Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-68

By Zinnes, Harriet | Chicago Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-68


Zinnes, Harriet, Chicago Review


Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-68

It is generally conceded that installation art dominates the 1990s. Multimedia artists Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Jenny Holzer, and Bruce Nauman have had major shows in museums such as the Whitney and the Guggenheim. Barney, who, despite his installations, prefers to be called a sculptor, won the first Hugo Boss Prize administered by the Guggenheim in 1997, and Ann Hamilton will represent the United States in the Venice Biennale in the year 2000. What is astonishing is that the Museum of Modern Art of New York from July 9 through September 22 is holding an exhibition of work completed during the years 1958-1968 that has the freshness, even the glitz and buzz of very current installation art. The work-that also includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, and collages-is by the sixty-nine-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

When the twenty-nine-year-old Kusama first arrived in the United States from Japan in 1958 she became part of the scene and made friends with such artists as Claes Oldenburg (whose soft sculptures Kusama anticipated) and Andy Warhol, whose paintings with their repetitive motifs, such as his Marilyn Monroes or Jackie Kennedys, were influenced by such Kusama collages as Airmail Stickers (1962). She also became friendly with Donald Judd, who bought a very special oil now being shown at MoMa with Kusama's characteristic repetitive dots (one of her so-called "net" paintings), filled with movement and flow, with sudden impastos that seem to suggest in their randomness an impending chaos.

Notoriously self-promoting and ambitious, the artist was always enormously productive. Kusama's fourteen-year controversial stay in the States led not only to total exhaustion but to depression. Depression, however, was not new to the artist-nor did she hide what she considered mental illness from her friends and admirers. To the artist her illness, which had begun when she was a child with hallucinations of flowers, nets, and dots threatening to engulf her, was the origin of her art. The illness was her muse, her inspiration, and the reason for her strange decision when she returned to Tokyo in 1973 to reside in a psychiatric hospital. It must be said that many critics have expressed doubt that she is mentally ill. During her stay in the hospital, she has not only continued to produce enormous numbers of works but she also has written and published in Japan eleven novels, plus volumes of poetry. In her letters and normal discourse there is no obvious indication of mental illness. Her intensity of expression, her strangely piercing eyes suggest a person of unusual concentration and attention, and not an ill person. She is a short woman, whose shuffling walk seems difficult, perhaps painful, but it seems to stem from a physical rather than a mental disorientation.

It is true that although Kusama's early life was protected by a very comfortable family, difficulties-especially tensions between the mother and daughter-did arise when Kusama declared her intention to become an artist. It was only when she lived in New York (during the Vietnam War) that she felt free, though finances were burdensome. She was against the war, condemned Wall Street, and in a parodic act against the market (though she also needed money) during the 1966 Venice Biennale-to which she was not invitedshe began selling her installed mirror balls to passersby for 1,200 lire apiece to the outrage of the Biennale organizers, who quickly disallowed the sales. These icons, in an installation of 1,500 plastic mirror balls that Kusama titled Narcissus Garden, have been reconstructed for the current exhibition. It is merely one of the installations that make what was originally set up in 1966 so egregiously contemporary.

It is unlikely that a viewer seeing Kusama's displays of furniture (what she then called sculpture, and what a contemporary viewer would very likely consider installation sites) with their encrustations of phallic protrusions, would think they were created in the mid1960s by a woman artist (despite their feminist motifs). …

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