Woman on the Verge

Yayoi Kusama returns right on time

Japanese physicists recently confirmed the physical mass of the neutrino, the tiniest particle ever discovered. The news rattled scientists around the globe; but if it reached her Tokyo studio, or the psychiatric hospital where she's lived for over two decades, Yayoi Kusama probably wasn't surprised. The Japanese artist has spent most of her 69 years single-mindedly creating a parallel universe--an intensely detailed world of dots, nets, and protuberances.

Photographs from the early '60s show a diminutive artist in a big New York loft, standing before immense canvases covered with intricate white webs, or contemplating a studio full of madly proliferating phallus-covered furniture. In 1966, she's a sly media manipulator in a kimono, hawking mirrored balls for $2 in an unofficial exhibit at the Venice Biennale. Later, dressed in hippie garb, surrounded by police and reporters, she's daubing paint on naked dancers protesting on Wall Street.

Who was this woman who seems to have landed from another planet into the glare of publicity? In New York in 1968 she was famous--five years later, she'd disappear for some 20 years. A retrospective focusing on a decade of her work here opens tomorrow at MOMA; Peter Blum is showing early drawings from Japan, and Robert Miller, recent art. What is this strange story of fame pursued, forgotten, and recovered?

"I don't know how many decades I have been suffering," Kusama wrote in a manifesto. "Every time I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of art." Her obstacles have included not just the usual avant-garde struggles with neglect and poverty (compounded by discrimination), but also the debilitating effects of mental illness.

She was born in 1929 to a prosperous family of seed merchants in central Japan. As a child, she suffered from the rigid militarism of the war years and conflicts within her family. "One day," she says in a fax from her Tokyo studio, "I was in the field surrounded by hundreds of violets. The violets had human faces with uncanny expressions and were talking with one another just like human beings. . . . One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth. When I looked up, I saw the same patterns covering the ceiling, windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body, and the universe." From an early age, she was determined to master these terrifying hallucinations by recreating them in art.

Her family opposed her. But she corresponded with Georgia O'Keeffe, who encouraged her, and in 1958 she arrived in New York, carrying about 2000 works on paper. Living in cold lofts on the Lower East Side, she worked for 50-hour stretches on "Infinity Net" paintings: mural-sized canvases crisscrossed with seemingly boundless, subtly modulating networks of lines. "By repeating the same movements," she says, "I was fleeing from the fear that comes from the void of thoughts." Some of the nets vibrate with an optical buzz--others whisper with delicately celestial beauty. All speak of time, of terrifying expanses of eternity.

Her solo exhibition in 1959, at the artist-run Brata Gallery, was a critical hit. Dore Ashton and Donald Judd praised her work; Judd and Frank Stella bought it. Almost immediately, she began creating "Accumulation" collages from stickers and photographs,and "Compulsion" furniture. "Fear of sex and phalluses," Kusama says, "compelled me to cover household items, shoes, and dresses with stuffed protuberances." Her sofas, ironing boards, and baby carriages, bristling with penile forms, look like someone's taxidermied phobias. Surreal and protofeminist, these fetishes seem meant to pacify the household gods of a new consumer society.

Fear and obsession also dominated Kusama's "Food Compulsion" series--macaroni-covered, spray-painted clothing, handbags, and mannequins. "I shudder at the thought of the long path of life people have to tread until their death," Kusama says, "drinking many cups of coffee and consuming an enormous amount of machine-produced macaroni."

Kusama's idiom may have emerged from private fixations, but it was remarkably prescient of the art of her era. Her mirrored installations preceded those of Lucas Samaras; her soft sculptures anticipated Oldenburg's; her repetitive imagery prefigured Warhol's. Their work remained central to art history; Kusama's was almost lost to it.

Perhaps it's the relation of her work to vast stretches of time and space, and natural processes of corruption that can make it seem both highly idiosyncratic and strangely impersonal. In photographs, she intentionally blends into her oeuvre (wearing fishnet stockings or a polka-dot outfit), as if she were an appendage to her own overpowering vision. Kusama merges her person with her work in ways that are peculiarly contemporary (think, for example, of Matthew Barney). Her friend, Dutch artist Henk Peters, calls her work "the product of an obsession without end. And that makes it both wonderful and painful."

"Are artists punished for their ambition?" Laura Hoptman, who curated the current retrospective with Lynn Zelevansky of the L.A. County Museum, asked me this question. On the wall of her office at MOMA was a copy of a Daily News front page from 1969: Kusama at a "nude-in" protest she'd organized in MOMA's sculpture garden. By the late '60s, performance had become her primary activity: painting naked people with polka dots as they danced in protest before targets like the Board of Education. These activities made her famous; they also turned the art world against her. Megalomania, an occupational hazard of art, is better tolerated in men than in women.Kusama was accused of media gluttony.

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