Has there ever been a more unlikely artist sensation than Yayoi Kusama? Today, she’s known best for her “Infinity Rooms”—large-scale enclosed environments that have become Instagram fodder, with their endless reflections of reflections, polka-dotted surfaces, and glittering lights luring droves of people in search of selfies, transcendence, and more.
But the recent Kusama craze has obscured what landed her in art history in the first place—namely, her boundary-pushing ’60s-era sculptures, performances, and photographs intended as reactions against a male-dominated world and expressions of her own psyche. During the time these works were made, they placed Kusama at the center of a new avant-garde emerging in New York, where she was based from 1958 to 1975.
Below, a guide to some of the lesser-known parts of Kusama’s oeuvre, many of which will figure in a major retrospective that is scheduled to open in September at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, recently reopened after a temporary coronavirus-related closure.
Long before the “Infinity Rooms,” there were the “Infinity Nets,” a series that, though far less baroque in its form, drew on similar themes. When Kusama first arrived in New York in 1958 from Tokyo, where she had experienced commercial success, she brought with her around 2,000 works on paper. Many took the form of watercolors and ink drawings that made use of repeated patterns; some even included the polka dots that would later become her signature motif. Just a year and a half after her arrival, Kusama had her first U.S. solo show, at New York’s Brata Gallery, where she exhibited white-on-white paintings that seemed to barely even be there.
Kusama wrote that she intended the white paintings to be “like a bomb,” and judging by the reviews, the critics heard the explosion. Artist Donald Judd, who later became Kusama’s romantic partner, was known to be a tough critic, but even he was among its admirers, writing in ARTnews, “The expression transcends the question of whether it is Oriental or American. Although it is something of both, certainly of such Americans as Rothko, Still and Newman, it is not at all a synthesis and is thoroughly independent.” Because her art of the era dovetailed neatly with some of the geometric abstractions being produced by avant-garde groups in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, Kusama’s work was more often seen in Europe than it was in New York during the ’60s.
Looked at today, the paintings seem to foreshadow the move toward Minimalism and, later, Post-Minimalism during the ’60s and ’70s; critic Lucy Lippard even curated Kusama’s work alongside abstractions by Minimalist artists. But Kusama’s concerns were not merely formal. Curator Lynn Zelevansky, who organized a landmark show about Kusama’s New York years that appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, has argued that the paintings have a lot to do with Kusama’s childhood hallucinations of dots and recurring patterns. “I don’t consider myself an artist; I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability that began in my childhood,” Kusama once said, referring to her mental illness. (Since 1977, she has been hospitalized in Tokyo by choice.)
Kusama’s interest in recurring forms reached its greatest expression with her “Accumulations” works from the 1960s, which often feature canvases and objects that are cluttered with repeating visual motifs. Sometimes, this is done through the bringing together and arranging of one kind of object—for some of her most famous works in the series, she laid out airmail stickers in neat rows, creating eye-popping patterns that, from far away, look like more orderly versions of the all-over compositions of the Abstract Expressionists. A group of works made using egg cartons, arranged to create rows and rows of hump-like forms, followed. But the series reached its high point with sculptures featuring ready-made objects festooned with phalli.
Many curators and critics agree that there are feminist undertones—overtones, according to some—in these phallus works. Noting that Kusama’s father was absent during her childhood in Japan, curator Alexandra Munroe, who has worked with Kusama’s art frequently over the years, has written, “If the vast majority of women would submit to domination, would allow the denial of their subjectivity, Kusama would not.” Viewed this way, Kusama’s phallus works start to seem like statements about the oppressiveness of a male-dominated world. Others have said the feminist commentary was not entirely intentional and instead have suggested a psychological context, relying on Kusama’s statements about how the pieces derive from her fears of sex and in particular male genitalia.
Still other curators have suggested that the works may have something in common with contemporaneous developments in the world of Pop art. Many have drawn comparisons between Kusama’s airmail sticker works and the rows of images that Andy Warhol screen printed. And indeed, Kusama’s works even appeared at New York’s Green Gallery, which became a haven for Pop, and the artist was included in a compendium about Pop art penned by Lippard. When it came to her own feelings about Pop, however, Kusama expressed a note of sorrow: a predilection for that movement, she said, had caused some to “become exclusive of others,” like herself, because she made more subdued monochromes.
Many recent exhibitions of Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms” have been promoted with a famed 1965 photograph of the artist standing inside the environmental installation Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field. Wearing a red one-piece suit, she stands before the camera, her arms behind her head and her eyes lifelessly staring into the distance. It’s easy to read the picture as an artist portrait and nothing more, but in fact, Kusama produced photographs like this one as something akin to the artworks themselves.
Although, of course, it’s hard to say whether Kusama really “took” the picture. As part of the setup for these images, Kusama enlisted the help of well-known photographers—Rudy Burckhardt, who shot famed photographs of Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, was among them—to merely work the camera. But it was she who meticulously plotted out each image, choreographing where the camera went and what pose she’d strike in front of it. These works become early examples of performances staged purely for a camera, and they testify to Kusama’s ability to toy with the male gaze.
A lesser-known though hardly insignificant part of Kusama’s oeuvre, the “Food Obsession” sculptures involved affixing pieces of dried pasta on clothes and other objects. Though seemingly lighthearted, the series’ origin is dark: Kusama has said the works grew out of an image she conjured of all the food one eats during a lifetime passing by on a conveyor belt. For one work no longer extant, Kusama covered a mannequin with pasta; in a related photograph, she leans in to kiss it. The meaning of these works is oblique—Zelevansky, the curator of the MoMA show, has claimed they may even have alluded to eating disorders—but for Kusama, they were another expression of her obsessions. “I find myself being put into a uniform environment which is strangely mechanized and standardized,” she once said. Soon enough, the artist literalized that with her 1966 work Kusama’s Peep Show, which resembled a mirrored hexagonal space that could be seen only by staring into it through an aperture. When visitors looked in, all they saw was their own face duplicated many times over.
Environments, Happenings, and Activism
Like many artists of the 1960s, Kusama brought her artworks outside the confines of the art gallery and the museum, often in extroverted and bizarre ways. As artist Hans Haacke once put it, Kusama had “headed … into the peculiar world of performance art” during the mid-’60s. That started as early as 1966, when Kusama showed her sculptural installation Narcissus Garden, a work with 1,500 mirrored balls covering the ground, at the Venice Biennale in Italy—without ever having been invited. She began selling the shiny orbs to the exhibition’s visitors, and soon enough, the police got involved, forcing her to stop her makeshift sale. Some have viewed the piece’s title as a reference to narcissism—and have suggested that the work was intended to underscore how buying art was in some way based on egotism. According to curator Laura Hoptman, the work acted as a “crass reminder—in the hallowed precincts of the Biennale—of the economic underpinnings of the go-go contemporary art market.”
Kusama continued pushing that political commentary even further as the ’60s progressed. A similar kind of institutional critique can be found in her 1969 performance Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MOMA (Otherwise Known as the Museum of Modern Art) — Featuring Their Usual Display of Nudes, an attempt to enliven the museum’s holdings by having nude performers appear in the sculpture garden alongside masterpieces of modernism. (The scandal that ensued landed the piece on the cover of the New York Daily News the next day.) And for another work known as Naked Demonstration/Anatomic Explosion one year earlier, Kusama assembled naked dancers outside the New York Stock Exchange as a protest against the Vietnam War. “The money made with this stock is enabling the war to continue,” a press release explaining the work read. “We protest this cruel, greedy instrument of the war establishment.”
It can be difficult to square the less happy aspects of Kusama’s recent art with their bright colors and their seemingly uplifting titles. That makes a work like The Obliteration Room (2011) all the more difficult to make sense of. Initially conceived as a work for children, the piece features a white room that, over the course of its exhibition, is turned colorful through the application of warmly hued dots by visitors. The title, however, is telling: its use of the word “obliteration” gestures at an unseen violence taking place.
In fact, Kusama’s work has often dealt head-on with carnage, particularly of the sort wrought by the war machine. The artist’s colleagues have recalled that, during the ’60s, Kusama was among the many in the art world who were vehemently antiwar. (“You can’t eradicate violence by using more violence,” she once wrote in an open letter to Richard Nixon, then President of the United States.) And, once she returned to Japan in the 1970s, she began painting works whose titles seemed to allude to mass graves and conflict. In her writings since then, she has empathized with victims and the oppressed. In a statement about the recent coronavirus pandemic, she wrote, “Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up / My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.”