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by Kay Itoi
Kusama at the Arts
Club of Chicago
At the Arts Club
Ota Fine Arts,
At Ota Fine
Ota Fine Arts
The term "outsider art" has never been trendier than it is today, and few are more "outside" than Yayoi Kusama, 68. Her story -- that she has since childhood suffered from obsessional ideas and has lived at a Tokyo psychiatric hospital for over 20 years -- is once again becoming well-known in art circles thanks to recent successful shows at Paula Cooper and Robert Miller galleries in New York, the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh and the Arts Club of Chicago, as well as feature stories in such magazines as Artforum (March 1997) and Sculpture (January 1997).
Interest in Kusama in the Japanese art world has seen a marked increase in recent years. Many visitors to her solo show earlier this month at Tokyo's Ota Fine Arts were women in their 20s and 30s. "Kusama is almost like a role model for these women, who want to be different -- and successful," notes Hidenori Ota. It sounds strange that they should look up to a someone who has spent so many years in a psychiatric hospital. But it is also true that there was hardly ever a Japanese woman who has been as original and internationally successful as she has been.
Kusama is now busy preparing for probably the most important show of her career, which will originate at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in March next year. Titled "Yayoi Kusama Love Forever, 1958-1968," it will focus on her work from the early '60s when lived in New York City, and travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and then to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Then in 1999, Tokyo's three-year-old Museum of Contemporary Art plans to expand the exhibition to make it a full-fledged Kusama retrospective.
One recent afternoon, I shared cold Japanese tea, sweet rice cake and a long talk with the artist in one of her Tokyo studios.
KI: Do you feel the "Kusama renaissance" with all these shows was well overdue, or there is a good reason for it to happen now?
YK: Yes to both. Nothing new is going on in the world of art now. You see that if you go to Whitney Museum or Guggenheim. That's why they find my art refreshing and began to reappreciate it. My work prefigured many art movements such as Pop art.
KI: Your career spans 50 years. Has your work changed over the years?
YK: I have painted since I was around ten and I still work every day. My work has been consistent. I have painted dots and nets, inspired by what I saw from hallucinations. I always liked to repeat the same pattern and just developed the accumulation as my art.
KI: Repetition is an important element of your work. Some suggested that there is feminist connotation, that it symbolized the boredom that surrounds women's traditional housework.
YK: I'd never heard of that. I see and make things as an artist; It's mundane to see my creation as an extension of housework. I'm aware that some relate my work to feminism, but I have had no such intention.
KI: Your work has been categorized as feminist art and recently, to use a fashionable term, as outsider art.
YK: I'm not interested in those categories. Museums try to include me in their group shows of all kinds -- Minimal art, Pop art, women art. But Kusama is Kusama, not anything else.
KI: Ever since you left for the United States alone in 1957, you have led quite an unconventional life, particularly for a woman from a wealthy family in a conservative rural town in the postwar Japan. Why do you think you could do that?
YK: The environment was so conservative that I fought to get out. Growing up, I was constantly told to behave appropriately as a girl. When I wanted to get a driver's license, my mother said that I could get a chauffeured car if I married well. When I said I wanted to be a painter, she told me to be an art collector instead. But I was not discouraged because I knew I was talented. Before leaving for New York, I burned large paintings I had done because I knew I would produce much better ones in New York. They could be worth $6 million now. I was that intense and determined.
KI: You once said that you felt fortunate being sick. Why?
YK: The illness lets me just be an artist because it allows me to be free from common sense. To me, being an artist, art comes before anything else. And (my obsession) is an inspiration for my work; obsessional art, I call it.
KI: You were originally a painter. How did you start sculptures and then "happenings"?
YK: I was painting nets at first on a flat table. The nets kept proliferating and overflowed, reaching down to the floor. Thus the table had gotten covered by nets; it became a sculpture. That's how I became a sculptor. Then I developed the idea into "happenings." I painted dots on human bodies, which were moving sculptures.
KI: Among your most striking works are the "sex obsession" series of soft sculptures -- furnitures covered with accumulated phalli made of stuffed sacs. What inspired them?
YK: I had a phobia about sex because of the education I received as a young girl. I was taught that sex is dirty, something you have to hide. What I did was to bring sex into the open; I covered an entire sofa and everything else around me with penises. That soothed my (fear of sex) and I was able to come out of my phobia.
KI: In the 1960s, your fame in New York was compared with Andy Warhol's. Some thought you sought it too eagerly. What does fame mean to you?
YK: I was desperate to establish it. I'm not interested in fame itself, but it protects my work. Once you are famous, they will regard your work more seriously and they can find its way into museums.
KI: Many young women who come to your shows in Tokyo say they want to become like you, work and succeed in New York. And it has become much easier for young Japanese to go overseas. Do you envy them?
YK: It's true that today they may not have problems I had. I had a great deal of trouble getting a visa. I was poor, too. My family couldn't easily send me money because the regulations were much stricter. I lived in a place where all the windows were broken and it could get as cold as an ice cube in winter. These are not fond memories. Then again, it could be more difficult today. You have so much to help you, it can make you dull. We, the artists who lived in New York back then, were all desperate to make it there. I painted and painted, without so much of a lunch break, sometimes.
KI: How do you see art in Japan today?
YK: I have no interest. I'm too busy with my own work. I have always been like this -- in a hurry with so much I want to do. I don't socialize with other artists. Those who approach me only ask to be introduced to good galleries and collectors.