Artists

Outside the Box: Donald Judd on Yayoi Kusama’s Art, Friendship, and Predilection for Cat Milk

Photograph of Yayoi Kusama at 53 E. 19th Street from Donald Judd’s archive, labeled “Driving Image Room Kusama 1962-1963.”

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Donald Judd, in certain ways, was just like us—on the subject of serving as a custodian of one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings, works in which matters of the otherworldly and the metaphysical meet, he turned to more earthly concerns. “They do get dirty because they catch dust,” he told an interviewer in 1988—“especially in New York.”

Another New York problem: “It’s easier to get the art than to get the space to put art in and out of storage.” And one more, regarding what would prove to be a significant factory building operated by a company in the business of making wool clothes: “They were not too fond of heating the building,” the artist said—“which was their job.”

Judd held forth on all the above in an interview at his home at 101 Spring St., in the heart of SoHo. It was the winter of 1988, and two interlocutors—art historian Reiko Tomii and curator Alexandra Munroe—paid a visit to talk about the sculptor’s relationship with Kusama, which dated back decades, to 1959. That was the year of Kusama’s first show in New York, which Judd reviewed for ARTnews. In the review, he called Kusama’s work “strong, advanced in concept and realized. . . . The effect is both complex and simple.”

Yayoi Kusama, [untitled drawing], undated.

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In the interview, which has gone unpublished but was shared with ARTnews, Judd talked nearly 30 years later about a colleague he clearly admired both as an artist and as a friend. He spoke about some of Kusama’s work that he owned, including an Infinity Net painting of the kind currently on view in an exhibition at the Judd Foundation in New York through December 2. (None of the four works in the show belonged to Judd, but they are part of the same ongoing series. Additional examples are also currently on view at David Zwirner gallery on the Upper East Side.)

“I thought the paintings were terrific. I wrote that all down,” Judd told his interviewers. “I felt that what she was doing was something new and very advanced, if you want to call it that. If you compare it to almost anybody at that point, it’s newer and more original. You could strike out with Pollock, Newman, Rothko, etc., Reinhardt. The only person you could kind of find that might be a little bit close was, for a brief time, Frank Stella. But, actually, I think she’s somewhat more original than Frank. And she clearly has more durability than Frank.”

At one point, Munroe asks Judd what he thinks the paintings are “about”—not a fruitful move. “People ask me that question too and it’s too complicated. . . . You know, one of the jobs of the art is to sometimes say that you can’t say what it’s about.”

For a while, Judd and Kusama lived in the same building on 19th Street in Manhattan, in lofts on two different floors above businesses for tailoring and wool. “She would sit around my apartment and talk, or I’d go down there and we’d talk,” Judd said. “I saw a lot of her.” He also saw her working a lot: “She worked very hard. She would work obsessively. She’d work right through the night and everything, as far as I could tell. Most paintings were done in one shot. I don’t understand how she could do that, but she would start in a corner and then go across.”

Envelope from Kusama to Judd, December 18, 1990.

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Asked if Kusama talked much about her approach, Judd said, “She talked a lot about her work but not about what it meant. She was fairly paranoid about the New York art situation. One problem was that she was also very ambitious and wanted to become rich and famous, which wasn’t exactly one of my interests for myself. I was a little critical of that. But she was, for example, mad at Warhol because of the repeated images. She felt she had done it first.”

Was it true? “I don’t know whether Warhol got it from her or not, because those paintings weren’t shown all that much. But he could have. Actually, hers were a lot better.”

After acknowledging that Lucy Lippard noted Kusama’s early use of repetition at the time, Judd balanced the sentiment with a barb. “Lucy has her good side, but Lucy doesn’t have a very good eye. But it’s good for art critics.” Earlier, he’d said of Kusama, “The only person who gave her some praise was [Clement] Greenberg, and of course Greenberg was part of a scheme.” In any case, his appraisal of art criticism in general, in the past and the present too: “It was bad then. It’s still bad.”

Catalogue for the Ikebana Ryusei, 1980, includes handwritten notes by Kusama.

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Besides Warhol, there was another figure who did not stand in Kusama’s good graces: “I think she was mad because Yoko Ono was Japanese and a woman and got a lot of attention for probably not much.” But, he continued: “These things aren’t so momentous.” Asked about others’ remembrances of Kusama as someone who came off as “very exotic” in New York, Judd said, “Well, she behaved and dressed exotically. She went around in a monkey fur coat. I mean, that’s exotic. She also brought with her a chest full of kimonos, so she could go to a party all dressed up like a Japanese lady. That was always a little unusual.”

Queried about Kusama’s storied obsessive nature, Judd said, “Don’t over-emphasize the obsessiveness. She always talked about being a little mad or a little crazy. She talked about, or at least thought about, well, she tried to try it anyway—committing suicide. She had a lot of trouble with ‘suicide’ and ‘seaside.’ She had trouble with ‘kitchen’ and ‘chicken’ too, as words.”

Atypical habits abounded, according to Judd. “Her behavior could be kind of strange,” he said of a recollection involving an old acquaintance who lived nearby. “He had a nice Siamese cat, a female cat, and she had kittens. Yayoi picked up a cat and sucked its nipple to see how it tasted. She didn’t think much of it. She just picked up the cat, and everyone was very surprised.”

More consequential than the flavor of cat milk, however, was a general impression that lasted. Asked what he learned from Kusama, Judd said, “A lot. She was a very serious artist. She really worked hard, but so did I. She was ahead of me in terms of developing her work and her paintings. She paid more attention or understood more thoroughly what had to be done about the paintings that Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still had done.”

Then he offered perhaps his highest form of praise: “To some extent, she was kind of a model for me.”

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