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.