“At one time, I was even more famous than Andy Warhol”
Browsing the work of Yayoi Kusama I’m unsurprised that her fame was once greater than Warhol’s. Both artists worked in NYC in the 60s, ran with a similar crowd, and enjoyed similar amounts of attention. Kusama has had a long, productive career in which she experimented with the use of pattern, repetition, and recurring themes of obsession. Her work could arguably be considered a forerunner of both pop art and minimalism, influencing artists from the likes of Oldenberg to–as mentioned before–Warhol himself.
So what happened to Kusama?
While Kusama is still well represented in galleries, museums, biennales and more, she’s hardly the household name that Warhol is. An extreme comparison, of course, as Warhol is one of the few artists most people outside of the art world know about. But even compared with her contemporaries of non-Warhol-ian fame, such as Eva Hesse and Donald Judd, Kusama seems to get the short end of the recognition stick. I personally had not heard of her until a brief mention in my Queer Looks class, in which she was referenced for her piece Homosexual Wedding.
Kusama had an impressive group of friends and supporters, with Georgia O’Keeffe acting as a mentor when Kusama first came to New York; connecting her with galleries and potential buyers, giving advice, and even offering a place to stay. Kusama made further connections with artists such as Hesse, Judd, Cornell and more, immersing herself within the art scene of the time.
Kusama has one of the most interesting backgrounds as an artist I’ve ever seen; a childhood spent living with an abusive mother and womanizing father, dealing with the hallucinations and neurosis connected to her mental illness, and eventually leaving her home behind to make it big in the art scene. I try not to romanticize mental illness, as it’s very common for art historians to depict very real problems as a quirk or affectation of the artist’s persona, but Kusama is the first to claim that her illness greatly affects her work. In fact, the colorful and repetitive polka dot patterns that are so common in her pieces are a result of her hallucinations in which patterns leave their objects to cover entire rooms.
Kusama says of her work, “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.’”.
Her career has had a definite theme throughout, however, her means of expressing this theme vary enough to remain fresh and interesting. For example, Kusama was a frequent organizer of happenings (performance art events) which were often political in nature and fairly controversial. Kusama painting polka dots onto the bodies of her nude performers was a common occurrence, sometimes in very public places such as the Brooklyn Bridge or Central Park. In one notable happening she composed an open letter offering sex to Richard Nixon in exchange for ending the Vietnam war.
One of the ways in which she greatly influenced the art world was through her soft-sculptures. Particularly through her Compulsion Furniture series in which furniture, clothing, and other ordinary objects are covered with phalluses.
Kusama was confronting a sexual fear. She’s quoted as saying, “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”.
Kusama’s work was very aggressive, not just visually, but conceptually. It was striking in color, scale, and in the drama of it all. And it’s not that her work was unrecognized upon creation, rather, the Kusama excitement became rather hushed once she returned to Japan and checked herself into a mental hospital (where she lives present day). She began to explore other media, including the written word, film, and fashion design (to which her artwork seems particularly suited).
Take a look at some of her other work. Notice how Kusama adeptly works within many different mediums.
It’s saddening to see so little of Kusama when other artists working in similar fields are somewhat overhyped. Of course, it’s unsurprising that Kusama hasn’t enjoyed the breakout fame of her male counterparts; pop art and the minimalist movement are known for being predominantly white men.
So what do you think? Has Kusama been underrepresented as a pop or minimalist artist? Share your thoughts in the comments!