Yayoi Kusama is 83 and back in New York, where she first moved in 1958, from provincial Japan by way of Seattle, in a quest to become the most famous possible version of herself. She succeeded for a while. Within a decade, she’d turned herself into a kind of avant-garde hippie shaman and tabloid fixture, known for painting polka dots on naked people. But the cost was high: In the early seventies, broke and broken, she moved home and into a Tokyo mental hospital, her reputation in New York evaporating without her here to cultivate it. By 1996, it was possible for a Paula Cooper Gallery intern to find one of Kusama’s chair-sculptures, which are covered in phallic carbuncles, in a junk shop on East 11th Street. He bought it for just $250.
He’d heard about Kusama because that was around the time she was being rediscovered—Cooper had just opened a show of her work—by a generation of curators inspired by idiosyncratic artists who’d ended up in art history’s dusty attic. Her steady march back toward popular recognition culminates this week with what the Whitney Museum calls a celebration of Kusama’s six-decade career (and coincides with the release of a line of Kusama-inspired luxury goods available from Louis Vuitton). The show arrives from the Tate Modern in London, which has made a habit of giving what its curator Frances Morris calls “the big treatment” to artists who had previously fallen out of the mainstream, and comes five years after she signed on with the Gagosian Gallery. Kusama’s is a wonderful behind-the-music story, the outsider with destiny in her sights, who moves to the big city to prove herself, then collapses under the strain of striving, only to stage a comeback, bigger than ever.
But whatever you make of her retreat into a psych ward, her mantra was always “self-obliteration”—to lose herself in the work, or to the work, to save herself. “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art,” she wrote in her autobiography. Kusama calls her work “art-medicine”—for both herself and the rest of us. “I wanted to start a revolution, using art to build the sort of society I myself envisioned.”
In her early twenties, a pretty, rarely smiling woman whose family owned a prosperous plant nursery in Japan, Kusama wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe and sent along some paintings. Much to her surprise, O’Keeffe wrote back, and Kusama, who’d spent the war sewing parachutes, decided she needed to flee Japan to avoid the fate her mother imagined for her—to marry a man of her family’s choosing. America seemed the answer: New York, specifically, despite O’Keeffe’s warning about how hard it was to make a living here as an artist.
In the immediate postwar period, it was rare enough for a young Japanese woman to travel to the U.S., much less with the intention of becoming an art star. At the time, critics were besotted with testosterone-fueled action painting, and Kusama’s delicate early work was definitely off-trend. Known as “Infinity Nets,” they’re laboriously—perhaps therapeutically—patterned canvases of circles that were inspired in part by the pebbles she saw in the creek behind her home growing up. As David Kiehl, the Whitney curator, imagines her thinking while painting: “I’m still here, making a circle, I’m still here, making a circle.”
For all her fragility—she complains of hallucinations—Kusama was also an eminently pragmatic upstart. “She was very assertive,” says fellow artist and friend Carolee Schneemann, whose work deployed her own naked body, like Kusama’s later would. As female artists, she says, “we were all fighting to not be marginalized.” And Kusama was a networking warrior. “We’d go to an opening at a museum or a gallery, and she would say: ‘Carolee, you tell me who is most important here.’ ” One of her good friends was Donald Judd, who wrote criticism praising her and “was a major force in making me into a star,” Kusama wrote. He even helped her with those phallic sculptures. The avant-garde was still small then: At one point, she lived in a building with Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, and Larry Rivers. She got to know Andy Warhol, whose wallpaper with repeated images echoed her work, and regarded him—perhaps hubristically—as a leader of a “rival gang.”
“She was an anomaly,” Schneemann says. “A cute kid who was aggressive.” And she was unafraid to exploit her Orientalist allure, often wearing a kimono. “She was definitely not funny, it was all about her,” says Hart Perry, whose mother, Beatrice, was her dealer. “She’d go on these art-making binges and then burn out and come stay with us.” Schneeman says, “She was always worried about money and usually had a man friend.” But in this she was less a hedonist than a strategist. “Once a woman sleeps with a man, she loses her only weapon,” Kusama wrote in her autobiography. “If she does not give it up, on the other hand, she can use a man for ten or fifteen years.” Fortunately, she never was particularly interested in having sex. “I am terrified by just the thought of something long and ugly like a phallus entering me, and that is why I make so many of them,” she explained. One of her great “romances” was with sculptor Joseph Cornell, who lived with his overbearing mother and invalid brother and was too psychologically hamstrung to actually consummate. Nonetheless, they’d often draw each other in the nude; she described his penis as “a big, desiccated calzone.”