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Women in Art: Yayoi Kusama

“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?

Yayoi 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.

Polka Dots Madness #6

Dots Obsession

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.

Accumulation No. 1 (1962)

Compulsion Furniture (1964)

Infinity Mirror Room Phallis Field (1965)

Accumulation No. 2 (1966)

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.

Self-Obliteration by Dots (1968) performance piece

Alice in Wonderland Happening (1968)

Infinity Dots (2001)

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!

10 Comments

  1. WildMess

    Interesting.

    I like her.

    Reply
  2. I love the dot images!

    Reply
  3. Stephanie

    I like her art–so much more than Warhol. I’d love to own some of her pieces :)

    Reply
  4. I don’t think I would categorise Kusama as a pop or minimal artist – she neither draws inspiration from the world of consumerism and advertising nor makes geometric, industrial, non-self referntial pieces. I’d say this is one of the biggest reasons she isn’t as well known as artists such as Warhol or Judd. If art history is contrued as a linear progressions of isms, and is certainly taught this way in Australia, then artists who fall outside of isms are less likely to be taught and less likely to be known.

    On the flipside, I’d say Kusama is probably one of the best known non-ism American artists. She recently had a huge retrospective in Sydney that was phenomenally successful. And with good reason! Her work is an absolute delight to experience in person.

    Reply
    • I think that Kusama is being used as a link between the two movements. And seeing as how depicting women artists as links is a common way of downplaying their importance I hesitate to exclude her from pop art. This is a guess on my part, but I think that were she white and male her work may have been accepted more readily and possibly even expanded the definition of pop art.

      Art movements are constructs, and, you’re right, we are attracted to viewing them linearly. Thinking linerally encourages us to ignore artists who don’t fit conveniently within a movement, who we see as overlapping. This practice hurts minority artists who are discouraged from entering a movement until it is already established, making it more likely for them to be viewed as second wave, a link to a new movement, or mere inspiration for future movements.

      You saw her work at the Sydney retrospective? That’s sounds incredible! I would love to see her work in person.

      Reply
      • fourcolouredstripes

        Hey Melissa,

        I read this article and thought of you, I think you’d really enjoy it.

        S. Best ‘The style that is not one’ in C. Moore (ed), Dissonance: Feminism and the Arts 1970–90, Sydney, Allen & Unwin in association with Artspace, 1994, pp. 154–168.

        It articulates very well exactly what you’re expressing above, that women have not been viewed as initiators of new movements or styles, but instead have been said to develop or link between movements and styles, and this has been used to justify their exclusion from the history books, retrospectives, etc.

        Here’s one of my favourite quotes from it:

        This is precisely my point, there is no gap in art history for women artists to be unproblematically reinserted as if their history simply fell out. To include them as other than a footnote we must shake if not shatter the foundations of art history, to do this we need to ask how and why stylistic innovation has come to be so highly valued in our culture.

        It’s actually my PhD Supervisor’s Honours Paper! I couldn’t believe how good it was, or that she had it published.

        Can’t believe how much you’ve written since I last checked it, looking forward to reading more :)

        Reply
  5. Briznecko

    I love her! It’s great to see someone giving her some much deserved love! She is definitely one of the more interesting artists of that era despite her non-Warholesque status today. I believe she has a few things going against her: 1.) Woman 2.) Non-white 3.) Mental illness 4.) Her work is very conceptual and doesn’t visually appeal to the every-day art viewer in the same manner as Warhol.

    I also wouldn’t label her as a Pop Artist-they were more interested in representing the superficiality of culture (especially as a jab to the “surface” argument of Greenberg and Abstract Expressionists). She is more in league with Yves Klein and is more interested in focusing viewers on the sensations of the body-and reinterating the fact we are more similar than different. (I’m borrowing heavily from a former professor Johnathan Katz-known for co-curating the *amazing* and infamous Hide/Seek show at the Smithsonian). Johnathan argues that her work follows the aesthetic philosophy of Herbert Marcuse who argued the concept of Eros (kind of a mixture of Freud and Marxism). According to Marcuse, pleasure is a heavily regulated and economically controlled act and we need to re-connect with the body to expand pleasure from the genitals to the entire body. Such a shift in pleasure will lead to a non-repressed and more utopic world. (This is a very, very short summary of his very complex ideas-I totally recommend his text Eros in Civilization for those who are interested.)

    Kusama utilizes this idea by painting poka-dots on herself and performers in “happenings” as a way to highlight the sameness of our bodies and the sensasions of our bodies. This also applies to her phallic sculptures-take for example Compulsion Furniture. She applies these phallic sculptures to objects we sit on, thus creating a different (perhaps uncanny?) sensation. The chair goes from being a vaginal “receptor” of our body to an ambiguous phallic protrusion into the body while simultaniously cradling the body.

    Reply
    • Those are good points (Also, I’m really impressed that Johnathan Katz was your professor. That’s just… I’m jealous).

      I think that it is difficult to label Kusama’s work as pop art, but she was certainly a major developer of the movement. There’s a pretty common practice of using women artists, who don’t quite fit a movement’s ideal, as links between “pure” movements (here, pop art and minimalism) rather than viewing their work as progressions of the movement. I think that this is partly what’s at play here.

      Some aspects of her work and the work of other pop artists make me think that she could be included in the pop art umbrella. Her soft sculptures are very similar to the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg. In an interview Kusama says, “his [Oldenburg's] 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”. I think that Kusama was one of the developers of the pop art movement and that her role in certain innovations, like soft sculpture, has been downplayed.

      I agree with you that her work fits much more closely with nouveau realisme. I wonder what would have happened had she moved to France rather than America!

      Eros in Civilization sounds fascinating. I’ll check it out if I get the chance!

      Reply
  6. Jo Parsons

    An interesting article.
    However, you have used my photo of the Polka Dot Trees without my permission.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jo92/3879278491/

    Reply
    • Sorry about that. The photo’s been removed.

      Reply

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