Yayoi Kusama, Full Circle: From Japan, To New York, and Back
The Studio, The Streets, The Mental Hospital, and The Museum Retrospectives
A retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum presents a selection of works created over 60 years by Yayoi Kusama. The exhibition was presented at the Tate Modern in London prior to arriving in New York City. The London venue produced an extensive catalog which is available at the show. The exhibition was previously seen in Madrid at the Reina Sofia Museum where it had its debut and then travelled to Paris at the Centre Pompidou.
It is worth noting that in 1998, a 10 year retrospective: “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968” featured Kusama’s major New York years.
‘Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 19581968 opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition toured to New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Tokyos Museum of Contemporary Art.
However, the current exhibition is the only major one to cover a full range of her working career. The Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York reveals a huge range of media, methods, themes, documentation and directions. The exhibition reveals the breadth of Kusama’s production, focusing on some of the most important areas of innovation through selections from the artist’s own collection, galleries, private collections and some of the most important museums. A range of time periods and approaches are shown through varied media and techniques –drawing, painting, collage, assemblage, installation, performance, editions and design.
The curator for the Kusama retrospective was Frances Morris, Head of Collections, International Art, at the Tate Modern. She worked closely with Kusama during numerous visits to Japan to bring the show to life.
She tells Phaidon because of the sheer amount of work to choose from – hundreds of thousands of pieces over seven decades of creation she has had to be incredibly selective.
Weve chosen to chapterise her career and focus on the unfolding of particular moments in time,” she says. “Rather than focus on everything she ever made weve focused on the paradigm shifts and each room focuses on one type of work.”
In the material that follows we include links to many sources of information, reviews, viewpoints, and interviews, which will provide insights and opinions concerning Kusama’s artistic activities.
Following an overview of biographical highlights, we present a particular focus on Kusama’s works on paper from the 1950’s and the 1970’s.
Plus, scroll to the bottom of the article to find video features on Kusama’s works and the museum installations.
Kusama’s Unique Background: An Abbreviated Biography
Kusama is considered to be one of the most famous living artists in Japan–often referred to as the most famous. She was born on March 22, 1929, in Matsumoto City, which was a small provincial town about 130 miles from Tokyo. The youngest of four children, the family’s livelihood was from managing wholesale seed nurseries.
For those who haven’t been aware of her history, Kusama grew up in a troubled family situation, which did not support her artistic interests. However, she drew from an early age.
An article from the Tate Blog speaks to her early influences:
“Kusamas family made their living by cultivating plant seeds and she grew up surrounded by fields full of flowers. This formative environment has been a touchstone for the artist throughout her life. From her earliest sketches to her most recent large-scale sculptures, Kusama has been fascinated by the plant world.”
“In the 1980s and 1990s she made a series of large-scale paintings and sculptures that continue this fascination with plant motifs. Tendrils spill out of boxes in Heaven and Earth. The triptych Yellow Trees features a writhing mass of polka dot covered tubers snaking around and through one another.”
“One of Kusamas earliest surviving works is a sketchbook she kept as a student, the pages of which are full of detailed drawings of peonies.”
“These precise depictions transformed into more allusive imagery in her works of the 1950s. Stumps and roots rising out of the parched ground in Earth of Accumulation are suggestive of bones, while the sprouting form in Flower Bud No.6 is rendered in lines that evoke a calligraphic character.”
“In the 1980s and 1990s she made a series of large-scale paintings and sculptures that continue this fascination with plant motifs. Tendrils spill out of boxes in Heaven and Earth. The triptych Yellow Trees features a writhing mass of polka dot covered tubers snaking around and through one another. More recently Kusama has made large-scale sculptures depicting colourful polka-dotted, eye-bedecked flowers.“
Study in Japan and Exhibitions in the 1950’s
It was in 1948 that Kusama began to study Nihonga painting in Kyoto. This was characterized as a particular Japanese style of painting, tied to Japanese nationalism. However, since Kusama became dissatisfied with these conventions of teaching, she sought out information about the prevailing European and American art, including the avant-garde.
During the early 50’s Kusama continued to develop her skills and directions through hundreds of works on paper.
She produced these works through a variety of media which included watercolor, ink, pastel, gouache and tempera. In the early to mid-1950’s, she held several solo exhibitions, first in Matsumoto, followed by Tokyo. By 1955 Kusami had achieved recognition as a prominent artist in Japan.
“Arriving in America in 1957, the young Japanese artist had, by the mid-1960s, become one of New Yorks most prolific, provocative and notorious characters. Yet in 1975 she returned to Japan and voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, where she still creates obsessively and therapeutically. Kusamas autobiography, first published in Japanese in 2002, is finally available in English and may settle some key questions about her private world.”
The New York Years: (1958 to 1973)
Kusama spent many years in New York City, where her career blossomed from obscurity to fame and notoriety. She even rivaled the attention and press which Warhol received at the time.
With Happenings, Performance Art, Installations, Films, and Fashion, she augmented the traditional painting, drawing and sculpture media and captured great attention for her work.
Kusama recalled those days in New York in a recent interview, “I had a lot of fun with Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. It was one of the best times in my life.”
She was also friends with Eva Hesse, and had a 10 year intense, but platonic relationship with Joseph Cornell.
Infinity Net Paintings
The first Infinity Net paintings were originated in the early 1960’s and represented a radical shift of direction in her painting, and the insistent characteristic of the marks was said to be both obsessive and meditative.
Just as her paintings were starting to achieve recognition, Kusama initiated her first three dimensional works, known as the Accumulation sculptures.
In 1962, the Green Gallery in New York first exhibited these Kusama’s sculptures along with works by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, and James Rosenquist. An early supporter of her work was Donald Judd.
It was in 1963 that the Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York exhibited the sculptural work Aggregation: One Thousand Boat Show, which was Kusama’s first complete room installation, which initiated another direction which would be repeated many times in her career.
Subsequently, Kusama returned to the venue of the full-scale environment. In the early 1980’s she initiated a new series of sculptures based on Aggregation.
One of these is Walking on the Sea of Death (1981) which is included in the current exhibition.
Happenings And Performances
It was in the mid-sixties during the period of the cultural turmoil, the hippie movement, and experimental life styles that members of the artists’ community also initiated performances, and happenings, which included participation from audiences. Kusama actively involved herself in these new directions, creating Body Festivals, wherein active participants painted polka dots on other people’s bodies.
Films were made of these projects which were seen in art festivals. And Kusama, in addition to promoting screenings, set up a company to sell copies by mail.
Documentation and Archives
Kusama’s own image began appearing in photo-collages and mixed media works in the mid to late 1960’s. These works presented photographs of Kusama, as a participant in these works. The retrospective exhibition includes documentation from Kusama’s personal archives as a relevant part of her work and history.
Over the years Kusama has carefully collected a large archive, which includes a record of her early years in Japan, her active involvement in the New York art world in the 1960’s, gallery announcements, reviews, photographs of her happenings, etc. Kusama also strategically stage managed her own image in conjunction with the production of her artworks, not only by having professional photographs documenting herself with her work, but she also wore outfits that matched, or were an extension of her images in painting, sculpture and other works.
These archives have been prolifically continued by Kusama and her studio in Japan.
A Retreat to Japan in 1973
After making a huge splash in the New York art world, she retreated to Japan in 1973. She attempted to introduce some of her Happenings to a conservative audience in Japan, without success. And her efforts to create an art-dealing business also failed after a short period. From an apartment in Shinjuku, she retreated to making objects and she started a series of works on paper in mixed media.
Home in a Psychiatric Hospital in Tokyo
In 1977 Kusama took up voluntary residency in a psychiatric hospital (where she still lives) and built a large studio nearby where she could work daily.
During these years she also started making small, enigmatic paintings and collages, with luminous colors blooming against nightshade-colored grounds. In touch and mood theyre very much like what she was doing before she came to America. (nytimes)
In an Interview, Kusama clarified her situation.
“I was hospitalized at the mental hospital in Tokyo in 1975 where I have resided ever since. I chose to live here on the advice of a psychiatrist. He suggested I paint pictures in the hospital while undergoing medical treatment. This happened after I had been traveling through Europe, staging my fashion shows in Rome,
Paris, Belgium and Germany.” . . .
YK “I work at my condominium-turned-studio near the hospital as well as at a studio Ive been renting for some years, which is just a few minutes walk from the hospital.”
The Other Art: Novels, Poetry, and Autobiography: 1978-2002
“Between 1978 and 2002 she produced 14 novels, a collection of poetry and an autobiography. However, her writing activities are barely touched upon in Tate Moderns retrospective exploring seven decades of prolific output. Indeed, the survey can offer only a cursory glance, so theres little sense of transition as Kusama seems to skip effortlessly through a number of different styles in a wide variety of media.”
“Available for the first time in English, Infinity Net paints a multilayered portrait of this fascinating artist. Taking us from her oppressive childhood in postwar Japan to her present life in the psychiatric hospital where she voluntarily staysand is still productiveKusamas autobiography offers insight into the persona of mental illness that has informed her work.” University of Chicago Press
The 1980’s and 1990’s, Retrospectives and Venice Biennale, 1993
When Kusama left New York she was nearly forgotten as an artist until the late 1980s and 1990s, when a number of retrospectives revived international interest.
Following the success of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993 a dazzling mirrored room filled with small pumpkin sculptures in which she resided in color-coordinated magician’s attire Kusama went on to produce a huge, yellow pumpkin sculpture covered with an optical pattern of black spots.
The pumpkin came to represent for her a kind of alter-ego or self-portrait.
This image of the pumpkin also involves memories from her youth, when her mother’s family were merchants, and Kusama recalled warehouses stacked to the ceiling with pumpkins
The Kusama Market: All Time Record Sale For A Living Female Artist: 2008
In 2008, Christies sold one of Kusama’s works for $5.1 million, a record for a living female artist. The large work (72″ X 108″) was once owned by Donald Judd.
And, thanks in large part to Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton and the media machine of luxury fashion, her dots are everywhere again. Yayoi Kusama is the artist who filled up her world up with brightly painted spots. Suffering hallucinations and obsessive thoughts since she was a child, her career has been characterised by abrupt shifts in the areas in which she works film, painting, poetry and happenings to name just four of them.
By 1977 Kusama had herself admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she still lives. However, while that facility serves as a residence, her life still is not typical for one in such circumstances. Kusama built a large, commodius studio nearby, where she works daily, has assistants, stores her work and retains vast archives and documentation. In 1973 she moved back permanently;
Kusamas presence at two Venice Biennales reflects the respect she has gained from the wider community on her fantastical journey into the depths of the human condition and beyond.
Yayoi Kusama is an artist reclaimed. Once apparently more prolific than Warhol, Kusama faded from view after critics grew impatient with her late 60s publicity-mania, and she retreated to Japan, having failed. In the 70s, she checked herself into a mental institution. She missed the whole 80s art market boom and, a testament to just how devalued her work became, in 1996, an intern at the Paula Cooper Gallery found one of Kusamas 60s Sex Obsession phallus peppered chair-sculptures (on view at the Whitney) in a junk shop in the East Village for just $250. Just over a decade later, after major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern, and now at the Whitney, Kusama is back. In 2008, Christies sold one of her works for $5.1 million, a record for a living female artist. And, thanks in large part to Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton and the media machine of luxury fashion, her dots are everywhere again.
Hallucinations and Obsessions Translated to Images
From an Interview with Kusama:
GT You say your art is an expression of your mental illness. How so?
YK My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I dont see hallucinations, though.
“One day I was looking at a red flower-patterned table-cloth on a table and, then when I looked up, I saw the ceiling, the window panes and the pillars completely covered with the same red flower patterns. With the whole room, my whole body and the whole universe covered entirely with the flower patterns, I would slide towards self-obliteration and be reduced to nothingness ( ). I was stupified ( ) painting was the only way to keep myself alive, or on the contrary was a fever that drove me to despair.” Yayoi Kusama
Installation: “Fireflies on the Water” (2002) at The Whitney Museum Retrospective
Fireflies on the Water, a work in the Whitneys collection, is being shown in conjunction with the retrospective of Yayoi Kusama.
“Yayoi Kusamas depictions of seemingly endless space have been a central focus of her artistic career. Kusamas Fireflies on the Water (2002)with its carefully constructed environment of lights, mirrors, and wateris one of the outstanding examples of this kind of installation, which creates a space in which individual viewers are invited to transcend their sense of self.” The Whitney Museum
“Aside from her obsession with the dot, Kusama has returned again and again to the motif of the “infinity net,” an ever-reaching field that when realized, obliterates the self. Her retrospective features an infinity net of sorts with “Fireflies on the Water,” a stunning installation in which the viewer stands alone in a room full of mirrors and twinkling lights atop a sheet of still water. Experiencing the illusion of fireflies glittering in a dark pocket of the universe, Kusama invites us to leave New York City and enter the abyss — until a museum docent opens the door and reminds you that your minute is up. Her nets recall the vast yet illusory expanse of the internet, where you become a speck, a dot.” Huffington Post
Kusama’s Early Watercolors & Works on Paper: The 1950’s
Within the wide range of the work, it is worth taking a smaller focus and reviewing the history and development of her works on paper, many of which include watercolor as a major component.
If one looks back to Kusami’s entrance into this country, it was through the pathway of her watercolors. It was in May of 1955 that three of Kusama’s watercolors were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum’s “International Watercolor Exhibition: Eighteenth Biennial.” Reportedly the painter Kenneth Callahan
Connecting with Georgia O’Keeffe
By 1955 Kusami had achieved recognition as a prominent artist in Japan, but felt that her art needed a wider world of exposure. While she didn’t really know anything about American Art, she had randomly picked up a monograph about Georgia O’Keeffe in her local library. She made a long train ride to the American Embassy in Tokyo to look up O’Keeffe’s address in Who’s Who. After sending her a fan letter and her watercolors, O’Keeffe replied with words of caution about how hard it was for artists to make a living in this country, but she wished her well. (The O’Keeffe correspondence is included in the extensive documentation shown in the Whitney exhibition.)
“In May 1955, three of Kusamas water-colors were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museums International Watercolor Exhibition: Eighteenth Biennial, and upon seeing them, painter Kenneth Callahan introduced her work to Zoe¨ Dusanne (owner of the Dusanne Gallery in Seattle), who had helped launch Mark Tobey.
The dealer offered Kusama a solo, and she arrived in Seattle from Japan in November 1957.
The next month, she exhibited 26 watercolors and pastels, before moving on to New York in June 1958.”
Reviews And Interviews
In an interview, Kusama, spoke about this period, and acknowledged that she had destroyed a lot of her early work when she left Japan for the U.S.A.: “The pieces that I saved were all completed ones, similar to those I had sent to Kenneth and Georgia OKeeffe. (When I first wrote to OKeeffe for advice, she discouraged me from moving to New York. After I arrived in New York, though, she was very supportive of me, visiting me at my studio to see how I was doing, trying to find galleries that might be interested in my art and buyers of my work. She even invited me to stay at her place.) Those pieces I saved were excellent pieces that already showed some signs of dots and Infinity Nets.” Read more of this interview.
Holland Cotter, critic, New York Times
in his review of the exhibition at the Whitney, Cotter notes:
“Two dozen small drawings from the early 1950s . . . are among the exhibitions highlights. Done in ink, watercolor, pastel and collage, they include references to vegetal, animal and cellular forms. At the same time, each work is abstract, the sum of repeated, labor-intensive details: fields of minute dots, clusters of radiant lines, networks of slug-shaped strokes.”
“Despite the micromanaged intricacy of the drawings, she turned them out fast and in bulk, establishing a rhythm of productivity she still maintains.”
The London Telegraph
An art critic from the Telegraph in London responded to the early works which he saw at the Tate Modern:
“The first works we see are rather beautiful, surreal watercolours from the 1950s, which occasionally echo Klee and Miró, but are far from entirely derivative. Kusamas childhood, spent drawing flowers in her parents seed nurseries, gave her a taste for teeming proliferation which found expression in her large white infinity paintings. Endlessly repeated semicircular brushstrokes are covered in veils of thinner paint, creating a weblike effect which extends Pollocks idea of the all over composition, with the sense that we are seeing just a fragment of apotentially endless work.”
Notes From The Tate Modern Curator, Frances Morris
Frances Morris, the Tate’s Head of Collections, International Art, is the woman who organized the massive Yayoi Kusama retrospective that opened at Tate Modern before coming to the Whitney. In an interview, she spoke of her interest in the early works. In an interview with Phaidon, she states:
“I do find the small works on paper from the Fifties and Sixties has this world in a grain of sand, this minute but galactic quality to it.
When looking, you have that feeling of, my God what scale am I? You get lost in this extraordinary cosmos and then are taken aback when you consider that theyre only four inches wide. I think these macroscopic realms are really extraordinary. And theyre incredibly beautiful. I was completely stunned when I first saw them.
I think its extraordinary that somebody so young, so far away and brought up in such a traditional environment was so able to absorb the influence of Miro and Ernst and Klee whose work she probably only saw in reproduction, then taking it all on and going on to produce work of such originality and in such great quantity. What I love is the idea that all the dayglo brandiness of her spots all comes back to this incredible energy from her early twenties.”
“Her very earliest work is really her own personal take on the traditional Japanese paintings which she did in her twenties – then she breaks with it. Its like the doors have opened on a new way of looking which embraces this idea of covering the surface very densely.
You see it in her early watercolours and gouaches, the complete covering of the paper with spots, patterns, dashes, patterning repetition, texture and space encapsulated on the page – the idea of the drawing going off the page. Its not bound by the notion of centre. That potential for the work to invade the space it occupies you see right in the early tiny drawings. So the potential is there from the 1950s onwards.”
Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern: Review, London Evening Standard
“The first two rooms are a revelation. They reveal Kusama’s speedy escape from Japanese Nihonga traditions into an idiosyncratic adoption of Western modern art, in paintings heavy with the apocalyptic mood of post-atom bomb Japan.
A group of drawings from the early Fifties are so densely woven and exquisite that they could occupy hours of your time. Influenced by surrealism, they see Kusama formulating her lifelong artistic language, including the polka dots.”
Collages, Watercolors, Mixed Media on Paper in the 1970’s
After returning to Japan, Kusama produced a series of mixed media works on paper. She used collage elements which included magazine cut-outs and miscellaneous found materials which had been given to her by Joseph Cornell before her departure from New York.
Cornell’s death in 1972 had seriously affected her, and so the use of the materials he had given her was intended to be a kind of tribute to him.
These collage pieces were utilized and were painted over to create images, of birds, insects, and plant forms.
Heidi Kim in the Huffington Post wrote:
“In wandering through Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective at the Tate Modern, I walk into a section of works by Kusama from the mid-1970s, shortly after the death of American artist Joseph Cornell. Highly affected by his passing, she started a series of works featuring elements of his style including surrealist cutouts, collages, layered with her signature pattern of polka dots and infinity nets.
These works revert back to her interest in her early active years of organism-like tentacles, spermatazoids, cilia, and microscopic shapes. The works are darker in color with an eerie, melancholic tone but calm in feeling.
Cornell’s influence on Kusama’s works was apparent and illustrate a relationship in which two isolated visionaries found solace in each other’s equally mad worlds.”
Video Introduction At The Whitney
Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Whitney Museum, as described by Whitney director Adam Weinberg and curator David Kiehl. July 10, 2012
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama lived and worked in New York from 1958 to 1973 among some of the time’s most influential avant-garde artist, like Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, and Claes Oldenburg, Eva Hesse. Now a major retrospective of the 84-year old artist is on view at the Whitney Museum. The exhibition runs through September 30th.
Video From The Tate Modern
In these excerpts from Kusama: Princess of Polka Dots directed by Heather Lenz, artist Yayoi Kusama, gallerist Richard Castellone, and Tate Curator Frances Morris discuss Kusama’s childhood in Japan, her move to New York, and the themes of infinity and accumulation in her work.
‘KUSAMA: Princess of Polka Dots’ produced by Heather Lenz and Karen Johnson; Directed by Heather Lenz
Opening at the Centre Pompidou
From The New York Times: Moving From The Museum To The Shops and Streets
Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, Translated by Ralph McCarthy, University of Chicago, 2012
Kusama Dot Com By Alexi Worth, Published: February 24, 2008, N.Y.Times
The World According to Yayoi Kusama By David Pilling, January 20, 2012, FT Magazine
Interview: Yayoi Kusama, TimeOut London, Helen Sumpter meets the artist in the Tokyo psychiatric hospital she calls home, Jan 30, 2012
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