New York scene in years’.
Though never a ‘pure’ monochrome painter, Kusama was one of the few artists working in the city who proposed that a surface could be reduced to a single, undifferentiated field, unbroken by figuration or abstract compositional devices. As Donald Judd observed on first encountering the works, her net paintings took the expansive color fields of ‘cooler’ abstractionists like Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman as a point of departure, but added something entirely new. In his review of the exhibition for Art News, Judd described the paintings as ‘strong, advanced in concept and realized’.
He continued: “The space is shallow, close to the surface and achieved by innumerable small arcs superimposed on a black ground overlain with a wash of white. The effect is both complex and simple. Essentially it is produced by the intersection of two close, somewhat parallel, vertical planes, at points merging at the surface plane and at others diverging slightly but powerfully. ” (Pollock) Unlike Abstract Expressionism, the optical effects of the net paintings’ undulating fields owed more to the material qualities of the painted surface than to any illusions of pictorial depth.
Nor was their composition bound by a relationship to the painting’s frame; they were, as Kusama herself described them, ‘without beginning, end or centre’. The nets propagated according to their own internal logic, a system in which they could go on reproducing themselves across an entire room if it weren’t for the edge of the canvas, which, as a limit, was purely physical, rather than structural. This suggested that painting might be considered as a phenomenal, rather than illusory, practice — a painted surface could be thought of as a single plane of a three-dimensional object, rather than a two-dimensional pictorial ‘window’.
Kusama is engaged in a never-ending mission to release the microcosms within herself to the outside, in order to project it on the macrocosms and the infinite space to which our imaginations do not extend. By facing up to this endless mission, Kusama herself is also elevated to the status of eternal being, so to speak — one who, though but a speck of dust in the universe, also has a bird’s-eye view of the entire universe.
It is her infinite consciousness that transcends the time, generation, gender, region and culture, as well as the various vocabularies of contemporary art. It is also the reason Yayoi Kusama is so well-received around the world — and the reason why the force driving her is like an eternally bubbling spring. Bibliography Chadwick, Whitney, and Dawn Ades. Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1998. Kusama, Yayoi, and Lynn Zelevansky. Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968.
Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998. Kusama, Yayoi. Yayoi Kusama: Recent Works. New York: Robert Miller Gallery, 1996. Kusama, Yayoi, and David Moos. Yayoi Kusama: Early Drawings from the Collection of Richard Castellane. Birmingham, Ala. : Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000. Kusama, Yayoi, and Bhupendra Karia. Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective. New York: Center for International Contemporary Arts, 1989. Pollock, Griselda. Psychoanalysis and the Image: Transdisciplinary Perspectives. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. , 2006.