Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto City, Japan. She is best known as an artist, although has written several books, designed fashions, and made a film. Despite having been a contemporary and heavy influence on Andy Warhol and many other New York artists of the time, she is relatively unknown. This is due, in part, to the fact she has been living in a mental institution in Japan since 1973.
Kusama’s childhood was not the most idyllic. She was born into a reasonably wealthy family, driven and governed by her violent mother. Her father was a womaniser, but dependent on his wife for financial support (not the most respectable of positions to be in in Japan…). At the age of ten Kusama’s mental illness became apparent when she began to see visions of proliferating patterns made up of dots, nets and other shapes;
‘One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room.’
Whether by accident
or not, Kusama discovered that through drawing
these experiences, she was able to gain some kind of control
over them, or at least live with them. Her mother
did not share this view and violently reacted to Kusama’s attempts to spend her time on art
, subjecting her to torrents of physical and mental abuse
In 1948 she left home and attended Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts for around a year and a half. However, this appears to have been primarily to escape her overbearing mother, not to study Art. She spent little time in classes and was more interested in doing her own thing in the dormitories.
In 1958 after a period of deliberation, Kusama moved to New York City with the intention of never returning to Japan. She spoke little English, knew few people other than a handful of artists she’d been able to converse with by letters, and had only her portfolio to aid her attempts to find work as an artist. However, by 1959 she had her first solo exhibition, at the Brata Gallery. Furthermore, her work had clearly changed in style since her arrival in the United States, from smaller, more delicate abstractions into huge mural-sized paintings. Her art revolved around the creation of repetitive images, involving polka dots and what she calls ‘Infinity Nets’ (a web of colour stretching across canvasses and almost any object) being the most frequent patterns used. A lot of her work is highly psychedelic in style and reverberates through the eyeballs. Her sense of colour is exquisite.
Her time in New York saw her mix with many luminaries of the 60s New York art scene, most famous of whom would be Warhol. She was lover to several artists, including Donald Judd and Joseph Cornell. Many artists of the time and since have ripped off her art, exploiting the fact that she is widely unknown in order to hide their own lack of originality and inspiration. Despite having her fingers in many of the art movements of the time, such as Pop, Kinetic, Minimalist, she maintained a nomadic approach that prevented any easy generic labelling.
Her work developed and changed emphasis over time. Her paintings became bigger (such as a 33-foot long white infinity net) as the interaction between the artwork and the space it occupied became more and more blurred. The pinnacle of this were the mirrored rooms she created containing objects covered with polka dots that would stretch out into infinity.
Her art had by now extended to sculpture and installation art. Many of her sculptures are ordinary objects completely covered with stuffed cloth phalluses (she refers to them as ‘Compulsion Furniture’). She covered a row-boat with these phalluses, then took a picture and made 999 prints of it. With these prints she covered all the walls of a room, placing the actual row-boat in the centre and this became her work , playing on ideas about the reproduction of art and repetition. This artwork preceded Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper by over three years and Warhol himself saw Kusama’s piece, and is said to have been highly impressed.
Kusama’s work progressed onto photography and performance art. In 1967 she staged ‘Body Festivals’ and ‘Anatomic Explosions’. These basically involved people getting naked in public places and having polka dots painted on them until the police inevitably turned up.
In 1969 she staged the ‘Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMa – Featuring their Usual Display of Nudes’ outside the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Again, this involved a quantity of naked people covered in polka dots generally cavorting. This perhaps marked the high-water mark of Kusama’s fame as a photograph of the nudes appeared on the front page of New York’s ‘Daily News’.
However, in the early 70s something clearly changed or a breaking point was reached as Kusama suffered a nervous breakdown.
Return to Japan
Kusama was advised to return to Japan by her psychologist as the quality of mental health treatment available in the United States was either insufficient or just plain wrong. At some point between 1973 and 1975 she began living in a mental institution in Japan and received treatment for Basedow’s Disease, Obsessive-Compulsive Neurosis and a myoma of the uterus. It is often mistakenly stated that she voluntarily committed herself, but Kusama herself states that this was not the case. She has lived there ever since and continues to make artworks, including large outdoor sculptures. She has a studio within the institution, but also rents a studio a short distance away. Since her departure from New York her fame has faded despite several retrospective exhibitions in recent years.
Self-obsession permeates throughout Kusama’s artwork as it all relates to her own attempts to come to terms with her psychological and mental problems. Unlike many artists who create art largely for their own egotistical ends (despite their protestations otherwise), the purpose and motivation of Kusama’s work always appears to be firstly for herself and nobody else. This is reflected in her ambivalent attitude to the opinions and labels other people attach to her work;
‘I am an obsessional artist. People call me otherwise, but I simply let them do as they please. I consider myself a heretic of the art world. I think only of myself when I make an artwork. Affected by the obsession that has been lodged in my body.’
Tracy Emin wasn’t even born when Kusama was creating her phallus covered sculptures. But it would be an interesting exercise to contrast the two artist’s work; while metaphorically-speaking, Emin opens her legs wide almost to the point of dislocation with her “lips” screaming to the world ‘look at me’, to Kusama it is irrelevant whether her work is recognised; the creation of the piece is the end in itself, the therapy. Self-obsessed yes, but not self-publicist;
‘As an obsessional artist I fear everything I see. At one time I dreaded everything I was making. The armchair thickly covered in phalluses was my psychosomatic work done when I had a fear of sexual visions’.
Part of the appreciation of her art relies on the onlooker to recognise the intense work and concentration of energy that in most cases has been put in to repeat the same action again and again. A Caravaggio for instance portrays an event, or a scene and the meaning is contained within the signifiers portrayed and their relationship to the mind of the onlooker. A Kusama painting conversely is not just abstract, but seeks to portray nothing but the long process of creation itself. The patterns attempt to get as close to infinity as possible, and therefore escape the limits and imprisoning effects of consciousness and life. To take one outside of oneself; ‘By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe’. In this sense many of her pieces are able to verge on the sublime, simply because of the immensity of detail and scale that cannot easily be reduced into bite-sized chunks or easily-digestible meaning. It’s not to everyone’s taste, however. With much abstract art there is a temptation to dismiss it (often justifiably) as meaningless nonsense whilst uttering about how “I just don’t *get* it”. But in this instance, to do so would be an attempt to over rationalise what lies beyond rationalisation (the sublime). One doesn’t (generally) stand before Everest and forget the feeling of awe in favour of questioning what it means or signifies.
The secret is just to look without worrying what you should be thinking about it. Just enjoy the interaction of form and colour as it bounces of itself. If that fails, just take a tab of LSD……….(joke).
Quotes taken from an interview found at:
Some images of Yayoi Kusama’s work can be found at: