by Cody LaVada –
With a career that has spanned nearly six decades and continues to stretch onward into the future – and which has certainly inspired some of the most well-known artists of our time – the Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama has been referenced multiple times as,quite possibly,the most influential living female artist ever. In a arena typically dominated by men such as Van Gogh, Warhol, Picasso and the like, Kusama stands out as an epic keystone – the very foundations atop which so many modern artists built their creations.
Her successes spread across many fields, including film, performance art, literature, fashion, sculpture and installations. With such a burgeoning repertoire, she holds many accolades and accomplishments that also help her to stand out as a giant among artists.
Born on March 22, 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan, Kusama was the fourth child in a wealthy merchant family that made its living selling seedling nurseries. Her childhood was rife with complications, including physical abuse at the hands of her mother, witnessing the infidelities of her father, and severe mental health complications, such as visual and aural hallucinations, severe obsessive and suicidal thoughts, and fixations that Freud would have a field day with.
In 1948, Kusama took up senior classes at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts & Crafts to hone her life-long love of art and creating, which she claims helped her to erase the misery of her early years by transporting her to a happier place. Despite having graduated the following year, she explains that she felt great disdain toward the rigid structure of the Nihonga style of painting that she was taught. The “master-disciple” tradition by which students develop their talents through close work with the sensei was not for her, and she sought to expose the world to her originality. When asked about her time in Kyoto, she claims that she feels like vomiting.
Over time, Kusama taught herself the arts of cubism, abstraction and surrealism, incorporating her own unique spins on the classic styles, implementing the obscuring polka dots that had been an integral part of her artistic works since her childhood years. The oldest example of this motif of Kusama’s is a drawing from when the artist was ten which depicts a Japanese woman, presumed to be her own mother, nearly obliterated by the enormous polka dots. Even all of these years, this particular style still finds its way into her pieces, and has since become her trademark.
Capitalizing on both her love of art and her ability to churn out fascinating pieces with surprising speed, Kusama began exhibiting her works in Japan and receiving critical acclaim and interest from the public. However, her wanderlust drew her to the teeming metropolis of New York City; with its bohemian ideals and artistic freedom, it seemed to be an antithesis to her strict native Japan.
Following a long correspondence with Georgia O’Keeffe, which Kusama had initiated after buying and being inspired by a book of O’Keeffe’s artwork, Kusama set out for the Big Apple to continue her career,where she would spend over 15 years. At the age of 27, in 1958, she began her American endeavors.
Due to severe political stringency, Japanese travelers had many restrictions, including the amount of currency they were allowed to bring out of the country, to dissuade them from leaving. Always the ingenious opportunist, Kusama sewed bills into the lining of her clothes and conquered the city, convincing a small gallery to stage an exhibition of her work. However, she soon fell on hard times: her meager apartment was unheated, and she describes winters as being brutal – “a living hell,” though she stayed up all night sometimes, painting to keep warm and to exorcise the demons of her mind and expel the creative fervor raging inside.
Kusama explains that she has no individual favorite piece of her own work – that, once created, it automatically becomes a favorite and that she loves them all. Her inspiration often comes from her vivid hallucinations and visions, which flood her mind on a daily basis and drown out all other sensations until she is swamped within the atmosphere of creative passion. The results of these visions are her strikingly singular works, with their lurid colors and bold patterns, reminiscent of aboriginal art with their swirls and dots and delicate strings of web-like netting.
By 1961, she was being regarded as an innovator in the avant- garde movement, and she was living in the same building as such notables as Donald Judd and Eva Hesse. Though frequently hospitalized for exhaustion and fatigue brought on by overwork, Kusama continued to delve into her art, inspired by the wild tempest of artists constantly milling around here, such as Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichenstein and Willem de Kooning.
By 1966, she was creating enormous free-standing that filled entire rooms and were dazzling with their mirrors, flashing lights and enchanting music – the best example of which is her “Narcissus Garden.” And yet, despite such compelling artistry, Kusama was suffering both financially and psychologically, and O’Keeffe convinced her own dealer, Edith Herbert, to purchase some of Kusama’s works, to keep the ailing artist from falling deeper into debt than she was.
As with all great artists who leave behind a legacy, Kusama was consistently pushing boundaries and challenging the system that many others allowed to dictate their lives and careers. She would wear outlandish wigs and flashy kimonos – though she affirms that her nationality did not change her. “America is really the country that raised me, and I owe what I have become to her,” Kusama has written. She became invested in America – its struggles, its people, and the struggles of its people.
When the Vietnam War broke out, she often staged enormous gatherings in conspicuous locations like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, involving nudity, performance art and body painting with her trademark dots, to protest the savage war. Kusama would find volunteers to stri p, paint their bodies with dots and dance to rhythmic music in honor of peace, as though she were a witch conjuring a spell for world tranquility.
Kusama’s “happenings” began to be called her “orgies” by the public (which inspired her short-lived magazine,“Kusama Orgy.”) Her lust for fame seemed to know no bounds: she infamously wrote a letter to Richard Nixon, offering to have enthusiastic sex with him if he would put an end to the war – a request Nixon turned down.
Also in 1966, Kusama went without invitation to the Venice Biennale where, dressed in a dazzling gold kimono, she encompassed the lawn outside of the Italian rotunda with 1,500 mirror balls, which she sold for 1,200 lire ($2) a piece. Much like her protests, the police ordered her kiosk shut down, deeming it vulgar to “sell art like hot dogs.”
Similar to her revolutionary creations, her “Infinity Nets” series (which became even more so a defining creation than her dots – delicate, web and lace-like paintings that average 30ft long), Kusama did not make a hefty profit with these creations. Her “Infinity Nets” were originally sold for as little as $200 a piece when first produced. Half a decade later, a single “Net” painting was sold at Christie’s in NY for $5.1 million – a record sum for any living female artist.
Indeed, her gender seemed to be a constant source of flux for the metamorphosing artist in a world dominated by men; Kusama had it even more difficult in the fact that she was struggling with a language barrier in areas affected by personal prejudices as they recovered from the painful effects of World War II. Kusama often cites sex as one of her greatest fixations, which is apparent in her “soft- sculptures” she began in the 60s.
These sculptures feature commonplace objects covered in protruding white, phallic objects until they are nearly indiscernible. She attributes the idea to her distaste for the male sex organ as a result of her having seen several of her father’s extra-marital love affairs as a child, which made her loathe to think of or engage in sexual relationships.
Even her decade-long relationshi p with the artist, Joseph Cornell, is alleged to have been purely platonic and sexless in its entirety. This obsession is assuaged through her art: much like her overwhelming dot compositions, Kusama uses the phallic sculptures to “obliterate her anxieties through repetition” – to simply engulf her art in that which she despises most until she is buried in the creative process, making a positive out of a negative. She is quoted as having told an interviewer that she does not wish to “cure” her mental problems, but rather use them as a source of fuel for her creations.
Though many people doubt the severity and veracity of Kusama’s mental health issues, believing them to simply be another facet of her personality fabricated by her artistic soul to garner media attention and public interest, the results of these manias are certainly undeniable. In 1973,broke, depressed and suffering from a harsh media outcry, Kusama returned to Japan and faced a humiliating public defeat. She knew no one within Japan, and her avant-garde style belonged to no specific niche of Japanese art.
With mounting mental and physical health ailments, she admitted herself to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill and took up permanent residence – and has remained there ever since. During the 1970s and 80s, her name seemed to drift into relative obscurity, though the shocking and visceral poetry and fiction that she penned during this period gained her a powerful cult following in Japan. She takes a bus daily to her nearby studio to create, and then returns to the hospital in the evenings.
It was not until the late 80s, when retrospective galleries began to display her work once more, that international interest in Yayoi Kusama was rekindled. She became active once more, even touring around the US with performance art shows, and going to the 1993 Venice Biennale – with an invitation this time, where she filled a mirrored room with pumpkin and gourd-like sculptures. Her revival gained even greater momentum in 1998 when the MOMA in NYC staged an enormous exhibit of her works. Ironically, she had been forced from the property nearly 30 years prior with her anti-war protest, “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MOMA.”
Her career had come in a full circle through a curious twist of fate. She now works alongside many notable designers, such as Marc Jacobs, Louis Vitton and Bloomingdales, the latter of which exclusively features a “Kusama Corner” and showcases many of the clothes she designs for Kusama Fashion Company, Ltd. She has designed such eccentric and limited items as handbag-shaped cellphones, a pink-dotted phone in a case shaped like a dog, and a red and white spotted phone in a mirrored, dotted case. She has also helped design ads for li p-glosses for Lancôme in her quirky, unconventional style. Kusama has helmed a career that has spanned well over half a century and continues to advance onward to inspire new, blossoming artists the world over.
She has had numerous exhibitions around the globe, and is recognized on an international scale, her art highly coveted and fetching immense sums. Her most recent exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, was a critical success and featured works spanning Kusama’s entire career. One critic likened it to “being suspended in a beautiful cosmos gazing at infinite worlds, or like a tiny dot of fluorescent plankton in an ocean of glowing microscopic life.” To herald and publicize this exhibition, one million city buses were covered with her iconic pointillist signature style, much like the buses in her hometown of Matsumoto.
As she ages, Kusama is now fixated more on her historic legacy and fame than with the dots of her younger years, though such motifs certainly still play an integral role in her art. She says that her main interest is to “stop war and live out the brilliance of life.” Though interviews with the artist are rare since her mental health vacillates between periods of profound depression and reticence, to periods of gleeful enthusiasm, her endeavors and future projects are posted for the public on her official website (http://www.yayoi-kusama.jp/).
Her entourage of supporters and acolytes meticulously chronicle her exhibitions, projects and upcoming news for the interested aficionados who delight in the work of this trailblazer for the bizarre. Her works stand out as amazing pieces of singular talent, and through them were are allowed glimpses into the polka-dotted landscapes of the obsessive, deteriorating mental wonderland of Yayoi Kasuma.