Yayoi Kusama

by Monty DiPietro

THE POLKA-DOT DIVA: A ONE-ACT PLAY

location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

time: late 1960s, late summer, mid-afternoon.

(enter Japanese Artist, stage left, followed by Assistants. They move to the museum’s sculpture garden. Assistants disrobe. Guests, upstage, take notice and seem shocked. Japanese Artist produces a brush and paints colorful polka dots onto the naked Assistants, who pose as statues. New York Daily News Photographer appears and takes the picture that will appear on his newspaper’s front page the following day. Enter Museum Security Guards, stage right. They escort Japanese Artist and Assistants downstage, where Policemen have appeared...)

Policeman 1: (serious tone) You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law...

Japanese Artist: At the museum you can take off your clothes in good company; Renoir, Maillol, Giacometti, Picasso...The nude has become socially acceptable among the more permanent residents of the garden of the museum. Phalli are also a la mode, particularly the harder varieties in granite, basalt and bronze. (Policemen lead her away)

Guests: (emphatically) Bravo! Bravo!

(curtain)

Yayoi Kusama did not write the above script, she lived it.

Period Critics described New York’s art-diva of the 1960s as a shameless self-promoter. They took stabs at Kusama’s outrageous public performances. They couldn’t agree on what to term the rogue’s paintings, sculptures, installations, novels and films - which were characterized variously as Minimalism, Pop Art, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism or Art Brut. After scandalizing her adopted home for more than a decade, Kusama was finally driven out of New York by the mental illness that had plagued her from childhood. She flew back to Japan and ended up in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital.

As far as America was concerned, Yayoi Kusama had simply vanished.

Thirty years later, the artist is returning to New York, and she can expect a warmer welcome from the Museum of Modern Art this time around. Kusama’s work is the subject of ‘Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968’, a MoMA retrospective featuring more than 80 paintings, collages, objects and installations drawn from the years the artist spent living and working in New York.

Jointly curated by MoMA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ‘Love Forever’ is the 68 year-old artist’s first solo museum show in the United States. It will open in Los Angeles in March, move to New York in July, continue on to Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center in December, then travel to Japan to open at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art in April 1999.

The origins of the so-called ‘Kusama Revival’ - I prefer to think of it as a ‘Kusama Vindication’ - can be traced to 1993, when the artist became the first painter ever awarded a solo show at the Venice Biennale’s Japanese pavilion. Major gallery shows in New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago followed, and in 1996, New York’s exclusive Robert Miller Gallery picked up Kusama’s exclusive worldwide rights [excluding Japan]. The gallery will hold a show of the artist’s new work concurrent with the MoMA exhibition.

Kusama’s primary motif is a pattern of polka-dots, or its inverse - a painted net that describes pseudo-dots in its negative spaces. She works in acrylics, and applies her patterns to both flat and three-dimensional surfaces. The phallus is a recurring form, one which Kusama says represents a "sexual obsession" - although the artist claims to have never developed any interest in sex.

Kusama’s theme is repetition. Her ‘Air Mail Stickers’ [1962], consists of over 1,000 of the post office seals pasted onto a 181.6 x 171.5cm canvas. The inexactly-executed rows and columns in the piece - which forms part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s permanent collection - create a dizzying trompe d’oeil. Like Kusama’s ‘Infinity Net’ and polka-dot-field work, ‘Air Mail Stickers’ anticipates Andy Warhol’s use of repetition.

"After Warhol came to my ‘1,000 Boat’ show, he called to ask permission to use my patterns in his silkscreens," recounts Kusama from her Tokyo studio. "But I refused. I had been working with repetition for years by that time, ever since my 1959 exhibition at the Brata gallery." Kusama leans forward and smiles, "Warhol’s repetitions came from me - But my repetitions came from my childhood."

Kusama says she found the inspiration for her dot pattern in a daydream she had at age 10. "I was sitting at a table, looking at a table cloth covered in red flowers...then I looked up toward the ceiling. There, on the windows and even on the pillars, I could see the same red flowers. They were all over the place in the room, on my body, and extending to cover the entire universe...unless I got out of there, the curse of those red flowers would seize my life! I ran frantically up the stairs. As I looked down, the sight of each step falling apart made me stumble. I fell all the way down the stairs and sprained my leg."

In ‘Mother,’ a 25 x 22cm pencil on paper work drawn soon after the incident, the 10 year-old covers her a sketch of her mother’s face with dots.

Kusama describes growing up in Matsumoto, Nagano as "Truly miserable...I was an unwanted child born of unloving parents." Frequently beaten by her mother, the youngster took refuge in the compulsive production of paper cut-outs and paintings. In her oft-quoted essay ‘Why do I create art?’ Kusama writes that "If it hadn’t been for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago from an inability to stand the environment."

Two years after the end of World War II, Kusama entered the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. Kusama’s first show was held in 1952, at the Matsumoto Civic Hall. Her early work was well received by critics, and also attracted the attention of Shinshu University professor of psychiatry Dr. Shiho Nishimura, who introduced her work at psychiatric conferences. The doctor also advised Kusama to get away from her abusive mother. The artist resolved to move to America, the home of her hero Georgia O’Keeffe.

"In the 1950s it was very difficult to travel to the United States from Japan. I didn’t have citizenship [Kusama would receive American permanent residence status in 1963], and the Japanese government had a law restricting how much money Japanese could bring out of the country. Because I could only legally obtain US$60, I had to buy American dollars on the black market, from a Japanese flight attendant. I sewed the bills into the seams of my clothes. Then all I needed was an invitation letter, which I got from an eccentric old millionaire Japanese woman who was living in Seattle."

Kusama spent only a few months in Seattle before the magnet of variety and possibility pulled her across America to her date with destiny.

‘Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA’ was one of scores of provocative public performances Kusama directed during her late New York years. Drawing from a pool of hippies, draft-dodgers and activists, she organized nude polka-dot ‘happenings’ in Central Park, Washington Square, and on Wall Street - where an attendant manifesto implored onlookers to "Burn Wall Street. Wall Street men must become farmers and fishermen. Wall Street men must stop all this fake ‘business’...The money made with this stock is enabling the war to continue...OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA*DOTS ON THEIR NAKED BODIES. BE IN...BE NAKED, NAKED, NAKED."

The public spectacle of an exotic Oriental woman in a see-through dress painting polka-dots on the naked bodies of her accomplices made for a great story, and Kusama reveled in the media attention. Weirdness escalated in the public events that followed - flag burnings, a ‘Nixon Orgy,’ and the celebrated ‘Obliterate the Horse by Polka-Dots’ [1968], in which the Kusama pasted hundreds of her now-trademark dots onto a horse in Central Park. In the Pop Art shock-sweepstakes of the late 1960's, Kusama and Warhol were running neck and neck.

"People often make the mistake of associating Kusama with the late 1960s flow of avant-garde Japanese artists that went to New York for the recognition they couldn’t get here," says an American collector attending a personality-packed Spring 1997 Kusama opening party at Tokyo’s Ota Fine Arts Gallery. "But really, she was way ahead of the tide, she was the first."

In 1972, American assemblage and collage artist Joseph Cornell died. Twenty-six years her senior, Cornell had been Kusama’s closest friend. New York was by this time home to a community of Japanese artists, but Kusama had avoided the associations many of her compatriots formed with groups such as the anti-art happening bunch in the neo-Dada group Fluxus.

"I had gone to New York to be independent," she says, "Not to join a group."

Cornell’s death left Kusama dangerously isolated, and her mental condition began to deteriorate. She experienced frequent hallucinations and bouts of severe depression and developed heart problems. Heeding her parents entreatments, Kusama returned to Japan. Her father died two years later, and despite out-patient psychiatric treatment, Kusama’s anxiety neurosis was now unmanageable. In 1977 she entered the psychiatric institution.

Kusama has lived in the same hospital for over 20 years. There is no furniture, save a bed. Her 12 square-meter room has a big, French-style bay window that looks out onto a small garden. Kusama sometimes watches people playing tennis in a court that lies behind the garden.

Every morning after breakfast, Kusama walks five minutes up Gaien Higashi street to her studio to paint. She walks back to the room for lunch, then returns to her studio and works through the afternoon. Kusama takes her dinner at the hospital before retiring each evening.

"It’s very comfortable, very private" says Kusama, "And very simple, I like it."

Gaien Higashi street runs north from Meguro and through Tokyo’s posh Minato Ward. The upscale ex-pat community of Hiroo, a host of European embassies, and some of the world’s most expensive real estate flank the busy thoroughfare as it intersects Meiji and Roppongi Streets, before winding its way around Azabu Cemetary and up past Aoyama Street towards the city’s Shinjuku Ward.

From this point northward, Gaien Higashi street seems to proceed backward in time. Within a few blocks, off-ramps whittle the eight traffic -lanes down to two, and designer clothing stores and European-style cafe-terraces give way to the tiny noodle restaurants, fruit and vegetable markets, and ma and pa futon shops of the old Tokyo.

A mangy stray cat arches a back of matted fur, then scurries down the narrow alleyway beside a tired three-storey factory building. In the building’s basement is Yayoi Kusama’s flourescent-lit, 300 square meter studio.

Rock ‘n roll music from a portable CD player competes with the whir of sewing machines, as four young female assistants stuff and stitch together fabric plalli for the installation ‘Infinity Mirror Room.’ So far, 50 large white plastic bags filled with about 60 phalli each sit piled by the door, waiting to be shipped to the LACMA. Kusama reckons she will need 8,000 of the red polka-dot objects to cover the 25 square-meters of floor space for the re-creation of her 1963 installation at New York’s Castellane Gallery. One of the workers looks up and smiles, and I can’t help wondering - She will sew together 2,000 phalli this month - What kind of dreams does this girl have at night?

Kusama shows me to a small wooden table in the reception area. The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee floats over from an adjacent kitchenette as Kusama’s 34 year-old personal and business manager Isao Takakura searches through the Kusama archive - a wall of two-meter high steel shelving stacked with thousands of documentation photographs, films, videos, catalogues, art books, magazines and newspaper clippings. After locating the February 1997 issue of Artforum magazine, he joins us at the table. One of the assistants serves coffee in Kusama original, yellow and black polka-dot demi-tasse cups. The artist opts instead for Minute Maid pink grapefruit juice, "I really love this stuff," laughs Kusama as she tops off her cup.

The issue of Artforum Takakura hands me features a cover photo of Kusama’s 1996 Pittsburg Mattress Factory Gallery installation ‘Repetitive Vision,’ and an 11 page feature on the artist. As the bible of American art monthlies is laid on the table before me, Kusama’s big eyes light up and she smiles. Evidently, the artist still recognizes the value of publicity.

The Artforum story trumpets Kusama’s return to the spotlight. Writes Andrew Soloman, "...Art, curiously, is the one thing more powerful than disease. That conviction, manifest in the sculpted forms themselves, accounts for the unearthy brilliance of her objects."

Lynn Zelevansky is the associate curator of modern and contemporary art at LACMA. While organizing ‘Love Forever,’ over the last two years, she visited Tokyo four times. She also secured the loans of important Kusama pieces, which she says are "becoming more and more valuable every day."

"This is Kusama’s moment," says Zelevansky, "And it has a lot to do with the daring, the emotional thrust, the body-centeredness, the eccentricity and idiosyncracy of her work. I honestly believe that even though the 1960s were not the perfect cultural moment for her, Kusama was still able to have a voice of some strength. And Kusama is very right for right now - She is a natural fit."

While the recognition is thirty years overdue, a childlike smile on Kusama’s face - as her assistants fill more of the white plastic bags with phalli and the pile grows to touch the studio ceiling - tells me that for the artist, it has been worth the wait.


Yayoi Kusama - Love Forever at MoT, 1999
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