Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever

Peter Hill admires a Japanese artist whose obsessive nature has led to the production of works at an incomparable rate

January 5, 2012

Yayoi Kusama 'I'm filled with originality. There's the work of a genius in everything I do'

Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever

Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art

Until 11 March

She is an artist who lives voluntarily in a Japanese psychiatric institution. But she comes and goes. To Paris, for instance, where she is about to show her signature polka-dot paintings and pumpkin sculptures at the Pompidou Centre. And to London, where Tate Modern will offer a huge retrospective starting in February. You can immerse yourself in mirrored rooms that seem to stretch to infinity, like runway lights glimpsed at night from the window seat of a 747. New York and Madrid are also on her dance card. Then there is Australia. What makes Yayoi Kusama's current show at the Gallery of Modern Art (Goma) in subtropical Brisbane different is that all the work on display is new - sculptures, paintings, installations and videos. And it has all been made in the past two years, since the artist turned 80. In that time, she has produced more than 100 large canvases, in addition to the sculptures, installations, happenings and videos. For most of her life, she has been diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive. At one point, she gave up making art and wrote 10 novels in quick succession. She is determined not to go gentle into that mirrored night in her nineties, like Louise Bourgeois and Pablo Picasso. She says she intends to live to somewhere between 200 and 300 years to complete her life's work. My money's on her doing it.

Death is a concept that she doesn't seem to fully understand, although it has snatched away some of the people closest to her, like her long-time friend and not-quite-lover, the artist Joseph Cornell, and her father, a put-upon womaniser who, like Yayoi, was badly bullied by his wealthy wife.

Her mother's family were merchants with numerous, diverse businesses. One of these involved selling pumpkins. From an early age, Kusama remembers seeing warehouses stacked to the ceiling with them. Yellow and black pumpkins, along with polka dots of all colours, and spiderweb striations painted on canvas - her Infinity Nets - are the key elements in her work. That, and a sense of playfulness, gives some respite to the always-on-the-boil obsessiveness. At the Goma media launch, the press pack was led into several galleries decked out like different domestic interiors in which everything was pure white. White floors, white walls, white tables, televisions, a piano, bookshelves and couches. A flock of young children, similarly adorned in white, rushed in with polka-dot stickers of various colours and sizes. Soon the space took on what seemed like a fourth dimension as the hardened press corps joined in the fun. "Polka dots are a way to infinity," Kusama claims, with some authority.

Yet fun has not been a big factor in her life. As a child, she attempted to jump in front of a train and was blown back to the platform in its downstream. Suicide is something she stares down on an almost daily basis. "I can't be alone because I get delusional," she says. She has to work constantly, sometimes for 60 hours at a stretch. "It relaxes me, the repetition." But it also exhausts her.

She risked estrangement from her family by going to art school. She knew she wanted to go to America, and managed to enter into correspondence with the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe would become something of a mentor to her, making introductions to the hot-head Abstractionists and cool Minimalists around town, and offering advice on which gallery dealers to approach.

She moved from Japan to New York in 1957. Three years later, she was living on East 19th Street with Donald Judd, Eva Hesse and other shape-shifters of the international art world. By the end of the next decade she was as big a celebrity as Andy Warhol. But for a long time she was an outsider, creating more than 200 happenings, including one filmed at Woodstock, making 30ft-long monochrome canvases, and she was for a while more famous in Europe than in either America or Japan. In Germany, in 1960, she showed alongside Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni in the Monochrome Malerei exhibition.

She walked the streets of Manhattan with Judd, searching for found objects to incorporate into sculptures such as a rowing boat covered in phalluses.

"The work bears an uncanny resemblance to ancient obsessive sculpture," Andrew Solomon wrote in Artforum, describing this work. "It is eerie to look at this material next to, for example, the cult statue of Artemis at Ephesus, which is completely covered with breasts. The same air of the sacred and primal immediacy gives Kusama's work its particular urgency."

A list of the other objects she has used in her sculptures, drawn up by Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, include "frying pans, tea kettles, watering cans and mixing bowls as well as suitcases, pocketbooks, high-heeled shoes, a baby carriage and coats and dresses. What is new in these sculptures is that the unit of Kusama's repetition is no longer a nonobjective circle, but blatantly a penis form."

So how does all this relate to her own sex life? Cornell has often been described as her long-time lover, even by Kusama herself. Yet she told Solomon: "The work is not erotic. It's very tasteful. I was afraid of sex. I don't do any sex. Never. The sexual obsession and the fear of sex sit side by side in me." And then later, recalling their odd ménage à trois (his elderly mother, who repeatedly told him "women are a disease", was always around to literally pour cold water over them if they got too close), Kusama says: "It was an ideal relationship for me. I disliked sex and he was impotent so we suited each other very well." They didn't live together but were constantly writing to each other and talking on the phone. Once, in a single day, Cornell reputedly wrote her 14 letters.

I remember meeting Kusama at the Venice Biennale in 1993. She emerged from a clump of trees near the Japanese pavilion wearing a pointed witch's hat and flowing dress. Both were yellow and covered in black polka dots. She gave me a small pumpkin in matching colours. I took a lot of photographs. Up close her eyes bulged outwards like those of an exotic goldfish, and I wondered just what she was seeing - aquamarine polka dots across the Grand Canal? Spiderwebs in the Giardini?

After both Cornell and her father died within a couple of years of each other, she returned to Japan - this time to assume the role of "outsider" in her native country. Her large studio is within walking distance of her psychiatric hospital. It is a set-up that many artists might envy. She is fed, clothed and given a safe haven to sleep in, in one building, while in the other her creative dynamo can overheat as much as it likes.

Next year, the Gagosian Gallery's global network, itself overheating, has expanded to around a dozen outlets from Paris to Hong Kong, New York to London, and plans to show all of Damien Hirst's spot paintings in all of its galleries around the world (and you think Kusama is obsessive). While the two artists are known for their respective spots and dots, and both have created monumental sculptures, it is Kusama who has the hands-on approach (like Keith Haring, but more extended), and the psychological need to physically make her own art. Hirst, by contrast, has a factory full of paint slaves and an apparent desire only to make money. Kusama is the real deal.

As she said in a recent video documentary, with the uberconfidence of Muhammad Ali about to face Joe Frazier, "I'm filled with originality. There's the work of a genius in everything I do."


Peter Hill is an artist and writer and adjunct professor of fine art at RMIT University, Melbourne. He is currently writing a book called Matisse and the iPhone: Why Do Art Movements Change? He will be exhibiting 25 years of his "Superfictions" at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne in March.

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