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.”
Sex—like Warhol, she was voyeuristically obsessed—gave her the attention she craved, and she surrounded herself with hippies willing to do anything for her (notably, the young gay men she called the Kusama Dancing Team). “Publicity is part of my art,” she declared in her sexual-freedom newspaper Kusama Orgy. Artists “have to be in favor of publicity, good or bad,” she wrote, because “the garret life of Van Gogh and Modigliani is not where it’s at.” She brags that she was “reported on almost as much as Jackie O. and President Nixon.”
As she became more involved with “happenings,” she left the stabilizing repetition of her early work far behind. She staged a nude event in the MoMA, where a black man laid atop a spread-eagled white woman. (“This is an act to destroy Power in the name of Art,” she explained.) On Wall Street, her followers distributed leaflets that stated, “Stock is a fraud” and, “Obliterate Wall Street men with polka dots.” She opened naked painting studios and a gay social club called the Kusama ’Omophile Kompany (kok). But she wasn’t selling much art. And the farther she drifted from her own “art medicine” into the more manic depravity of those bacchanals, the less seriously the more serious people in New York seemed to take her.
By the early seventies, Perry says, “she essentially failed.” So she returned home. She didn’t have much of a choice—she was emotionally unstable and running out of money. Japan wasn’t any more hospitable; news reports of her happenings had already made her, she later wrote, a “national disgrace.” For a while, she spent her time making collages and writing strange cathartic novels with titles like The Hustlers Grotto of Christopher Street, in which she compares art dealing to pimping.
Eventually she built up a studio near the hospital, and thanks to a conscientious Japanese gallerist, her career slowly blossomed again. “She’s always been a cult personality,” says Gagosian’s Louise Neri, and controlling of her public image, like the trademark red anime bob she adopted in later years, or the way she tends to wear dresses that match her paintings, so she and the work blur.
Today, her studio life is a factorylike operation just outside the asylum. There she works on new paintings, colorful and hieroglyphic, with repeating motifs—eyes, profiles, tendril-like fringes, things that appear to be cells or viruses. And she’s entrepreneurial. “You go to her studio today, it’s all so full of Kusama product,” says Morris of the Tate. “She’s produced fabric to clothing to mobile phones.” Louis Vuitton creative director Marc Jacobs visited her in 2006, and the two bonded over their love of making things, which led to their current fashion collaboration.
For the looker, not buyer, she’s just as much a crowd-pleaser—how can you resist red-and-white polka-dot beach balls hanging in the Whitney’s windows? On its first floor, the museum has installed one of her “Infinity Rooms,” mirrored on all sides, lit only with yellow and blue Christmas lights dangling like fireflies from the ceiling. You view it standing on a small platform over a dark, shallow pool of water. As you come in from the midsummer heat, it might just cure what ails you.
An exchange with the artist, by way of e-mail and translator, from her studio in Japan.
New York was such an important place for you. What are your impressions of it now?
I lived in New York until 1973. After that, I have been traveling back and forth. Among the new generation growing up in New York, Paris, and London, New York is the top class.
You once wrote about returning after a number of years to find the creative energy in the city drained away.
Whenever an energy is lost, another is born. This fresh energy creates the base to make new things. My time in New York in the sixties was a period of that sort.
How is Japan to you today? What is it like to be creative there?
The Japanese people are now suffering because of the incompetent politicians. Natural disasters continue, and the country is socially confused. But it is at times like these that you need a splendid point of view. Though the world is facing difficulties, there are many people who try to find pleasure in life and make efforts to create a future with a new vitality.
Why have you decided to remain in the open ward for this long?
I write novels and poems, and I also paint in the hospital. They are my saviors.
Does it bother you that your work is sometimes seen through the lens of mental illness?
I’m not an outsider artist. Although I’m living in a hospital, I buy my own land and have built my own building. And I am now getting ready to make a museum.
I love how you once wrote, “The devil is the enemy of art and even more so its ally.” What does that mean to you today?
As I slightly feel death is approaching, I risk my life for creation and try not to waste my time.They all achieved a great success and gave many people a strong impression.
Do you regret any of those acts?
I have never regretted it. I still want to stage my happenings, but for now the priority is production of artworks. I am constantly producing new paintings, sculptures, installations, and there is no time to waste. My activities, from the earlier happenings to the recent works and projects, have drawn a great deal of attention and the media loved them. And these facts made Kusama a top star.
What happened to all of your hippie friends?
They are working as writers and designers.
Why do you think your happenings never took hold in Japan?
Japan was very conservative back then, and my avant-garde ideas were defeated completely. I have struggled against these adversities with the power of my cultivated art.
Do you think that if you’d stayed in New York, you could have surpassed Warhol?
I had already exceeded him during my stay in New York in the sixties. He lived near me and appropriated my ideas, only he was too late because I had already realized them. We don’t hear his name now so much in Japan.
This show was recently at the Tate Modern in London. What did you learn from that?
That what I’ve been doing was historically right.
At age 10. Photo: Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc./Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Kusama’s publication, Kusama Orgy. Photo: ” Yayoi Kusama Studio/Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
At her St. Marks studio. Photo: ” Yayoi Kusama Studio/Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Sitting in Narcissus Garden. Photo: ” Yayoi Kusama Studio/Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
In her Toyko studio. Photo: ” Yayoi Kusama Studio/Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Working on new paintings in her Tokyo studio. Photo: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images