– Spring/Summer 2006

Flying Deeper and Farther: Kusama in 2005

Lynn Zelevansky

Yayoi Kusama, Hi, Konnichiwa (Hello!), 2004, mixed media, installation view. Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Studio

Yayoi Kusama, Hi, Konnichiwa (Hello!), 2004, mixed media, installation view. Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Studio

Last November I went to Tokyo to meet with Yayoi Kusama. I hadn't seen her since the beginning of 1999, when an exhibition of her work that I co-organised made its final stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art in that city.1 'Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-68' covered most, but not all of the years that the artist lived in New York.

She did not return permanently to Japan until 1973, but 1968 seemed a logical terminus for the show for a number of reasons: after 1968 performance became Kusama's primary mode of expression; her happenings were ephemeral and there was only spotty documentation of them; 1969-73 were troubled times for Kusama, when she was largely nomadic, living between Europe, the US and Japan. Once in Tokyo, it took time for her life to stabilise. In 1975 she was hospitalised for a period, and in 1977 she moved permanently into the psychiatric hospital where she still resides. The hospital environment and the treatments she received were, and continue to be beneficial.2

Although Kusama never stopped making visual art, in the 1970s much of her creative energy was spent in writing a series of novels and collections of short stories and poems inspired by her life in New York.3 In the 1980s, when visual art again occupied Kusama with the intensity that it had in New York, her objects were different in character from those of her New York production. The truth is that in 1995 I was not at all certain that I understood the work from her Tokyo period. I went to

  1. 'Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968' was organised by myself and Laura Hoptman, then curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 1998, and travelled to MoMA, the Walker Art Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

  2. Donald Judd, 'In the Galleries: Yayoi Kusama', in Arts Magazine, September 1964, pp.68-69

  3. They average between 20.3 x 28cm and 50.8 x 63.5cm. Kusama believes the size of her studio in Japan affected the size of the work. Conversation with the artist, 4 November 2005

  4. These were 209.5 x 414cm or larger.

  5. Kusama saw the 'painstaking sameness of her compositions' as an antidote to the then preeminent abstractexpressionism. See Laura Hoptman, 'Yayoi Kusama: A Reckoning', in Laura Hoptman (ed.), Yayoi Kusama, London: Phaidon Press, 2000, p.42

  6. Compare, for example, Tree (1952) with Now that You Died (1975).

  7. See Kusamatrix (exh. cat.), Sapporo: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004, frontispiece

  8. See A. Monroe, op. cit., pp.71-72

  9. See Midori Mitsui, 'Beyond the Pleasure Room to a Chaotic Street: Transformations of Cute Subculture in the art of the Japanese Nineties', in Takashi Murikami (ed.), Big Boy, New York: Japan Society; and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004, p.210

  10. See Natalie Angier, 'The Cute Factor: It Makes Evolutionary Sense', The New York Times, 3 January 2006

  11. See Stephen J. Gould, 'A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse', The Panda's Thumb, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1980, pp.95-108

  12. See Bhupendra Karia, 'Biographical Notes', researched by Reiko Tomii, in Bhupendra Karia (ed.), Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective (exh. cat.), New York: Centre for International Contemporary Art, 1989, pp.99-100

  13. Ibid., p.576

  14. Ibid., p.573

  15. N. Angier, op. cit.

  16. M. Matsui, op. cit., p.229

  17. Kusama believes that this younger group of artists was influenced by her early in their careers. E-mail from the artist, 13 January 2006

  18. E-mail from the artist, 18 January 2006

  19. See Yayoi Kusama, Eyes, 2004 and Takashi Murakami, Jellyfish Eyes, 2001

  20. M. Matsui, op. cit., p.217

  21. Ibid., pp.218-19

  22. Yayoi Kusama, 'A Process to Creation', Yayoi Kusama: Eternity-Modernity (exh. cat.), Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p.15

  23. See Alexandra Monroe, 'Between Heaven and Earth: The Literary Art of Yayoi Kusama', in Laura Hoptman and Lynn Zelevansky (eds.), Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968 (exh. cat.), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998, p.82, n.1 and 2

  24. Yayoi Kusama, 'Hi Konnichiwa (Hello!)', Kusamatrix, op. cit., n.p.

  25. In the mid-1960s Kusama was using store-bought fabrics in some of her sculpture. Good examples include Red Stripes and Black Dots (both 1965). However, they were less well-cared for than her recent works, and by the time I encountered them they were faded and worn, which made them look less 'commercial'.

  26. Works like My Flower Bed constitute rare exceptions to Kusama's involvement with abstract or literal art in the 1960s. From 1970, Kusama produced a group of portraits of celebrities. When she returned to live in Japan, many of her two-dimensional works had representational elements. See Yayoi Kusama: Eternity-Modernity (exh. cat.), Tokyo: The National Museum of Modern Art, 2004, pp.137-53

  27. The pumpkin (kabocha) is a popular vegetable in Japan, used by Kusama repeatedly since she moved there.

  28. 'I had a miserable childhood due to the war and an unhappy family environment. I have been struggling since then with my life haunted by a variety of anxieties.' E-mail from the artist, 13 January 2006

  29. Conversation with the artist, 4 November 2005

  30. 'My days in New York in my thirties were a period of extreme hardship. Iexhausted all my energies working on pieces day and night on end. Feeling dizzy and suffering from an irregular pulse, I was carried into a hospital in an ambulance a number of times.' E-mail from the artist, 13 January 2006