Kusama Universe

Many of us didn’t know what to expect when Yayoi Kusama‘s exhibits started popping up in museums all over the country in 2016, catching the attention of the art world and non-museum goers alike. 

Thanks to the impact of social media, the unusually interactive works of art gained popularity quickly. Surreal would be too simple of a word to use when experiencing the perspective of Yayoi Kusama’s mind. Unrecognized for decades, she caught the rapt attention of the general public relatively recently.

“More than 5 million people have visited her shows since 2014 — and once inside, they flood Instagram with mesmerizing images of art that feel more culturally relevant than ever.

Her popularity has also translated into commercial success, and Kusama is consistently among the best-selling names in the global art market. Last year, her work netted more than $108 million at auction, more than any other female artist, according to figures from the Artnet price database.”

As one of the viewers, I wasn’t expecting to feel overwhelming awe when I stepped inside a small structure at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. You could have called it a large dollhouse or playhouse. Once stepping inside however, the short, approximately minute long experience was almost addictive. Infinite star-like points gleamed in a mind bending, moving space in a black universe. The Kusama Universe installation was just one of the many exhibitions drawing multitudes of viewers. Thanks to the insistent nature of social media and sharing permissions, a rare allowance at an art exhibit, crowds of all ages flocked to Kusama Universe and other works all over the U.S.

Kusama, now 90 years old, entered the New York art scene in 1958, where she moved from her home in Japan. She began creating prolifically from a young age, even though she was discouraged by her parents, who expected her to fulfill traditional paths to marriage and children. When her tumultuous home life drove her to find a safe place, she would make her way to her family’s plant nurseries and sit among the flowers, until one day, The Guardian notes, she experienced them talking to her. These “hallucinations”, for lack of a better word, inspired her drawings. Immediately, my mind fixates on a scene in Alice in Wonderland after learning about Kusama’s encounter. Colorful flowers tower over Alice, chatting and questioning her. It may look visually pleasing, but we forget that as viewers we may have enjoyed the experience more than Alice, who maintained discomfort and fear throughout the story. Yayoi Kusama dealt with the spells by putting them on paper:

“‘Whenever things like this happened I would hurry back home and draw what I had seen in my sketchbook… recording them helped to ease the shock and fear of the episodes,’ she recalls.’”
-The Guardian, Sept. 2018

Some of her first influential works,  Infinity Nets, were painted with  a “repetitive singular gesture of impasto in little loops, like interlocking scales; the longest canvases measured 30ft. One of these canvases sold in 2014 for $7.1m, a record for a living female artist. The first ones she sold to fellow artists Frank Stella and Donald Judd in 1962 for $75.

She ran several solo shows and public exhibitions. Narcissism is the word commonly used to describe her style during this period, but as a foreign transplant new to the art scene, it seems her big splashes were misinterpreted and she was never truly recognized by the male-dominated avant-garde movement. Kusama has claimed that some of her motifs were stolen by fellow artists Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg.

So what happened between 1958 and the early nineties when museums began to flood with her exhibits?

In 1966, Kusama, “in response to not being invited to the 33rd Venice Biennale, Japanese performance artist Yayoi Kusama littered 1,500 plastic-metallic balls on the lawn of the pavilion at the 33rd Venice Biennale. Alongside the balls, the artist installed two yard signs, one stating “Narcissus Garden, Kusama”, and the other “Your Narcissism for Sale”, as she stood among them, barefoot draped in a gold kimono. In direct reference to Greek mythology’s story of Narcissus, the installation was aimed at critiquing art world consumerism, as the art world was literally forced to confront their own vanity. This was Kusama’s first successful experimentation with performance art, it was one indicative of the radical career that was soon to follow.  The Biennale authorities stopped the performance, objecting to ‘selling art like hot dogs or ice-cream cones’.

When the summer of love arrived, Kusama sought to position herself as a kind of high priestess of flower power, staging ‘Body Festivals’ and ‘Anatomic Explosion happenings’ in which she painted naked partygoers with polka dots. She took these happenings to sites around New York – opposite the New York Stock Exchange, on the steps of the Statue of Liberty – creating nude protests against the election of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war.

[B]esides being a foreign woman of color from a chastened Asian power, the psychological content of her work set her identity apart from the Western mainstream that wrote the first histories of the 1960s avant-garde. Suddenly irrelevant to the national reckoning around Watergate, and out-of-step with the ascendance of obtuse conceptual art, Kusama moved back to Japan in 1973 and was gradually dismissed by the art establishment.”

She continued creating while admitting herself to a mental institution in Tokyo. A sort of art therapy.

Until 1986, that is.

The Musée Municipal, in Dole, France, exhibits her recent pieces. A continuous flow of her exhibitions led to a steady revelation of her talents to international recognition. 

In 1993 she again appeared at the Venice Bienalle, this time, seemingly following all rules and regulations. Her exhibits appeared all over the United States, and in 2017, she opened a museum in Tokyo dedicated to her work.

Some critics interpret Kusama’s style as attention seeking, purely for fame, but the diversity and intensity in her prolific work eclipses the difficulty she experienced in New York in the 60’s. Other words come to mind.

Vibrance, life, visibility.

New worlds created that she was (and is) generous to share.

Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.

–Yayoi Kusama





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