A vi­sion­ary stunt­woman

Two ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tives show how Yayoi Kusama has spent a ca­reer chan­nel­ing men­tal ill­ness into art

The Washington Post Sunday - - EXHIBITION - BY ANNA FIFIELD IN TOKYO anna.fifield@wash­post.com

Don’t ask Yayoi Kusama what’s been the high­light of her ca­reer. She might be 87 years old, in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned and about to have ma­jor, si­mul­ta­ne­ous ex­hi­bi­tions in the United States and Ja­pan, but she’s not done yet.

“It’s still com­ing. I’m go­ing to cre­ate it in the fu­ture,” said Kusama, of­ten de­scribed as Ja­pan’s most suc­cess­ful liv­ing artist, at her stu­dio in cen­tral Tokyo, paint in her red wig and on her glasses.

Kusama, who has a his­tory of neu­ro­sis and has lived as a vol­un­tary res­i­dent at a men­tal hospi­tal a block away for about four decades, had been up at 3 a.m. paint­ing, partly be­cause she couldn’t sleep and partly be­cause she wanted to squeeze in time for work be­fore the en­gine of Yayoi Kusama Inc. started up for the day.

“I’m old now, but I am still go­ing to cre­ate more work and bet­ter work. More than I have in the past,” she said. “My mind is full of paint­ings.”

Kusama works in her three­story stu­dio from 9 to 6 ev­ery day, sit­ting in her wheel­chair — she can walk, but is frail — paint­ing on can­vases laid on ta­bles or propped on the floor.

The stu­dio is packed with new paint­ings, vi­brant works full of tiny dots. They’re all about what Kusama calls “self-oblit­er­a­tion” — the end­less rep­e­ti­tion si­lenc­ing the noise in her head.

A new gallery across the road is ready to open, and an­other ded­i­cated mu­seum north of Tokyo is in the works. Plus, she has two ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions about to be­gin.

“Yayoi Kusama: In­fin­ity Mir­rors,” a ret­ro­spec­tive of her 65-year ca­reer, will open at the Hir­sh­horn Mu­seum, in the Dis­trict, on Feb. 23, run­ning un­til May 14 be­fore mov­ing to Seat­tle, Los An­ge­les, Toronto and Cleve­land.

The ex­hi­bi­tion will fea­ture more than 60 of Kusama’s paint­ings, sculp­tures and in­stal­la­tions, along with six of her idiosyn­cratic “in­fin­ity mir­ror rooms” fea­tur­ing bal­loons, LEDs and polka dots, all end­lessly re­peated in the mir­rors.

“She is a pioneer first and fore­most, as a fe­male and Asian artist in the 1960s, trans­gress­ing paint­ing, sculp­ture and per­for­mance,” said Mika Yoshi­take, as­so­ci­ate cu­ra­tor at the Hir­sh­horn. “These mir­ror rooms are works that re­flect her abil­ity to trans­gress the gen­res.”

One, a re-cre­ation of the mir­ror room called “Phalli’s Field” from 1965, fea­tures hun­dreds of white-and-red-spot­ted stuffed fab­ric pe­nis cre­ations. In an­other, the “Oblit­er­a­tion Room,” vis­i­tors will be in­vited to stick mul­ti­col­ored polka dots all over a white liv­ing room.

“These rooms re­flect all of her el­e­ments: her ob­ses­sions, her ac­cu­mu­la­tions, her in­fi­nite rep­e­ti­tions. And it’s all very bod­ily and im­mer­sive,” Yoshi­take said.

The day be­fore this ex­hi­bi­tion opens in Wash­ing­ton, an­other will open at the Na­tional Art Cen­ter in Tokyo.

To­gether, the ex­hi­bi­tions un­der­score the global phe­nom­e­non that is Yayoi Kusama.

Her polka dots cover ev­ery­thing from Louis Vuit­ton dresses to buses in her home town. Her art­works reg­u­larly fetch a mil­lion dol­lars, and can be found from New York and Min­neapo­lis to Lon­don and Am­s­ter­dam. Her ex­hi­bi­tions are so pop­u­lar that they need crowd con­trol — the Hir­sh­horn will be giv­ing out timed tick­ets to try to reg­u­late the stam­pede.

But Kusama still needs out­side val­i­da­tion.

“Am I re­ally?” she re­sponded when a reporter asks her about achiev­ing her goal, stated decades be­fore, of be­com­ing rich and fa­mous. “When I was a kid, I had a hard time con­vinc­ing my mother that I wanted to be­come an artist. Is it re­ally true that I am fa­mous and suc­cess­ful?”

‘Mired in neu­ro­sis’

Kusama was born in Mat­sumoto, in the moun­tains of cen­tral Ja­pan, in 1929 into a pros­per­ous and con­ser­va­tive fam­ily of seedling mer­chants.

But theirs was not a happy home. Her mother had con­tempt for her wom­an­iz­ing fa­ther and sent the young Kusama to spy on him. The girl saw her fa­ther with other women, spark­ing what she has de­scribed as a life­long ab­hor­rence of sex.

While still a child, she be­gan ex­pe­ri­enc­ing “vis­ual and au­ral hal­lu­ci­na­tions.” The first time she saw a pump­kin, she imag­ined that it was speak­ing to her.

The young Kusama dealt with her hal­lu­ci­na­tions by draw­ing, and by draw­ing repet­i­tive pat­terns to “oblit­er­ate” the thoughts in her head. Even at that young age, art be­came a form of ther­apy, what she would later call “art-medicine.”

But Kusama’s mother was ve­he­mently op­posed to her de­sire to be­come an artist, in­sist­ing that she fol­low a tra­di­tional path.

“She wouldn’t let me paint. She wanted me to marry some­one,” Kusama said in an in­ter­view, wear­ing the blank ex­pres­sion of the heav­ily med­i­cated. “She threw away my art­works. I wanted to throw my­self in front of the train. Ev­ery day I fought with my mother, and that’s why my men­tal state was dam­aged.”

In 1948, af­ter the war had ended, Kusama went to Ky­oto to study Ni­honga, a tra­di­tional and highly rule-bound form of Ja­panese paint­ing. She de­tested it.

Ear­lier, while liv­ing in Mat­sumoto, she had found a book by Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe and was struck by the paint­ings. So she went to the U.S. Em­bassy in Tokyo and searched the “Who’s Who” ref­er­ence pub­li­ca­tion for O’Ke­effe’s ad­dress.

She sent her a let­ter and some paint­ings, and, “as­tound­ingly,” O’Ke­effe wrote back.

“I couldn’t be­lieve my luck! She had been kind enough to re­spond Ja­panese artist Yayoi Kusama with her re­cent work in Tokyo. Hir­sh­horn Mu­seum vol­un­teer Erinda Aliaj, be­low, takes in “Dots Ob­ses­sion-Love Trans­formed Into Dots,” part of the ex­hi­bi­tion “Yayoi Kusama: In­fin­ity Mir­rors,” a ret­ro­spec­tive of Kusama’s 65-year ca­reer. It opens Feb. 23 and will fea­ture the artist’s paint­ings, sculp­tures and in­stal­la­tions. to the sud­den out­burst of a lowly Ja­panese girl she’d never met or heard of be­fore,” Kusama wrote in her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “In­fin­ity Net.”

De­spite O’Ke­effe’s warn­ings that the United States was a tough place for a young artist — let alone a young, sin­gle, fe­male Ja­panese artist — Kusama wouldn’t be dis­suaded.

In 1957 she man­aged to get a pass­port and a visa, and sewed dol­lars into her dresses to cir­cum­vent post­war cur­rency con­trols.

First stop: Seat­tle, where she held an ex­hi­bi­tion at a small gallery. Then she made her way to New York, where she had a rude awak­en­ing: “Un­like post­war Mat­sumoto, New York was in ev­ery way a fierce and vi­o­lent place. I found it all ex­tremely stress­ful and was soon mired in neu­ro­sis,” she wrote.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, she found her­self in ab­ject poverty. Her bed was an old door, and she scav­enged fish heads and old veg­eta­bles from dump­sters and boiled them into soup.

But this sit­u­a­tion made Kusama throw her­self into her work even more. She be­gan pro­duc­ing her first trade­mark “In­fin­ity Net” paint­ings, huge can­vases — one was 33 feet high — cov­ered with mes­mer­iz­ing waves of small loops that seemed to go on and on. “White nets en­velop­ing the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark back­ground of noth­ing­ness,” is how she de­scribed them.

This ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive rep­e­ti­tion helped stave off neu­ro­sis, but it didn’t al­ways work. She re­peat­edly found her­self suf­fer­ing from psy­chotic episodes and ended up in a hospi­tal in New York.

Am­bi­tious and driven, and happy to play the role of the ki­mono-clad ex­otic Asian, she fell in with an in­flu­en­tial artist crowd, hang­ing out with the likes of Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol (who she later said had im­i­tated her work).

She soon found a de­gree of fame, hold­ing ex­hi­bi­tions in packed gal­leries. She also found — or rather, courted — no­to­ri­ety.

In the 1960s, when her polka dot ob­ses­sion was tak­ing off, she be­gan stag­ing “hap­pen­ings” around New York — en­tic­ing peo­ple to strip naked in such places as Cen­tral Park and the Brook­lyn Bridge, then paint­ing their bod­ies with polka dots.

Decades be­fore the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment, Kusama or­ga­nized a hap­pen­ing in the New York fi­nan­cial dis­trict, declar­ing that she wanted to “Oblit­er­ate Wall Street men with polka dots.”

Around this time, she also started cov­er­ing ob­jects — an arm­chair, a boat, a stroller — with “phal­lus-shaped pro­tu­ber­ances.”

“I be­gan mak­ing penises in or­der to heal my feel­ings of dis­gust to­wards sex,” she wrote, de­scrib­ing how the process “grad­u­ally turned the hor­ror into some­thing fa­mil­iar.”

Kusama never mar­ried, al­though she did have a decade­long re­la­tion­ship of sorts in New York with the artist Joseph Cor­nell. “I dis­liked sex and he was im­po­tent, so we suited each other very well,” she once told Art Magazine.

But she in­creas­ingly be­came known more for her stunts — she of­fered to sleep with Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon if he stopped the Viet­nam War: “Let’s paint each other with polka dots,” she wrote him — and less for her art. This led to a wan­ing in­ter­est in her work, and she found her­self out of fa­vor and out of money.

News of Kusama’s es­capades had made it back to Ja­pan, turn­ing her into a “na­tional dis­grace” and lead­ing her mother to say she wished that Kusama had died dur­ing a child­hood ill­ness.

Still, in the early 1970s, the broke and fail­ing Kusama re­turned to Ja­pan. She checked her­self into the men­tal hospi­tal where she still lives and fell into artis­tic ob­scu­rity.

Then, in 1989, the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Con­tem­po­rary Arts in New York put on a ret­ro­spec­tive of her work. This be­gan a re­vival, if slow, of in­ter­est in her art. She filled a mir­rored room with pump­kins for the Venice Bi­en­nale in 1993, then in 1998 held a ma­jor show at the Mu­seum of Modern Art in New York — a venue where she’d once held a “hap­pen­ing.”

Kusama has be­come a global phe­nom­e­non in the past few years. The Tate Modern in Lon­don and the Whit­ney Mu­seum in New York have held ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tives, draw­ing huge crowds, and her sig­na­ture polka dots are im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able.

Al­though she has no in­ten­tion of slow­ing down ar­tis­ti­cally, she has started think­ing about her mor­tal­ity.

“I don’t know how long I’m go­ing to sur­vive even af­ter I die; there is a fu­ture gen­er­a­tion that is fol­low­ing in my foot­steps,” she said, sit­ting in the bright open space that is her new gallery in cen­tral Tokyo. “I would be highly hon­ored if peo­ple would like to look at my work and be moved by my work.”

De­spite the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of her art, she’s think­ing about her grave in Mat­sumoto — not in the fam­ily plot; she’s had enough of them — and how to avoid mak­ing it a shrine.

“But I’m not dy­ing yet,” she said, strik­ing a more up­beat tone. “I think I can live an­other 20 years.”

ANNA FIFIELD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

BILL O'LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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