Yayoi Kusama by Grady T. Turner

BOMB 66 Winter 1999
Bombcover 66 1024X1024

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Yayoi Kusama, Let’s Carry the Flowers, 1998, mixed media, 16⅛ × 24¼ × 10¼ inches. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Robert Miller Gallery.

Though she was generally unknown just months ago, fame is not new to Yayoi Kusama. There was a time when she was as well-known as Andy Warhol among admirers of Pop Art. Acknowledged as a progenitor of Minimalism, Kusama made headlines for street performances in which she painted polka dots on nude men and women. But Kusama was largely forgotten by the art world after she returned to Japan in 1973, suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. She was committed to a mental institution, where she remains to this day. Kusama’s neglect by art history has been redressed in a traveling retrospective of her seminal 1960s work, currently at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. When the retrospective was on view in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, shock waves of recognition went through the art world. Not only was Kusama relevant to the past; she seemed to pave the way for 1990s art as well. The retrospective will soon conclude its tour in Tokyo, where Japanese audiences will have their first comprehensive look at an artist now considered to be their foremost modernist. Even now, rumors about Kusama abound (yes, her many lovers included Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd; no, she is not faking mental illness to gain attention). In our conversations via fax, Kusama and I were separated by language, culture, and a couple of generations. Nevertheless, she steered me past the pitfalls of innuendo and legend in my effort to understand how her remarkable life relates to her art.

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Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli’s Field), 1965, sewn stuffed fabric, mirrors, 360 × 360 × 324 cm. Installation, Floor Show, Castellane Gallery, New York.

Grady TurnerThere has been so much interest in your life story as a result of your retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Do you ever fear people may be interested in your biography at the expense of your art?

Yayoi Kusama No, I have no such fear. My artwork is an expression of my life, particularly of my mental disease.

GT We are conducting this interview by fax because you live in a mental institution in Tokyo. Is it true you committed yourself?

YK I was hospitalized at the mental hospital in Tokyo in 1975 where I have resided ever since. I chose to live here on the advice of a psychiatrist. He suggested I paint pictures in the hospital while undergoing medical treatment. This happened after I had been traveling through Europe, staging my fashion shows in Rome, Paris, Belgium, and Germany.

GT Even though you are institutionalized, you are a prolific writer and artist. Where do you work?

YK I work at my condominium-turned-studio near the hospital as well as at a studio I’ve been renting for some years, which is just a few minutes walk from the hospital. I also created a large sculpture in the big yard of the hospital—a store-bought rowboat completely covered with stuffed canvas protuberances. I have made about 500 or 600 large sculptures so far.

GT Do you still work around the clock for days at a time, as you did in the 1960s? Or is your work routine different now?

YK I work very hard even now, but probably not as hard as I did when I was in New York.

GT You say your art is an expression of your mental illness. How so?

YK My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I don’t see hallucinations, though.

GT Let’s talk about your youth and the art you made before coming to New York. You were born in Matsumoto, a medium-sized city in central Japan, in 1929. The war did not greatly affect your family as Matsumoto was fairly isolated and your family was wealthy. Is that true?

YK Our house escaped damage during the war and our storehouse was full of foodstuffs so we had enough to eat, fortunately. Yes, my family is quite wealthy. They operate real estate and storage businesses. They also wholesale seeds harvested from the plants grown on their large farms. They have been in this business for some 100 years.

GT But still, your childhood was pretty horrific. Your descriptions of your mother are chilling.

YK My mother was a shrewd businesswoman, always horrendously busy at her work. I believe she contributed a great deal to the success of the family business. But she was extremely violent. She hated to see me painting, so she destroyed the canvases I was working on. I have been painting pictures since I was about ten years old when I first started seeing hallucinations.

I made them in huge quantities. Even before I started to paint, I was different from other children. My mother beat me and kicked me on the derriere every day, irritated that I was always painting. She forced me to help the employees, even when I had to study for my term exam. I was so exhausted that I felt very insecure at times.

My father, a womanizer, was often absent from home. He was a gentle-hearted person, but being married into my mother’s family and being always under my mother’s financial control, he did not have a place in the home. He must have felt that he had lost face completely.

My eldest brother was also against my painting pictures. All of my siblings told me to become a collector rather than a painter.

GT Given your family life, it is not surprising you were eager to leave home while still young. You went to Kyoto, where you enrolled in academic art classes. Was this your only formal training as an artist?

YK I went to Kyoto simply to flee from my mother’s violence. I rarely attended classes at the school there; I found the school too conservative and the instructors out of touch with the reality of the modern era. I was painting pictures in the dormitory instead of attending classes. Because my mother was so vehemently against my becoming an artist, I became emotionally unstable and suffered a nervous breakdown. It was around this time, or in my later teens, that I began to receive psychiatric treatment. By translating hallucinations and fear of hallucinations into paintings, I have been trying to cure my disease.

GT In 1951, you began to produce small works on paper in pastel, gouache, and ink, based on your hallucinations. Within a few years, you had created thousands of them. Then, furious with your mother, you destroyed most of them on a riverbank outside your family’s home. How did this come about?

YK When I left for New York, my mother gave me $1,000,000 yen and told me never to set foot in her house again. I destroyed several thousand pieces of work. I felt those early works would be a drag on me after I became determined to create better work in the United States. Now I regret very much that I destroyed them.

GT But you saved some 2,000 works, which you brought to New York. Why did you save these?

YK The pieces that I saved were all completed ones, similar to those I had sent to Kenneth and Georgia O’Keeffe. (When I first wrote to O’Keeffe for advice, she discouraged me from moving to New York. After I arrived in New York, though, she was very supportive of me, visiting me at my studio to see how I was doing, trying to find galleries that might be interested in my art and buyers of my work. She even invited me to stay at her place.) Those pieces I saved were excellent pieces that already showed some signs of dots and infinity nets.

GT Though small in size, these early works were vast in scale, as if you were attempting to capture the infinite.

YK Those small works reflect the great depth of my inner heart. They represent an assertion of denial, or a negative, while my white Infinity Nets are an expression of a positive.

GT In your novella Foxgloves of Central Park, the protagonist Shimako breaks down shortly after arriving in New York penniless and alone. Still, she has no intention of returning to Japan. Did you mean for your departure to be final?

YK Yes, I left Japan determined to live and die in the United States. I would not have had to return to Japan, even temporarily, if my Japanese doctor in New York had given me surgical treatment early enough. Now, without realizing it, I have been in this mental hospital for 20-some years. I live a peaceful life creating artwork.

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Yayoi Kusama, Self-Obliteration by Dots (detail), 1968, performance, documented with black-and-white photographs by Hal Reif.

GT When you arrived in New York, you were 29 years old. You spoke little English. You had a portfolio of drawings but no contacts in the art world. What were you hoping to accomplish?

YK When I arrived in New York, action painting was the rage, de Kooning, Pollock and others. I wanted to be completely detached from that and start a new art movement. I painted obsessional, monochromatic paintings from morning till night. They were huge paintings that had no composition like a 33-foot white infinity net painting. My only contact with the art world was John Gordon of the Brooklyn Museum. I owe so much to him. He invited me to participate in the “Watercolor Biennale” and helped me to sell my work by finding sponsors.

GT Within 18 months of your arrival, you had your first solo show. The walls of the gallery were hung with five huge canvases covered with white-on-white infinity nets. Meticulously painted brush strokes created a lattice almost invisible to the eye. The show was praised by critics including Dore Ashton and Donald Judd—you were even compared to Pollock. This first success must have been exciting.

YK I said to myself, I did it! I began associating with comrades who were also developing new types of paintings. I became friends with artists such as Eva Hesse and Donald Judd.

GT It is interesting Judd was so impressed with your work, as your paintings presaged the Minimalist aesthetics he later championed. Did you consider yourself a Minimalist?

YK I am an obsessional artist. People may call me otherwise, but I simply let them do as they please. I consider myself a heretic of the art world. I think only of myself when I make my artwork. Affected by the obsession that has been lodged in my body, I created pieces in quick succession for my new “-isms.”

GT With this first show, you established a balance between avant-garde aesthetics and the hallucinatory images that inspired you.

YK I ran all over the battlefield of art in New York that revolved rapidly like a swirl.

GT It was an infinity net painting that first introduced your art to Europe in 1960 as part of a group show alongside other artists working in monochrome, including Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, and Piero Manzoni. You began corresponding with a number of European artists as a result.

YK The European reception to my work was truly great. The newspapers in Germany, Holland, and Belgium featured my work at the top of their front pages. In fact, the response was so overwhelming it incurred the complaints of the other artists who participated.

GT Looking at your 1960s work from the perspective of the 1990s, I’m most impressed by the diversity of media with which you worked: drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, installation art, etcetera. Mixing media was not as common then as it is today.

YK So many ideas were coming forth one after another in my mind that sometimes I had trouble knowing what to do with them. In addition to making painting, sculpture, and avant-garde fashion, I made a film called Kusama’s Self-Obliteration. I starred in, directed and produced it, and Jud Yalkut filmed one of my Happenings in Woodstock. I think I staged about 200 Happenings all over the place.

GT What is the meaning of “self-obliteration?”

YK By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe.

GT That film was a collage of images, like much of your work. Were you inspired by other collage artists? I understand Joseph Cornell was a mentor to you.

YK No, I was not inspired by any other collage artist, even by Cornell. Rather, I think he was inspired by me. Cornell was not a mentor to me; I was his lover for 10 years. Cornell is better known for his box pieces. My work is quite different from his, but I saw a number of his pieces that appeared to be influenced by my work.

GT In 1962, you created your first sculpture, Accumulation No. 1, in which an armchair frame was covered with stuffed, sewn protuberances. There was fringe at the base of the chair, and the entire sculpture was painted white. How did you come to make something so different from your previous work?

YK When I was struggling to earn my living, all my friends said, “Do action painting, then you can survive.” But I continued to make paintings that were the exact opposite. I painted infinity nets day after day, and while doing so, the whole room appeared to have been covered with nets. So I created pieces by covering sculptures with nets.

GT Inevitably, the stuffed shapes seem phallic. Did you intend this association?

YK My sofas, couches, dresses, and rowboats bristle with phalluses.

GT Why do you refer to these sculptures as “Compulsion Furniture?”

YK As an obsessional artist I fear everything I see. At one time, I dreaded everything I was making. The armchair thickly covered in phalluses was my psychosomatic work done when I had a fear of sexual vision.

GT Women’s clothes were also covered in protuberances and monochromatic paint.

YK I glued male sexual patterns on women’s clothes and sprayed them completely with silver paint. Initially, I used white paint, but began to use silver and gold sprays around 1963 as I found them to be more durable.

GT Did you wear these clothes in your Happenings?

YK Yes, I went shopping at a supermarket and strolled on the street wearing a dress and a hat decorated with phalluses. Artificial flowers were also attached to the outside and inside of a parasol. This was the precursor of my nude Happenings.

GT As with the Happenings, there are a number of collage photographs in which you include yourself with your Compulsion Furniture. The most famous may be the image of you posed nude on your couch (Accumulation No. 2) in imitation of a pin-up girl, covered in polka dots. Behind the couch are infinity nets paintings, the floor is strewn with pasta.

YK Polka dots symbolize disease. The couch bristled with phalluses. The macaroni-strewn floor symbolizes fear of sex and food, while the nets symbolize horror toward infinity of the universe. We can not live without the air.

GT Among so many domestic objects, your Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show in 1964 stood out.

YK The work was composed of a real rowboat covered with stuffed canvas protuberances, surrounded by 999 posters of the boat pasted on the ceiling, floor and walls of an entire room. After this show, repetition became a hot theme in New York.

GT The serial imagery seems similar to what Andy Warhol was beginning to do with his Flowers series, covering walls with an image repeated over and over.

YK Andy was a person who incorporated everything indiscriminately in his art as if he were running a wholesale business of imitations. Before he started doing his Flowers, he came to the opening of my One Thousand Boats Show and said with a stunned look on his face what a wonderful show it was.

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Yayoi Kusama, Mirror Room (Pumpkin), 1991, mirrors, wood, papier mache, paint, 200 × 200 × 200 cm. Collection, Hara Museum, Tokyo.

GT Involving the gallery walls in a sculpture exhibition was not very different from the installation art you would come to make. In 1965, you built a mirrored room and filled it with stuffed fabric shapes covered in polka dots, entitled Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field, orFloor Show. That made actual the implied infinity of your drawings and paintings.

YK The original idea for this work dates back to my childhood. I was making paintings in small, medium, and large sizes then, without sleeping at night sometimes. Those paintings, 2 or 3,000 in total, were rapidly sublimated within myself and developed into sculptures. In other words, underlying the mirror room were my early paintings. To create an endless mirror room had been my long-cherished dream.

GT What did you think of Lucas Samaras’s mirrored rooms when you saw them two years later?

YK My reaction was, “He did it again.” I hope Lucas pursues the path of creativity and pain inherent in artists from now on, instead of following what Kusama has done.

GT For your retrospective, the Museum of Modern Art recreated examples of your art that are no longer extant, such as the mirror room. What was it like to see your lost art after three decades?

YK I am disappointed that more than half my artwork is no longer. Now I want to create greater artwork to leave behind for future generations.

GT You’ve been compared to Pop artists by those who detect a Pop Art sensibility in pieces like Airmail Stickers, in which you covered a large canvas with hundreds of red, white and blue airmail stickers. Did you feel any affinity with Pop?

YK Yes, I was in the vanguard of Pop Art, and regarded as a Pop artist by the people around me. I felt that America’s energy was trying to change its history. I was part of the movement.

GT While you did reasonably well as a young artist in New York, you were eclipsed by male artists whose work was similar—one thinks immediately of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures and Samaras’s mirrored environments, not to mention Warhol’s serial images. How did their success affect you?

YK Those male artists were simply imitating my illness. I participated in a group show held at the Green Gallery in June 1962 with Robert Morris, Warhol, George Segal, James Rosenquist, and Oldenburg who I hold in high regard. Oldenburg showed a papier-maché sculpture then. The Green Gallery offered me a chance to hold a solo show in September of the same year, but unfortunately I had to decline due to lack of money. During that summer, Oldenburg was working fast to create soft sculptures similar to mine using machine-sewn forms. When I went to the opening of his solo show held at the Green Gallery the same year, his wife led me to his piece Calendar and said to the effect, “Yayoi, I am sorry we took your idea.” I was surprised to see the work almost identical to my sculpture.

GT You staged dozens of Happenings—what you called “Body Festivals”—in your studio and in public spaces around New York. Some were sites of authority, such as MoMA or Wall Street. Other sites, such as Tompkins Square Park and Washington Square Park, were associated with New York’s psychedelic hippie culture. What was your role in these?

YK I played the role of high priestess and painted the nude bodies of models on the stage with polka dots in five colors. When a Happening was staged at Times Square under my direction, a huge crowd flocked to it. I was never nude, publicly or privately. At the homosexual orgies I directed, I always stayed at a safe place with a manager in the studio to avoid being arrested by police. The studio would have been thrown into utter confusion if I were arrested. The police were primarily after a bribe. When I was arrested while directing a Happening in Wall Street and taken into police custody, they demanded that I pay them if I wanted to be set free. Bribes ranged from $400 to $1,000. Since I paid them every time I was arrested, my Happenings ended up as a good out-of-the-way place for them to make money.

GT Why were the performers nude?

YK Painting bodies with the patterns of Kusama’s hallucinations obliterated their individual selves and returned them to the infinite universe. This is magic.

GT Nudity was central to your work in those years: in addition to the Happenings, you opened a fashion boutique offering clothes you designed that were “nude, see-through, and mod.” The shop had private studios and nude models available for body painting or photographing. You also opened the Church of Self-Obliteration in a SoHo loft, appointing yourself the “High Priestess of Polka Dots” so you could officiate at a wedding of two gay men in 1968. You designed a large bridal gown that both men wore. How did you see your art in relation to the sexual revolution?

YK I have been tossed by the waves between rejection or a fusion with my own sex. I suppose everyone has. To get baptized at the Church of Self-Obliteration, people first have their bodies painted all over with polka dots by Kusama, then return to the root of their eternal soul. It is the moment of joy and of inheriting the vitality of an infinity.

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Yayoi Kusama, Alice in Wonderland Happening, Alice in Wonderland statue, Central Park, New York, 1968.

GT In 1968, you began to refer to your Happenings as “Anatomic Explosions.” They were your most overtly political works. You appeared in public sites with four nude men and women covered in polka dots. At the New York Board of Elections, they posed with oversized masks of that year’s candidates for president—Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace—with a crumbled flag on the ground. What caused you to become concerned with politics?

YK I have been interested in politics since my childhood, probably because my grandfather was a politician. When I read a newspaper today, I first read its political column ahead of its cultural column.

GT It is a surprise, as your other art and writings seem apolitical—indeed, they are often intensely private.

YK I can only write about myself, but having searched the world around me, I have found that nothing is more intriguing than politics.

GT Why did you return to Japan in 1973?

YK I returned to Japan because of my deteriorated health. My Japanese doctor in New York failed to detect the illnesses from which I suffered. Upon returning to Japan, I received treatment for and recovered from the two diseases: Basedow’s disease and myoma of the uterus—not cancer of the uterus as rumored. Subsequently, I was hospitalized because of my obsessive-compulsive neurosis. In the articles written about me it is assumed that I voluntarily chose to live in the hospital; this is wrong. I am not suffering from manic-depressive psychosis, either.

GT You’ve said that your doctor regarded your art as good therapy. Has art therapy been part of your treatment at the hospital?

YK At the hospital there are art therapy programs such as calligraphy, karaoke singing, movie appreciation, and painting classes. Being the only professional artist in the hospital, I take no part in those activities.

Every day I create artwork either at a small place allotted me at the hospital or at my studio. At night I write novels. The novel Violet Obsession published recently has received favorable reviews. The other Violet Obsession, a collection of poems under the same title, has been translated into English together with The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street. Both are now available in the United States.

GT You’ve published thirteen books of fiction and poetry since returning to Japan. Are you now better known in Japan as a writer than as an artist?

YK I have many fans of my novels, but I am known as an artist in Japan because I have had a number of solo shows here and I represented Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale. I am participating in the current São Paulo Biennale at its invitation with my white painting.

GT You left New York more than two decades ago, but much of your fiction is set here. Why?

YK There are novels set in Japan, such as Suicide at SakuragaokaBetween Heaven and Earth, and a collection of poetry. But I find it easier to write about New York because I have a richer experience of it. For people like me, I must say, it is difficult to live in Japan, except inside the mental institution. I have but few friends.

GT In Japan, your writing is compared to that of Izumi Kyoka, a writer of mystic fiction who died in 1939. Was he an influence on your writing?

YK I am a fan of Izumi Kyoka, but he has no influence on my writing. I write in my own original style. I have written surrealist novels as well as conceptual art novels. I do not want the readers of my fictions to speculate that the heroines in them are Kusama.

GT Reading your work, I was struck by its use of repetition—you often restate details about characters, or retell parts of the narrative. This gives your fiction a kind of breathless quality, like you were compelled to write it all in one sitting.

YK Repetition of the same patterns, an action which stems from my disease, is applied in my writing just as it is in my artwork. Dreams and hallucinations are actually occurring. This obsessional image is what I have transformed my disease into, and is therefore, to me, irreplaceable.

GT There is an almost transcendental quality to your writing about such topics as prostitution, drugs, suicide, or madness. Do you see such intense states as transgressive of mundane life?

YK No, I don’t. I don’t think these things are anything special.

GT I ask because I understand that transgressive fiction appeals to many younger Japanese readers.

YK Living in Japan, I am realizing that so many trivial problems happen one after another and that I find myself desperately trying to protect myself from them.

GT Many of your characters are outsiders, detached from mainstream society: Henry, the prostitute-junky-turned-murderer, and his pimp, Yanni, in The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street. Shimako, who goes mad in Foxgloves of Central Park; and Masao, who makes love to the decaying corpse of his wife in Death Smell Acacia. Why are you drawn to outsiders?

YK I want to continue to write about the dark side of society since the bright side of society is written by famous conservative writers. I write about the shadow side of outsiders.

GT Your outsiders include gay men, but a lot of gay men would be bothered by your depiction of homosexuality—it seems depraved, desperate, pathetic. I’m thinking in particular of Robert Greenberg, the john who is murdered in Hustler’s Grotto.

YK In today’s world, gays are outsiders. That is why I try to remove society’s antipathy toward gays and change people’s views about outsiders in my writing.

GT Your recent work shown at New York’s Robert Miller Gallery continues the same motifs as the work you did in New York in the mid-1960s. How do you think your work has changed since returning to Japan?

YK I have been trying to give my work a structured look by combining various forms, as well as conducting chemical experiments using totally new materials to make the work permanently durable.

GT Have you done any Happenings since returning to Japan?

YK I have staged performances on the premises of temples in Tokyo. At one of the temples where there was a graveyard, I wrapped the surface of hard gravestones alternately with rolls of flimsy toilet paper. At another temple I threaded a vinyl pink cord around dozens of cherry trees in full bloom in a net fashion.

GT After years of relative neglect, your retrospective seems to have reasserted your place in the history of art of the 1960s. By painting your signature infinity net pattern on an icon of Western art like the Venus de Milo, as in your recent work, it seems you are also arguing for the importance of your art.

YK I will continue to create artwork as long as my passion keeps me doing so. I am deeply moved that so many people have been my fans. I have been grappling with art as a therapy for my disease, but I suppose I would not be able to know how people would evaluate my art until after I die. I create art for the healing of all mankind.

Rosa Barba by Joan Jonas
Rosa Barbara 01
Tarik Kiswanson by Asiya Wadud
Young children in a performance holding hands, covering each other's eyes, and staring forward.

The artist and poet discusses his childhood as a first-generation Palestinian immigrant, the formation of selfhood in preadolescence, and the psychology of drifting.

Constance DeJong by Jennifer Krasinski
Constance Dejong Bomb 2

“We were relegated to Chick Lit, romance novels, our subjects were love and motherhood and other sexually-defined things. Modern Love mocks that, to some degree. It pushes back.”

Ethan Greenbaum by Andrianna Campbell
Greenbaum Tyvek 1

“It’s nice when you can make connections in hindsight. Your life feels like chaos and then you realize that there are patterns.”

Originally published in

BOMB 66, Winter 1999

Featuring interviews with Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Diski, Michael Cunningham, Simon Ortiz, Petuuche Gilbert, Simon Winchester, Gary Sinise, Thomas Vinterberg, and Marc Ribot.

Read the issue
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