Yayoi Kusama; Retrospective at the Tate Modern- Extra Credit Exhibition Essay

During my spring break in London, I made my way to the Tate modern where I saw a fascinating exhibit that was a retrospective on perhaps Japan’s best–known living artist, Yayoi Kusama. This Japanese artist began in the 1940s and has been creating work in a span of time of over 60 years. Kusama’s extensive amount of work includes but is not limited to painting, sculpture, drawing, and collage, however she is best known for her installation work. During the 60s and 70s she was a very influential figure in the New York avant-garde, not only associating with key developments in pop, minimalism, and performance, but coming into contact with artists such as Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell and Claes Oldenburg. Due to the fact that her work is far too extensive to cover in just this essay. I will focus on a few moments or key features of her artistic journey, to show what she is best known for and to give an understanding of how her art progressed throughout the years (as highlighted by the Tate Modern).

Photo of the Artist

Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto City, Japan to a middle-class family. As a young girl, she would sketch the flowers, seeds, and plants that grew on the family’s land. In 1948 she started studying Nihonga painting, which is a distinctly Japanese style, but quickly realized that she was more fascinated with American and European avant-garde rather than traditional artwork. This was during the period when Japan was dealing with the aftermath of the war, and this is clearly influenced her personal style at this time. In the early 1950s she created hundreds of works on paper with ink, watercolor, tempera, pastels, etc. and continues to examine organic forms such as eggs, trees, flowers, and seeds, but on a microscopic scale. Although she was beginning to receive much critical acclaim in both Matsumoto and Japan, she was ready to venture to New York. A quote from her autobiography on why she made this choice:

“For art like mine-art that does battle at the border of life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die – [Japan] was too small, too servile, too feudalistic and too scornful of women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom, and a wider world.”

In 1958, Kusama makes it to New York and begins studying at the Art Students League, and begins working on what is called ‘Infinity Net’ paintings, which are large-scale canvases with repeated, scalloped brushstrokes. Most describe this work as both obsessive and meditative, similar to the work of other abstract-expressionists at the time. The process of producing these are using white paint over a black surface, and then bleaching the whole surface. After a while, she began to integrate some color.

Infinity Net Paintings

In the 60s, Kusama started working on sculptures that she will beceome even more well known for, her ‘Accumulation’ sculptures. She took everyday items such as clothing and furniture, and covered it with a abundance of stuffed fabric phallic forms. I learned in the interview (at bottom), that she has never had sex, and a focus on phallic objects was a form of sexual therapy for her. She showed work alongside Andy Warhol, George Segal, and James Rosenquist at the Green Gallery in 1962, which was one of the first exhibitions of the American pop art movement. Also at this time, Donald Judd became an important supporter, and sometimes assistant to her. There are two sides to her obsessive decorations of everyday objects; her Sex Obsession series features phallic objects and her Food Obsession series features dry macaroni. Sex Obsession centers on anxieties around sex in the 60s, and Food Obsession centers a disgust with American food over-abundance in which she was completely disgusted by.

Sex Obsession and Food Obsession

In ’63, she has an exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery in NYC, called ‘Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show.’  This installation was the first instance in which she uses an entire gallery space, which is something she will do again and again. The boat was covered with her infamous phallic objects and surrounding it were repeated photographs of the same boat. This repeated motif, which would be seen abundantly in the pop art movement, was first seen with her nearly three years before Andy Warhol uses it with his Cow Wallpaper. During this time, she also begins to start what will be a long-term relationship with mirrors and flashing colored lights.

In 1967 Kusama starts being greatly influenced by the American hippie culture at the time, which challenged social norms, and had a very open attitude towards sex and drugs. She started working with performance experiments in her Body Festivals, where viewers and artists would paint polka dots on each other with fluorescent paint in a room with black light. Polka dots would greatly be used in her art from this point on. I learned in the interview (at bottom), that since childhood she has always wanted to draw dots. She liked to cover her fashion and notebooks with them. They are a symbol of the cosmos; the sun, moon, and people are all dots. Filmmaker Jud Yalkut recorded some of these events for her film, Kusama’s Self Obliteration. In this film, she puts polka dots on different things, and there is footage of orgy parties that take place in her installation spaces. Kusama won many awards for this film, such as the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium and the second prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Something that is to be especially noted with her artwork is her own strong presence, in which she likes to be photographed and visually documented within her work. This established a focus on the artist in the role of the author and controller of the environment, where she truly becomes the center to her personally created world.

The 1970s were tough for the artist. The very conservative Tokyo audience did not respond as well to her artwork as the open American crowd did, and so she begins working as an art dealer. In 1977, she experienced both a physical and psychological break, partially due to the death of her partner Joseph Cornell, and admitted herself to a hospital, where she has lived ever since. In this psychiatric institution, she was able to continue making artwork, but remain within the security and calmness of the confinement. Within Seiwa Hospital, she published a book of poems and artwork named ‘7.’ She also wrote an essay named ‘The struggle and wanderings of my soul’ published in Geijutsu Seikatsu (Art Life), and continues to delve deep into concepts of Life and Death. She also writes numerous novels and an autobiography. Her novel ‘The Hustlers Grotto of Christopher Street’ won the Tenth Literary Award for New Writers.

The Seiwa Hospital was supportive in her art production and allows her to set up a studio within the building, where she returns to sculpture. She makes Leftover Snow in the Dream and Prisoner’s Door, where she extends the phallic shapes of her Accumulation sculptures that become snake-like and dense, as if jungle-like foliage. Although her main residence was the hospital, she still travelled and held exhibitions all over the world.

Kusama returns to painting in the 1990s with a new style not quite yet seen by her, in which she uses acrylic in all-over compositions in a rich palette of extremely bright colors. Often using multi-panel works, there seems to be an all-encompassing visual field, and she uses up to 12 canvases. She returns to some of the themes explored in her early paintings, with microscopic organic forms, that look like cell structures and/or sperm-like shapes.

Along with painting, she begins working with open-air pieces in the 90s. To list only a few, she had pieces at the Fukuoka Kenko Center, the Fukuoka Municipal Museum of Art, the Bunka-mura on Benesse Island of Naoshima, and the Kirishima Open-Air Museum and Matsumoto City Museum of Art.

Kusama continues to develop these into the 2000s, and further brings in motifs used in her early paintings such as flowers and eyes, but incorporates her famous polka dots and nets. These would seem to be ever-encompassing paintings that hark back to and collaborate with all of the themes and symbols used in her career, but used and portrayed in a different way. These are often very complex, and sometimes include animals and doll-like girls.

Still continuing to thrive after 60 years of art production, we still await what is yet to come from the complicated mind of Yayoi Kusama. Recently she just won the 2006 National Lifetime Achievement Awards, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Losette and The Praemium Imperiale –Painting-. Looking back at what she has achieved is immense, and highly influential. In many ways she was dealing with being an ‘ousider’ in many different contexts throughout her artistic journey. Whether she was a female artist in a male-dominated world, or a Japanese native in the American art world, or as a victim to the troubles of her own neurotic, damaged, and obsessive psyche. Perhaps what was working against her, was actually working for her. As a viewer, we are able to experience a similar psychological trauma, as her work encapsulates us into her obsessive compulsion. Both intriguing and terrifying, her work stimulates you, and you feel as though you have entered another dimension or state of mind. Her ability to bring you into her own world is what makes her work so fascinating. Kusama has been and still remains one of the most prominent contemporary artists of the time.



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