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’Keefe’s address in a copy of Who’s Who at the American Embassy. She struck up an awkward correspondence with O’Keefe, and, despite some bureaucratic obstacles, soon had a solo exhibition at a gallery in Seattle.
Shortly thereafter, Kusama moved to New York, the better to establish her starving-artist credentials. She describes at one point having nothing to eat but “a handful of small, shriveled chestnuts given me by a friend,” and was prone to days-long bouts of obsessive work — that is, when she had money for art supplies.
Whether or not these conditions were as dire as she describes, they no doubt aggravated her mental illness. It was during these early days in New York that Kusama began her famous “Infinity Net” series of paintings: canvases covered all over with a repeating, organic network of tiny loops of paint. The aesthetic of these works was thoroughly enmeshed with her hallucinations:
I woke one morning to find the nets I had painted the previous day stuck to the windows. Marveling at this, I went to touch them, and they crawled on and into the skin of my hands. My heart began racing. In the throes of a full-blown panic attack I called an ambulance … this sort of thing began to happen with some regularity.
Kusama’s wild, dreamlike descriptions of these youthful visions, juxtaposed with reproductions of her early drawings and poems, are the most fascinating part of the book. They suggest that, in addition to being a response to contemporary artistic movements like Color Field painting or Minimalism, her work may actually be seen as a representation of reality as she experienced it. Such an interpretation risks pathologizing, but unlike most artists who balk at overtly psychological readings of their work, Kusama is unabashed about the fact that for her, art is a form of therapy: “My Psychosomatic Art is about creating a new self, overcoming the things I hate or find repulsive or fear by making them over and over and over again,” she writes. Kusama dates this practice back to a childhood spent with a philandering father and a domineering mother, when she would often lock herself in the bathroom and draw obsessively. Her hallucinations began when she was in elementary school: flowers and pumpkins — both recurring motifs in her work from an early age — would routinely sprout faces and speak to her, or the floral pattern on a tablecloth would spread inexplicably across the room. Dogs addressed her in Japanese; she could only bark in reply. She describes spending agonizing days behind a “thin, silk-like curtain of indeterminate grey”:
On days when this curtain descended, other people looked tiny, as if they had receded into the distance, and when I tried to converse with them I could not understand what they were saying.
Painting, drawing, and later performance art and soft sculpture, forms made from sewn and stuffed fabric, were ways of understanding and ultimately controlling her disease. She never discloses exactly what that disease is, although scholar and curator Midori Yamamura reports in her essay for the 2007 exhibition catalog, Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York, that Kusama’s psychiatrist, Dr. Nishimaru Shiho, diagnosed her with hallucinatory cenesthopathy with bipolar and schizophrenic tendencies. Kusama experiences odd bodily sensations despite the fact that there is nothing physically wrong with her.
At any rate, the congruence between her hallucinations and her work would seem to mark her as an “outsider artist”: one who creates art as a personal outlet for some deep, compulsive need. And yet, Kusama is highly aware of her profile in the press and her place in history. She often offers long lists of her accomplishments — her autobiography reads like a curriculum vitae in places — and narcissistically quotes at length from press accounts.
She also claims to have inspired two iconic figures of Pop Art: Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. After they exhibited together in 1962, Kusama claims that Oldenburg got the idea for his soft sculptures — droopy fabric renderings of toilets, hamburgers, and other household items — from her presentation of domestic objects covered in hundreds of stuffed fabric phalluses. Warhol had attended another exhibition in which she papered the walls with a single repeated image. In response to a show in which he did the same a few years later, she remarks: “It was plainly an appropriation or imitation.”
It’s impossible to know whether these claims have merit (sometimes things are just in the air), but such statements betray an artist with something of a chip on her shoulder and a certain bluster or swagger: an irrepressible self-assurance, even cockiness, that has been a hallmark (and perhaps raison d’être) of her career. It took supreme confidence to break with tradition and leave Japan, to heed her own voice despite financial and psychological hardship, and finally, to attempt to break taboos — her own and the public’s — around nudity and sex.
The third act of Kusama’s chronicle describes her 1970s performances, many of which doubled as orgies. Just as her “Infinity Net” paintings tread a path from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism and her soft sculptures coincided with the ascendance of Pop art, Kusama’s Happenings captured the zeitgeist of the anti-war, free love, and hippie movements. She staged naked love-ins in public places and burned American flags, Bibles, and draft cards. In her studio, she created a room lined with mirrors and invited news crews to film a group of men having sex inside. She cultivated a stable of young gay men she dubbed the Kusama Dancing Team who lived (and routinely pleasured each other) in her studio, available to perform at a moment’s notice. And she put her mark on all of these activities by painting the nude performers’ bodies with polka dots.
At the center of this maelstrom of sexual expression and experimentation, Kusama staunchly maintained her identity as auteur, not as participant. She advocated free, even public sex, but not for herself:
I had no interest in drugs or lesbianism, or indeed any kind of sex. That is why I drew a line between myself and the group … to them I was like a nun — but neither male nor female.
She frankly traces this revulsion to a childhood transgression: being ruthlessly beaten by her mother for dancing naked in front of the neighborhood boys. Freud would have had a field day.
The polka dots, which became a Kusama trademark, were an extension of the “Infinity Nets,” reflecting her hallucinatory visions but also operating as a kind of camouflage, expressing a radical continuity among all things:
What I was asserting, was that painting polka-dot patterns on a human body caused that person’s self to be obliterated and returned him or her to the natural universe.
For Kusama, the application of polka dots (which might also be seen as a sublimation of the sex act) is the means by which two people might dissolve into each other or become inseparable from the world around them. She calls it “self-obliteration,” an idea that seems both desirable and threatening. It’s also a bit ironic given her pursuit of celebrity.
I was reported on almost as much as Jackie O. or President Nixon. My name was in the tabloids day after day, magazines carried stories about me, and the public was fascinated by my activities and movements.
Kusama did attract a legion of followers, first through her Happenings and then through assorted (now defunct) business ventures: Kusama Enterprises, Kusama Polka-Dot Church, Kusama Musical Productions (all involved in staging Happenings), Kusama Fashion Company, The Nude Fashion Company, Kusama International Film Production, Body Paint Studio (a kind of modeling agency), Kusama Sex Company (responsible for orgies), and the “homosexual social club KOK,” which stood for Kusama ’Omophile Kompany. The list reads like a satire of the American entrepreneurial spirit, but Kusama is nothing but earnest about all of these endeavors, which she saw as additional ways to spread her message of sexual liberation.
This account of her heyday in New York is followed by musings on Kusama’s personal relationships with other artists. There are brief sections on O’Keefe, Warhol, Donald Judd, and others, as well as a lengthy account of her prolonged, troubled affair with Joseph Cornell, whom she first met in 1962. Cornell — something of an outsider himself — was apparently obsessed with Kusama, telling her, “I’ve dreamed of swearing my love to a Japanese girl,” and telephoning repeatedly at all hours of the day and night. It’s not clear what Kusama got out of their years-long relationship, or whether, given her attitudes toward sex, it was ever consummated in the conventional way. The story is, however, a rare glimpse into the intimate life of the fabled, reclusive artist, who died in 1972.
By 1975, Kusama’s health was failing, and she traveled to Japan to have an unspecified operation. She originally planned to return to New York, but her hallucinations returned and she decided to remain in Tokyo. In Making a Home, Yamamura notes that Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a “Jungian art therapy institution” in 1977, out of “a rational, self-preserving impetus.” Since then, she has continued to make paintings, collages, and sculptures — in a studio she constructed across the street from the hospital — and has also become a prize-winning novelist.
Is Kusama a crazy lady who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or a canny opportunist who rode the waves of the moment? We may never know. Despite her highly constructed and performative public image, she may in fact be something else altogether, an ambassador for a reality with which we, in our reasonable efforts to dissect the universe, have largely lost touch. Loathe though I am to cast her as some exotic earth mother bringing the world back to original truths — a conceit that smacks of the most insidious kind of Orientalism — there is still something restorative, refreshingly sincere, even magical about her work. It speaks for itself, suggesting that it’s not so much whether she’s an outsider or an insider that matters but how her story dispenses with that distinction altogether.