DISCUSSIONS OF YAYOI KUSAMA must inevitably reckon with the state of the artist’s mental health. The 82-year-old Japanese icon, who deftly inserted herself into the epicenter of Minimalism, Pop, and performance art in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, continues to produce eye-popping, whimsical, surreal works. She also lives — by choice — in a mental institution.
An art-world provocateur turned living legend, Kusama is, despite her stature in the art world, also something of an “outsider artist.” Although she was schooled in art — unlike artists to whom the term is usually applied — she is seemingly driven more by personal neuroses and compulsions than artistic or intellectual trends. However, Kusama’s place in contemporary art is more complex than the simple story of an outsider finding her way into the fold. Her autobiography, written in 2002 and now appearing in English for the first time, seeks to secure her reputation among the international avant-garde. Yet it is also highly ambivalent, pointing to the limitations of traditional distinctions between insider and outsider.
Throughout Infinity Net, Kusama is careful to emphasize her outsider status, mainly in regard to her Japanese identity. The book’s prologue muses on the first Yokohama Triennale, held in 2001, which she describes as Japan’s first large-scale international art festival and its belated entry onto the contemporary art scene. Kusama is proud of the first Triennale, for which she contributed two large installations — a mirrored room and a mass of reflective spheres floating in a Yokohama canal — but her tone is condescending:
Japan has the money and the facilities but no real interest in or understanding of contemporary art. I was shocked, when I first returned from the USA [in 1975], to find that my country seemed a good hundred years behind the times.
Like much of this self-aggrandizing book, this statement may be an exaggeration. But even as a young woman, Kusama found Japan’s attitudes toward modern art stifling. Born in 1929 to a wealthy family in the small city of Matsumoto in the mountainous Nagano prefecture, Kusama drew and painted constantly, but found herself well outside the artistic and intellectual centers of Japan. Her isolation was compounded by the nationalist upsurge of the 1930s, during which the Japanese art world became more insular. At school, she studied nihonga, or traditional Japanese painting, but felt frustrated and impatient with its old-fashioned master-disciple hierarchy. Also, her family was vehemently opposed to Kusama becoming an artist:
According to the conventional wisdom of the time, a woman had no future as a painter. This ‘wisdom’ held particular sway in an old-fashioned and feudal family like mine, which still clung to the ancient notion that actors and painters were disreputable at best.
Fittingly, the first chapter of Kusama’s story is an account not of her childhood, but of her artistic birth: her departure, in 1957, for the United States. The story has a fairy tale air. Needing a contact in the U.S., Kusama journeyed six hours by train to Tokyo to look up Georgia O’Ke...read more