A profile of the artist Yayoi Kusama
I was surprised but delighted that Yayoi Kusama came to meet me at the Pittsburgh airport. It made for a large group: Kusama; her two assistants; the curator of the Mattress Factory, who was driving; a translator. They were right at the gate when I stepped off the plane. There was no mistaking Kusama. Tiny, old, dressed in a red embroidered silk jacket, loose trousers, and sneakers, her long black hair free-falling down her back, she stood surrounded by attendants like some marvelous glass ornament enveloped by protective cotton. Of her original beauty, the most striking remnant is her eyes, which are vast and dark and clear and younger than the rest of her face. She shuffled forward and looked at me with alarming intensity, as though she were seeing a vision in my polite smile. There was a lot of shaking of hands and a certain amount of bowing, in the Japanese manner, and then I said that it was a pleasure to meet her, as I had admired her for a long time. She nodded slowly. “Is that so?” she asked in English, as though she found the veneration delightful but rather implausible. We walked through the Pittsburgh airport, and though Kusama was not wearing anything strange, and though there were plenty of other Asian women there, and though the conversation consisted of pleasantries, she still looked as if she had been cut out of some different world and collaged into a picture with the rest of us. The colors seemed more intense where she stood, as though there were more reality in that corner, and she appeared, despite her diminutive proportions, to be in charge of the air around her. It is a look one associates either with hypomania or with celebrity; in Kusama’s case it is both.
In the car on the way into town, she talked about her recent history and mentioned certain works from the past. I commented on the pieces in question, most of which I knew; then she mentioned one I did not recall. “It’s illustrated in my pink catalogue,” she said. I happened to have my own copy with me, and I took it out of my briefcase. “This one?” I asked, opening to the relevant page. Kusama looked at me as though I were Dorothy Gale from Kansas and had just thrown the mop water in her direction. “Where did you get this?” she demanded, snatching the catalogue from my hands and handing it back to one of her assistants. “This is very unfortunate,” she said. “You must not have this. It must be destroyed. Here is a corrected copy,” and she gave me a new copy of the catalogue in which whole sections of the text were obliterated by thick lines of black ink. The “corrected” edition recalled nothing so much as a letter manhandled by the Soviet bureaucracy. “The other version is full of lies,” she said. “They are like a virus, those lies. They are published in one place and they spread on and are picked up and are published elsewhere as if they were true just because they are printed.” She was enraged, and spoke quickly. Then she turned to me, at once pleading and commanding. “Do not publish any lies about me,” she said. “Please, do not do it.”
Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 to a prosperous family, owners of a nursery, in central Japan. By the time she was ten years old, she was already doing pencil drawings that featured her distinctive motif of dots and net-like patterns that repeat across an entire surface. Kusama did well in elementary school; during the war years, however, her education was curtailed by the National Mobilization Law, and she spent her teens, as did many Japanese girls of her generation, working in a parachute factory. “The militarism was inescapable. I suffered. It killed my mind,” she has said. After the war, she attended the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, an arts vocational school, where she was judged “not passable” in drawing. Her family tried every way they could to discourage her becoming an artist, which they thought an unladylike occupation. “They suggested that I become a collector instead,” Kusama says. “They had a lot of views like that; they were scandalized that I learned to drive, and thought I should just hire a chauffeur. They were always trying to rope me into arranged marriages with men I’d never met who came from very particular families.” For Kusama, this was “my era of mental breakdown” when she began to feel increasingly like “a prisoner surrounded by a curtain of depersonalization.” Depersonalization would become the defining quality of her experience as time went on; the recognition of her condition and the ongoing battle against it were to be, if not the great subject of her art, then the enabling force behind it. For her, that curtain was the enemy, to be shredded by the sustained neurotic attack that is her painting.
In March 1952, the young painter had her first solo show – which included two hundred pieces ranging in style from traditional Nihonga to Western Surrealism – at the First Community Center in Matsumoto, the Civic Hall and public forum of the town. During that year, Kusama claims, she produced between fifty and a hundred works on paper every day; the production of art had become an all-consuming activity. She began to gain support from influential figures in the Japanese art world, and with their accolades received a second one-woman show, again at the Matsumoto Civic Hall, in October. Though she was by no means prominent, she had by now begun to attract the interest of powerful figures within the highly structured Japanese art world. Both Shuzo Takiguchi, critic and poet, and Nobuya Abe, a highly regarded member of the Association of Art and Culture, published essays about her.
Kusama also began around this time to attract attention outside the art world. Dr. Shiho Nishimaru, a professor of psychiatry at Shinshu University in Matsumoto, saw Kusama’s paintings and made her work the subject of a paper he presented at a conference at Chiba University on mental illness. Soon after, Dr. Ryuzaburo Shikiba, an expert on the art of the mentally ill, became interested and reportedly attempted to organize a nationwide tour of her work. Kusama displays obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and has been prone to hallucinations. “There was a vase of golden violets,” she recalls, describing an afternoon at home in her late adolescence, “and when I looked at them and then looked away they began to cover everything. They were on the drawings I was doing and then I saw that they were all over the phone book, and going up the walls and then they covered the doors so that I could not see a way out of the room. These experiences were typical.” Another time she described watching the red pattern of a tablecloth coat everything around her: “When I looked up, I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.”
Over the next few years, Kusama’s work continued to meet with success. She was gaining in both confidence and aspiration, and had become fascinated by the idea of foreign travel, though for ordinary Japanese to travel was at that time very difficult. “In the neighboring villages near my hometown of Matsumoto, many people wanted to emigrate to America. I heard that everything was happening there, and I always wanted to go. American people have a more generous understanding of individuality than the Japanese, and the tempo in New York is so much slower. It’s a big relief for me.” In 1955, Kusama noticed the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in a second-hand bookstore in Matsumoto. Though she knew little of either the artist or her context, she asked a cousin who spoke some English to help her to compose a letter to O’Keeffe. She wrote, “Though I feel I am very far away from where you are and only on the first step of long difficult life of painter. I should like to ask you would kindly show me the way to approach this life.” O’Keeffe wrote back volunteering to show work to New York dealers, but she did not encourage Kusama to come to the States. “In this country the Artist has a hard time to make a living,” she wrote back. Kusama persevered, however. She applied for an American visa; after a year of delays she finally got one. Before leaving in November 1957, she wrote again to O’Keeffe: “I… have been aiming for… some… years that my paintings be criticized at New York and [if] I am to realize that without seeking somebody’s kind advice and help I will never be able to reach New York…. You may be very embarrassed to hear my too frank words but I respect you the most.”
At the same time that she wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe, Kusama sent some work to another American painter, Kenneth Callahan, in Seattle. He showed the work to a gallery owner, Zoe Dusanne, who liked it very much and offered Kusama a show. A Japanese professor associated with the University of Washington met with Kusama in Tokyo to make the official arrangements. For technical reasons, the opening was postponed several times, but in December 1957, Kusama managed to come to the United States for the opening. She continued to write to O’Keeffe, who gave kindly but rather vague advice. Within six months, she headed out to New York, city of her dreams, where she was to stay for the next thirteen years. Her brazen savoir-faire and extraordinary ambition served her well. “Americans think of Japanese girls as hothouse flowers,” wrote critic Gordon Brown in a 1965 interview. “Kusama surprises them. She is rugged and strong – a veritable human dynamo of creative energy and artistic achievement.” Kusama would put her paintings under her arm and walk through the city with them, going to visit galleries over and over again, sometimes selling a single work, sometimes leaving work on consignment. It took almost two years for her to get a one-woman show in Manhattan, at the Brata Gallery, a well-regarded Tenth Street cooperative space (George Sugarman and Ronald Bladen were among the first artists to show work there), but when she did, it was an immediate success. Donald Judd, Sidney Tillim, and Dore Ashton gave the show enthusiastic reviews; Judd and Frank Stella purchased work. This was the great period of the net paintings: vast canvases covered with tiny repeating patterns. Frequently, a net of thin white lines covers enormous stretches of colored canvas, as though a thousand spiders had worked together for months to cover a field with their lace. The negative spaces between these lines resemble points: they are in fact the first Kusama dots. “I had a desire to prophecy and measure the infinity of the boundless universe from my own position with each dot, with an accumulation of particles which are the negative of the holes in the net,” wrote Kusama a few years later. “I published a manifesto stating that everything, myself, others, and the universe, would be obliterated by the white strands of nothingness connecting the astronomical accumulations of dots. The white cords surround the black spots of a silent death behind nothingness, and I painted them from morning to night.” Judd described this work in a 1959 Artnews review as “massive, solid lace.” Later, Kusama said, “I painted boredom, which is more important in life than the sunlight the Impressionists painted.”
Kusama’s English was even more minimal than her art, and, despite her critical success, she was in increasingly desperate financial shape. In May 1960, she became physically and psychologically ill and was out of circulation for several months. She moved around a lot in New York before settling in at 70 East 12th Street. “Life in New York was severe,” Kusama recalled. “It was freezing cold in the much-too-large loft with its broken windows. I had only one blanket. Since I could not sleep, I got up to face the canvas and continued painting meshes of a net till dawn. Day after day I forgot my coldness and hunger by painting.” Now she says, “This work served to relieve my illness, and that was my first priority for it, but it was not only that relief. I think it may also relieve the illness of others. In any event, it’s good for my illness, all of it. My sickness requires accumulation and also some sort of fragmentation. I need to be cutting things up.”
If the local reception of Kusama’s second one-woman show in New York (in May 1961) was mixed, there were more immediately enthusiastic responses from European critics who read about the work, saw photos, and eventually imported it. Throughout the ’60s, Kusama showed more frequently in Europe than in either Japan or the United States, most prominently in the landmark 1960 Monochrome Malerei exhibition at the Stadtisches Museum in Leverkusen, Germany, organized by director Udo Kultermann, where she appeared alongside Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, and Piero Manzoni, and in numerous shows organized by members of the neo-avant-garde German Zero and Dutch Nul groups. New York, however, remained her home base. Kusama entered on the most compelling phase of her career with the production of her first objects; in 1962, she began what would later be called her Driving image series. “In New York, I was painting the nets. And then I noticed that it spread to the floor and the curtain and to the window. So I went to catch the red net, and I examined it without noticing at first that my hands were also covered by the red nets. And that was the turning point, and I began creating sculpture, so that I could put the patterns on everything.” She and Donald Judd went out into the streets and found the materials to create a rowboat entirely covered with thousands of phallic protrusions made of cloth sacks stuffed hard with packed cotton. The work bears an uncanny resemblance to ancient obsessive sculpture; it is eerie to look at this material next to, for example, the cult statue of Artemis at Ephesus, which is completely covered with breasts. The same air of the sacred and primal immediacy gives Kusama’s work its particular urgency.
This upholstering would become her characteristic mode, and by the mid ’60s there was no surface in her studio that had not been attacked. “Other objects which Kusama frequently covered,” notes Alexandra Munroe, the leading American critic of Japanese art who has been Kusama’s most articulate exponent, “were frying pans, tea kettles, watering cans and mixing bowls as well as suitcases, pocketbooks, high-heeled shoes, a baby carriage and coats and dresses. What is new in these sculptures is that the unit of Kusama’s repetition is no longer a nonobjective circle, but blatantly a penis form.” This work is grotesque, suggestive, unsettling, and weird, in part because the forms are phalli, but in part simply because of the way they accumulate, as the nets did, with obsessive focus. This mannerism is also evident in Kusama’s airmail-sticker collages, which can include as many as ten thousand stickers individually pasted to a vast canvas in flowing waves, and which foreshadow Andy Warhol’s repetitive imagery of the same period. “I put them wherever,” Kusama says. “On kittens, dancers, the bed and the bookshelves. I would also cover stadium coats with macaroni, and that was because of my food obsession.” Indeed, many of the food obsession works – parities, shirts, coats, and shoes covered with silver and gold macaroni – were even more unsettling than the phallic works. The emphasis on the materials, Judd noted, had “never before been the whole work, been so large, been so explicit and aggressive…. The quality is intense and narrow and obsessive…. Kusama is interested in obsessive repetition, which is a single interest.”
“The work is not erotic,” Kusama said to me when we spoke. “It’s very tasteful. I was afraid of sex. I don’t do any sex. Never. The sexual obsession and the fear of sex sit side by side in me.” It seems that Kusama was achieving some kind of power over the phallus by creating and multiplying and controlling it; in one especially disturbing piece, Travelling Life, she covered a tall ladder with cocks and then had pointy-heeled women’s shoes climbing up to the top. In 1964, Kusama mounted “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show,” in which her penis-covered rowboat was placed in a room wallpapered with posters of the boat. The many protuberances were echoed in the many repetitions of the image, so that one felt quite overwhelmed in the face of it. Jill Johnston wrote at the time in Artnews, “The power of both the real image and the photographs is an accumulative act of repetitive insistence.”
It was at about this time that Kusama met Joseph Cornell, whom she cites as the romance of her life. “It was an ideal relationship for me,” she recalls. “I disliked sex and he was impotent so we suited each other very well.” He had an uncomfortable relationship to the physical, and lived throughout his life with his mother, who did not encourage libidinous adventuring. Once Kusama and Cornell were holding each other, at his house, early in the morning, and his mother, then eighty, walked in and poured cold water over them. “She ordered him not to touch a woman; ‘women are a disease,’ she used to say. I’m sure that is part of why he was impotent.” The relationship lasted, however, in a variety of forms, until Cornell’s death in 1972. “He wrote me many times and called me many times every day. People would think my telephone was broken, and I would say, no, it’s only Joseph Cornell calling me so often.” Kusama remembers that at one time he sent her fourteen letters in a day.
While her work was becoming more engaging and more successful, with group shows in the United States and Europe and offers for solo exhibitions, Kusama was also getting steadily more ill. She had had recurrent bouts of depression for several years, and went through long sloughs of unproductivity. In 1964, she began to have heart problems as well as psychiatric complaints, and she would stop working for long stretches, then work obsessively again. The making of the work became closely connected to her suffering, and though her illness could in its most extreme forms undermine her genius, the early stages of her decay produced the most fascinating work of all. Herbert Read saw a few pieces in a group show and sent her an admiring letter; later that year he wrote, “With perfect consistency, she creates forms that proliferate like mycelium and seal the consciousness in their white integument. It is… the most authentic type of surrealism: images of strange beauty that press on our organs of perception with terrifying persistence.” While the work gained attention for sharing “certain formal properties with specific modernist styles,” as Munroe has written, “her use of those devices remains idiosyncratic and even at odds with the theoretical polemic” surrounding much of the installation art of the time.
In 1965, Kusama began to elaborate her use of phallic forms with Floor Show: Kusama, which included one of her first mirror rooms: the floor was covered with her protrusions, reflected forever by the walls and ceiling. This work, which foreshadowed Lucas Samaras’ mirrored room, was followed by Kusama’s Peep Show and Love Forever, made entirely of mirrors and featuring flashing Christmas lights; visitors were given buttons that said “Love Forever” to wear as they looked through two small windows at the interior. “Meanwhile, a loud tape of Beatles songs blends in your ears with the lively rattle (like metal popcorn) of the light switches, reinforcing your sense of having been removed to another, rather awesome, world,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the May 1966 issue of Artnews. Kusama went, uninvited, to the Venice Biennale that year, occupying the lawn outside the Italian pavilion. She filled the space with fifteen-hundred mirrored balls, and stood or lay in the middle of this Narcissus Garden wearing a golden kimono, handing out copies of Herbert Read’s comments on her work, and throwing the balls into the air. Always desperate for money and keen on defying convention, Kusama offered these balls for sale at 1,200 lire each, but the authorities said that it was not acceptable “to sell art like hot dogs or ice cream cones at the Venice Biennale,” and she was ordered to desist.
Whether Kusama’s longing for success and fame was really a psychotic symptom is difficult to say; certainly the wish for artistic success was not her sole province. And yet there is a certain desperate and hungry quality to her search that exceeds the norms of ambition. She was not as successful at manipulating her obsessions as, say, Warhol; which is to say that though the obsessions are always fascinating, they remain alien. One never recognizes them as one’s own, nor even as society’s own, as with Warhol’s most effective work. Nor does Kusama’s lust for fame have the gloss of playfulness and irony that Warhol used so effectively. It should also not be forgotten that she was less readily accepted since she was a woman; and battling for ground in a foreign tongue; and living in a society recovering from aggressive wartime prejudice against Japan. She was also always in desperate financial straits. When, in 1967, she failed to cajole and impress curators and ingratiate her way into Documenta, and when various other hopes had failed, she took to performance. “Looking around her,” wrote Bhupendra Karia and Reiko Tomii when they compiled a chronology of her work some years later, “she was quick to see where the country was going: A generation of ‘flower children’ was on the rise protesting the Vietnam war, seeking thrills through hallucinogens, and taking refuge in Eastern mysticism and other exotic cults and religions, free sex and communes. Many people had made a career out of defying the establishment, and some even became rich and famous.” Kusama launched into the performance career that was to bring her great popular fame. Self-Obliteration by Kusama was rapidly followed by Horse Play, in which she painted polka dots on horses, and then by a series of Body Festivals in Tompkins Square Park and Washington Square Park, at which she painted polka dots on willing members of her audience, telling people to “love yourself beyond the point of vanity – with polka dots.” A film of her Happenings, Self-Obliteration, done in collaboration with psychedelic filmmaker Jud Yalkut, won several prizes, and Kusama showed it regularly at $2.00 admission, a not-insubstantial price for such avant-garde work, and a not-insubstantial source of income for Kusama. She began issuing hundreds of press releases, and her performances became steadily wilder. In the first of her Anatomic Explosion series, Tomii and Karia write, “across from the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, four nude dancers gyrated to the rhythm of bongo drummers, while Kusama, accompanied by her lawyer, spray painted blue polka dots on their naked bodies.” The police closed it down fast. A second such performance took place at the Statue of Liberty; a third one happened at the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, with Kusama declaring that she was the “modern Alice in Wonderland.” The performances came thick and fast after that. A few months later, she returned to Wall Street. Her press release said, in part:
Burn Wall Street.
Wall Street men must become farmers and fishermen.
Wall Street men must stop all this fake “business”.
OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA*DOTS.
OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA*DOTS
OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA*DOTS ON THEIR NAKED BODIES.
BE IN… BE NAKED, NAKED, NAKED.
“I myself avoided the sex,” Kusama recalls, “not only because I didn’t like sex, but also because at least 80 percent of the people who were involved had venereal disease. Some of the boys told me they got infected there. But the papers in Japan scandalized what I was doing, and my family became very upset and wrote to me begging me to stop.” There was little real sex at her orgies, but much fondling and polka-dotting. She was often covered with polka dots herself: they were on her body and in her hair. In her 1968 “Open Letter to My Hero Richard M. Nixon,” she declared that “our earth is like a little polka dot among millions of other celestial bodies…. Let’s forget ourselves, dearest Richard, and become one with the Absolute, all together in the altogether. As we soar through the heavens, we’ll paint each other with polka dots, lose our egos in timeless eternity, and finally discover the naked truth.” By this time it was difficult to tell the difference between Kusama’s authentic obsessions and the affected ones that she manifested in order to increase her own hype. Polka dots had become a sort of signature for her, and when she “needed” to put them on things and when she simply chose to splash them around for purposes of self-aggrandizement, it is impossible to say. The most interesting quality of Kusama’s late work is, in fact, its conflation of illness with the deliberate appropriation of the symptoms of illness for artistic effect. When I talked to Kusama about this matter, it became clear to me that even for her, the line had become entirely blurred, that she herself could no longer tell where an actual illness trailed off and the constructed personality began.
Kusama was high on the publicity as her Happenings reached their peak. “It was anti-war, anti-establishment, also about economics and politics and about Japan and scandal,” she said. “Then there was trouble because the Self-Obliteration film has the pubic hair, and that upsets the Japanese a lot.” By 1968, Kusama was as famous as it gets. It is alleged that she received more mentions in the New York press that year than even Warhol. “Other people would misinterpret my art,” she protests, “so I had to show them myself, with these press releases. Otherwise, everyone just wrote about my being Japanese and they used the word ‘Zen’ to describe absolutely anything I did.” In 1969, her nude “orgy” at MoMA made the cover of the New York Daily News. She also began to branch out. She set up an enterprise called Kusama Fashions to make clothes of which people might easily divest themselves (the outfit for the Homosexual Wedding was one dress shared by two men – “clothes ought to bring people together, not separate them”). She signed up with a publishing company and gave her name to a biweekly tabloid called Kusama’s Orgy.
Kusama’s burgeoning fame ultimately brought about a backlash in the media. “Kusama, whose gross lust for publicity never leaves room for taste, managed to put on the year’s most boring freak show,” wrote The Village Voice. “Kusama is definitely suffering from over-exposure of over-exposure.” Many of her old friends had abandoned her, shocked by what they saw as a descent into a non-artistic world of greedy self-promotion, alienated by her increasingly extravagant neediness, and sickened by her move away from paintings and objects. Her family, horrified by the reports of sexual extravagance that had come back to them, ceased to send the money that had helped sustain her during the previous decade. Kusama traveled back and forth between Tokyo and New York in 1970; her anxiety and depression, which had never abated, were now becoming worse and worse. The death of Joseph Cornell two years later was very traumatic for her. She claimed to feel guilty for ignoring his advice that she concentrate on her art and eschew self-promotion. In 1974, her father died after a long illness. In February 1975, she entered the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo. She left briefly, and made a number of collage tributes to Cornell; she mounted an exhibition of these works and then reentered the hospital. She continued to go in and out until 1977, when she moved there to stay. She has been there ever since.
“I started the use of the word ‘obsession’ which is now so popular in art circles,” she said. “I started the use of the word ‘accumulation.’ The sex obsession, the food obsession: I have to repeat things as a part of my illness, so I am interested in what everyone else has to repeat. Think of breathing. You have to breathe so many times, and it’s actually kind of a nuisance. Or food. Think if you saw all in one space the food you eat during a whole lifetime, how terrifying it would be, that you are eating your way through all that, and that you have to go on, every day, and eat. And drink. For me, I have so many further things like that, so many compulsions.” Later, she explained, “I feel as if I were driving on an endless highway until my death. It is like continuing to drink thousands of cups of coffee served in an automatic cafeteria. I will continue to desire and, at the same time, to escape all sorts of feelings and visions until the end of my days. Whether I want to or not I cannot stop living and yet I cannot escape from death. The consciousness of living in continuation sometimes drives me crazy. It makes me sick before and after my work. On the other hand, I am terrified by the obsession crawling over my body whether it came from within me or from outside.” And yet the work continued, and Kusama gradually found a place in the extremely complex world of the Japanese avant-garde. Yoshiaki Tono, the influential Japanese critic of Dada and Pop, said recently, “She’s Japanese, she’s a woman, she’s an artist, and she’s avant-garde. These are the worst conditions.” Kusama had left Japan without first affiliating herself with a specific group of artists at home. The importance of these groups, called kai, is immense in Japan. Such figures as Arakawa, On Kawara, and Ushio Shinohara each belonged to a group before leaving to work in the West. Further, Kusama’s art is not focused on the historical questions that define so much post-1945 art in Japan. With time, however, Kusama attained a high individual status as she entered a tradition of eccentrics outside even the community of outsiders. When she started to show with the blue-chip Fuji Television Gallery in 1982, she was established in her own country.
She now employs a bevy of assistants – near-acolytes, in their twenties and thirties, Japanese hippies-cum-art-students – who come most days to work with her at the hospital and in her nearby studio. She has a secretary, Kho Takakura, who is really her business manager and director of operations; he has served a very enabling role for her, helping her to achieve major critical recognition. Whether she really “needs” to be in the hospital is unclear. “They take care of everything for her,” one irritable detractor remarked. “She doesn’t have to worry about clothes, about a place to sleep, about doctors, about food; it’s like a full-service hotel that lets her concentrate on her art.” It is unclear what would happen to her mental state if she had to negotiate these matters alone. People who have known Kusama for a long time asked me, when I described my conversations with her, “And how much of what she said did you believe?” It’s a subtle terrain of manipulation: there is considerable overlap among what I believed, what Kusama believed, and what was true. The three are, however, by no means identical.
“You see, I went back to Japan because of health problems. I began writing novels, and wanting to come back, and to continue, but I couldn’t because of my illnesses…. Now the problems are a little better, with time, with the hospital, with some medicines, and I can travel again.” Kusama had been in psychoanalysis in New York for seven years with the only Japanese-speaking analyst in town; “he showed me very little but used up the energy I should have saved for painting.” Then she was told she had the early stages of schizophrenia. “There were the childhood hallucinations, then later ones, like when I lie in bed sometimes I notice that the ceiling is rotating and it can get very violent and make me feel quite ill. And then I get depressed from that also, and very anxious. It usually happens at night when I’m alone. Analysis took energy away from my art, but the hospital makes a safe environment where I can do the art.” During the twenty years that she has lived at the Seiwa Hospital, Kusama has not only produced enormous amounts of visual work, but also written twelve novels, including Manhattan Suicide Addict, Christopher Gay Brothel, and Aching Chandelier. The books, which are sexually perverse, thrilling, and sporadically coherent, have something of a cultish following in Japan. She has also composed thirteen pieces of music. “I don’t play an instrument. I just compose a score and perhaps the people in rock’n’roll or jazz may be able to arrange it so that it can be performed.”
Like Artaud or Munch or van Gogh, Kusama never takes her madness as her subject; it is only the inspiration for her subject. Critics have often spoken of Kusama as that Japanese woman who lives in an institution and covers her furniture with penises. And of course Kusama is a Japanese woman who lives in an institution and covers her furniture with penises, but the relationship between her madness and her artistic accomplishments cannot be reduced to that intriguing statistic. “In my work,” she says, “I’m giving a system to my life. I’m providing meaning stage by stage, step by step. I want to make a book about my illness and my work, to make scholarly documentation of how my sickness connects to my work. That is something only I can do. A really crazy person of course wouldn’t think about such a book. That’s the difference between myself and those crazy people who don’t have ideas about being artists. I feel I’m lucky, fortunate to have this sickness and all its ideas. You know, there are two things you can do about an obsessive-compulsive illness. One is to overcome it by giving up the compulsions, but the other is to embrace and accept their demands. Fortunately, mine can be satisfied with this artistic production.” This is of course not the fashionable way to treat such an illness, but it appears to have worked for her. “My doctor hates this whole idea. He’s very conservative and hates my literature and music and art. He’d like me to stay sedate in the hospital and lead a quiet life. And the other doctors are worse. They are very helpful for some areas of illness, for my compulsion to jump if I’m ever in a high place, for example. Of course in Japan living like this in a hospital is considered quite shameful; my mother has visited me in the hospital only once because she was so angry that I decided to live this way.”
Kusama’s maladies have helped to make her famous, and nothing that contributes to her fame can be taken at face value. “If protest was Kusama’s message,” Alexandra Munroe once wrote, “publicity was her medium.” Kusama herself felt freed by fame: “I was god,” she explained in reference to 1968. After I had tried four times to ask her about the relationship between the art she did in the 1993 Venice Biennale – the first time the Japanese pavilion had been given over to one artist – and the work she did in the 1966 Biennale, and she had told me four times about the enormous press response to each exhibition, I asked her why the publicity mattered so much. “My fame is the strongest manifestation of my will,” she said. “I want to impose my will on everything around me. That is why it is satisfying to cover everything with my polka dots. I feel I raise my art to the level of religion.” Her voice rose. Anyone who studies Kusama’s work will see that it turns on a contradiction. The work is said to serve the purpose of “self-obliteration,” and indeed the effect of the installations is to make the viewer feel obliterated. Certainly, seeing Kusama in one of her outfits that matches an installation, you can see that she nearly disappears physically. And yet the desperate search for publicity for the act of self-obliteration makes that very act into an act of self-aggrandizement.
Kusama wants to become the most visible woman in the world by making herself disappear: that is the essence of her obsessive-compulsive behavior, a triumph of illness. In 1989, Munroe’s brilliant retrospective of the artist’s work at the short-lived Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York brought Kusama’s name back into general circulation, and Akira Tatehata’s 1993 selection of Kusama for the Venice Biennale cemented her place in the international art world. The Kusama renaissance – the “Kusama boom,” as it is called in Japan – was underway, and soon she would be back in enormous demand abroad as well. Celebrity status functions differently in Japan than it does in the West, but Kusama certainly had adherents, many of them devoted, and her name and face became broadly recognizable. In the States, she had three major one-woman exhibitions in 1996, including excellent shows at the Robert Miller Gallery and the Paula Cooper Gallery, and she is now negotiating details of a show that will open at the L.A. County Museum in spring 1998 (organized by Lynn Zelevansky, curator of twentieth-century art) and then come to MoMA. Kusama is also in discussion with the Pompidou. After a decade of silence, she has returned: and though her new work is derivative of the old, it has a certain playfulness and confidence that are its own. Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times in October, “Ms. Kusama is doing as well as many better-known art stars from the ’60s, if not better, and it’s great to have her back.”
Kusama left the hospital in order to go to Venice in 1993; she came to the United States for her two exhibitions in 1996. “When I finally came back, I was so happy to be in America again. America lived on in me even when it seemed to have forgotten me. My novels have American people in American settings because that’s so much a part of who I am,” she said as we sat together at the Mattress Factory. She had occupied three rooms. The first was covered completely in mirror (walls, ceiling, and floor) with black lights shining into an infinity cube. The second was a room covered with red polka dots that had standing in it three female mannequins also covered with red polka dots. The third was the pièce de résistance: a large space entirely painted taxicab yellow with large black polka dots. In this room were several gigantic balloons of odd organic proportions that were also painted bright yellow and covered with black dots. The biggest was more than 20 feet long, and the balloons so filled the space that you had to edge past them to navigate the room. They were like gigantic soft gourds pressing their edges against each other. The effect was at once humorous and bizarre and disturbing; you felt as though you were being consumed by the work, and you had to keep looking at your hands to see whether they too were not turning yellow and polka-dotted. Kusama had made an outfit to match the installation, and she wore it for much of the time we were talking: a dress, a hat, socks, shoes, all the same taxicab yellow with the same black dots. At one point in the midst of our discussion, she excused herself, much as someone who needed a cigarette might, and said that she required self-obliteration. Two of her assistants came over; while Kusama and I continued to talk, they covered her with polka dots, putting them in her hair, on her face, on her hands, and on any other exposed parts of her body.
Kusama has used organic forms more and more of late, and has been at work on a series of pumpkin pieces, to which the yellow-and-black balloons seemed obliquely to refer. “Kusama regards this vegetable with monomaniacal steadfastness,” the critic Yusuke Nakahara has written. “The overriding concern is to achieve a rich cohesive chaos. There are no surface walls in this chaos…. We are not mere observers of this scene, we are subsumed with it.” Kusama herself said, simply, “I like the essential repetitiveness of form of pumpkins…. They’re like everything else I do but at the same time very humorous. I do pumpkin sculptures, and also now huge sculptures of hats. I like hats.” Kusama reached up and adjusted the yellow hat with black polka dots that she was wearing. “I don’t really know why people buy my work, but they do buy it; at the Fuji TV Gallery in Tokyo last year I had sales of over $1.2 million. I don’t know what to do with this money, really, so I pay a lot of taxes and then I donate it to some people.”
A little while after our Pittsburgh talks, I met Kusama in New York. I was so accustomed by then to the idea of her suffering in the city, starving and cold, that it was disorienting to find her installed in a suite at the Palace Hotel with her entourage. It seemed to me that she was enjoying the nice room and the good view and the lavish attention that everyone (me too) was paying her. She had made T-shirts with polka dots and her signature on them, and one of her assistants was wearing one; I had worn a polka-dot scarf and a pair of polka-dot socks that I had lying around, and she was amused and pleased. She had a manner of easy self-possession, and was relaxed at the end of many hours of interviews. Conversation with Kusama is always theater, and like any good theater it is interesting at those moments when it lapses into clarity and directness. “It was not so simple, not so easy to come up with this way of living that I’ve had. I was given a sad life by fate, but I think I won a happy life…. Not one day has passed when I didn’t think of suicide, but I’m very glad to be alive now. Most people are so preoccupied with their illness, sickness, and they live a very ordinary life. I was so involved and so engrossed with painting, and knew from my childhood that it could help me to overcome unhappiness.” The recent paintings repeat the old net motif, and the new accumulations repeat the ones from the ’60s, and some of the freshness of the early work is gone. Recognition from the international art establishment and medication have helped to control Kusama’s madness and have also, doubtless, compromised the painful obsessiveness that drove some earlier work. But the spirit of fun that is so well hidden in the early work is more on the surface now, and the work is even more pleasurable than it is upsetting. When you talk to Kusama, she seems to be a caricature of herself, and famous people pushing seventy who become caricatures of themselves usually become dull in the process. But then when you look through Kusama’s material from the ’60s, you find that she was always a caricature of herself; and to that caricatured self she has been strangely true. Her work has the triumphant bearing of antidote. It cured her; it seems to cure others. It can be appreciated as Minimalist repetition, as installation art, as obsessive symptomatology, but its real value is almost totemic: for this is the art not of displaced energy, but of energy itself. “Diseases of the mind are greater than Love. Diseases of the mind are more magnificent than ego. Diseases are more powerful than death,” Kusama once wrote. And yet it seems clear, as one looks at Kusama’s work and listens to her, that art, curiously, is the one thing more powerful than disease. That conviction, manifest in the sculpted forms themselves, accounts for the unearthly brilliance of her objects.