Yayoi Kusama at the Tokyo Met. Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

The superlatives come easily when one comments on Yayoi Kusama. The painter, sculptor, and performer is one of the most influential and widely-collected artists of the 1960s and quite possibly Japanís premiere artist of the modern era. Kusama is also enigmatic Ė critics have variously ascribed her work to minimalism, feminism, obsessivism, surrealism, art brut, pop, and abstract expressionism. One thing for certain is that it has been a long and strange journey for Kusama, who turns 70 this year and is finally receiving a reception at home befitting her stature abroad.

Born in the scenic Nagano Prefecture town of Matsumoto, Kusama remembers growing up "as an unwanted child of unloving parents." A penchant for drawing and painting led Kusama to plot her escape with the help of art magazines, and after sewing black-market American currency into the seams of her clothes, Kusama fled Japan in search of her hero, Georgia OíKeeffe. What happened next is the subject of "Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968," an exhibition curated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and now showing at the Museum Of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

"Love Forever" features work Kusama made in New York City while she was rivaling Andy Warhol on the quirky pop art scene of the day. Warhol, a master of self-promotion who once remarked that he didnít read his reviews but rather weighed them, was surely jealous when Kusama made the front page of the New York Daily News in August, 1969, after infiltrating the Museum of Modern Artís sculpture garden with a bunch of naked co-conspirators to perform her "Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead."

Similarly spectacular naked actions on Wall Street and in Central Park teased the cityís taste for oriental exoticism and kept Kusama in the New York spotlight Ė meanwhile her work was being snapped up by local collectors at some of the cityís finest galleries. The artistís polka-dot or "infinity net" paintings and phallic objet are characterized by repetition and strive to "obliterate" identity through the affixing or painting of a unifying field of dots or their rough inverse, nets, over anything and everything: bodies, cats, horses, stepladders and sofas being a few examples.

But as Kusama stretched her vision further toward infinity by building ambitious mirror-room installations, she got lost somewhere along the way, and ended up back in Japan, at a Tokyo psychiatric hospital, in the small room where she has lived for over 20 years now.

But the story doesnít end there. Kusama soon realized that the act of creation could also be a weapon in the battle against her mental illness, "If I didnít make art," she is widely quoted as saying, "Iíd probably be dead by now." She continued to work every day, returning to the hospital room only to eat and sleep because, she says, her life became easiest that way.

I realized firsthand that Kusama had no need for my sympathy about two years ago, when I spent a couple of days at her Shinjuku studio while writing a "Love Forever" preview for an American magazine. Kusama had somehow obtained a pre-publication draft, found an error, and telephoned the editor. When he explained it was too late for changes because the magazine had already gone to the printers, Kusama launched a verbal assault that scared the hell out of him. The presses were stopped the same afternoon and the mistake was fixed. Pretty spunky for a frail old Japanese woman.

A selection of the larger and splashier art Kusama has produced since repatriating join a fascinating selection of paintings executed during her teens and early twenties (some being shown for the first time) to make up "In Full Bloom: Yayoi Kusama, Years in Japan," which compliments "Love Forever" and gives visitors a complete look at the artistís work over the last 50 years. Altogether, the more than 200 pieces make this one of MoTís best exhibitions ever, an overdue tribute to the power and vision of this countryís (superlatives again) most important living artist.


notes: Until July 4, 1999 at MoT.
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