Kimberly and Jane ask, aren’t you glad the art world has caught up with Yayoi Kasama? She leaves the past behind, steps straight into our pixelated present and invites a freedom of expression we almost forgot to remember.
JAS: When you first expressed your love of Yayoi Kusama to me, she felt familiar, and then I remembered! I first discovered her at the Tate in 2012 and had no idea what to make of her. She was surprising and fun. But was she art? I bought a couple of pins to wear. She felt important but I didn’t know why. I would’ve really liked one of those big balls for our pool at home.
The next time I saw her work in 2016, I was in Japan on the island of Naoshima. The piece was an enormous yellow pumpkin of black polka dots situated on a dock by the sea. Back-grounded by the emptiness of that seascape, it was amazing. In person, Yayoi is a pretty amazing sight too – her red hair and polka-dotted caftans stand in stark contrast to Japan’s traditional geisha image just like her yellow polka-dotted pumpkin against Naoshima’s grey sea and manicured gardens.
KC: I first fell in love with Kusama in my twenties when I was enthralled with her immersive environments. Rooms where every surface was covered with her painted polka dots along with all the objects in it so that there was no discernable boundary between where a table ended and the wallpaper began, where a person standing in the middle of the room was no different than his/her surroundings. I was titillated by the thought that she creating her own worlds. Upon further investigation into her life, I learned that she was presenting the world that she had always seen inside her own head, which also thrilled me in its notion that we could all create from our internal imaginations as artists and then show the world our manifestations of what lived inside of us that they may never otherwise see.
JAS: Was Kusama an artist working out her childhood traumas, a pop sensation for a hungry art market, or a woman translating a hidden fifth dimension? The documentary, Kusama – Infinity, raises the questions but leaves them for us to answer.
KN: I think all three. In the movie, she speaks of a day when she was a young girl in a field of flowers, and how suddenly the whole universe was swirling in an overwhelming sea of dots where she experienced everything as connected.
JAS: As a psychologist, I had to wonder if that experience was one in which she experienced some sort of trauma.
KN: I never thought of it that way, but it would make sense. She speaks at length about how her father was a womanizer who took her with him when he would cheat on her mother. Therefore, Yayoi also felt a bit complicit in those affairs. She may have experienced lots of traumas, which would make it easy to understand how she would want to dissociate from reality and seek out worlds of her own, and of her own making. In any case, trauma-spurred or imagination-compelled, she was able to funnel everything she experienced outward as art, and relied on that, in almost a manic, productive fashion from a very young age. It was all she had to rely on. I can’t help but think that it was this kind of compulsive, one-track mind toward making every moment matter through her work that got her to where she is today.
JAS: The film focuses on her as a groundbreaking talent who was misunderstood and shoved into the background until suddenly she wasn’t.
KN: True, she materialized in a man’s art world, and had to employ very aggressively masculine male traits to make a mark. First, in her Japanese hometown where women weren’t supposed to be anything other than self-effacing, she emerged with hauntingly gorgeous watercolors, a prolific amount of them that were selling well in local galleries. Then, she burnt them all before heading to New York with only a couple hundred dollars to her name and boldly pushed her way into the circle of abstract expressionist males before making a big splash in the Pop Art movement with feminist-oriented works. Some of the future male art stars even bought her early infinity web paintings because they recognized something unusual in her. She briefly dated Joseph Cornell but broke it off when the relationship was interfering with her need to work. She participated in a biennale, not by invitation, but by boldly creating an installation on the lawn outside of its exhibition halls, of her own accord, with her own money, and without anyone’s permission. She lived and worked on the sidelines of some of the most important eras in modern art.
JAS: I honestly don’t know what to say about her art separate and apart from her. Maybe that’s the point. She was a launcher of original ideas in an art world that gobbled them up as fast as she produced them. Maybe that’s the feminine quality in the closet here? Her ideas did feed the more famous male artists around her – Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, e.g. – and out they went into the world. Perhaps she celebrates the grief that created the famine that forced Hades to send Persephone back to the upper world and restore cycles of regeneration on earth, end Demeter’s mourning and the crisis of human starvation. ‘Take advantage of your life’, Kusama seems to say, ‘wake up every day and get to work chasing every new idea that comes into your head.’ She is nothing if not industrious and productive. 1989 brought her out of oblivion into a scintillating limelight and gave us an immersive experience into her world of pixels in reflection, rooms of mirrors filled with polka dots into which you could walk and, perhaps, feel the endless possibilities for creating as fast as you can until you can’t.
KN: It’s interesting because my boyfriend always tells me that people ripen at different ages—some very young and some very old. Although Kusama was part of and touched upon various important American art movements in her career, she truly ripened after she finally moved into a mental institution back in Japan. With room and board taken care of, all she had to do was get up every morning and walk the few blocks to her studio. It was the perfect life for her, and an enviable one from an artist’s perspective. Imagine needing nothing other than hours in a day to work? Scintillating! That’s all she ever wanted. She had gone out, worked hard, tried to prove herself, and, I also think if we look back through her oeuvre we can also see a timeline of her works that mirror processing of her own mental demons in a chronological string. But she seems to have come to know herself through this, and in the end, all she wants is to keep on showing us the beauty that lives inside her head and her head only despite how it may have materialized for her in the first place. This constant resignation to her truth has been equal in her ambition in carrying her forward. She’s become that woman who knows why she is here and what she is meant to do and has intentionally crafted her own life to achieve that.
JAS: She’s different. She’s now. We’ve been talking about women creating themselves through their art. With Kusama, it’s hard to know where one stops and the other begins. Maybe that’s the fifth dimension, a new dimension of female being with no endings, and no beginnings? Infinity herself.