One of the more delightful vicissitudes of art history is the way artists can be suddenly rediscovered and re-presented. Such is the case with the avant-gardist Yayoi Kusama.
Kusama, who back in New York in the late 1950s and 1960s influenced esthetic pioneers Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella, is now the subject of a traveling retrospective entitled "Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Born in 1929, Kusama grew up in Japan. In the mid-1950s she struck up a correspondence with Georgia O'Keeffe, who advised the young artist to take her art to New York and show it to anyone who would look. At age 27 Kusama did just that. She had her first solo show in Seattle and in 1958 arrived in New York with some 500 drawings and watercolors.
In New York she befriended Barnett Newman as well as Judd, Stella and Oldenburg, and had an on-and-off relationship with Joseph Cornell. Her early work consisted of paintings she called "nets," largely monochromes of tiny dots or webs, some covering the entire wall of a gallery or studio.
By 1961 Kusama had begun a series of sculptures that incorporated hand-sewn phallic shapes made of stuffed canvas. She obsessively covered everyday objects with these forms, from chairs and sofas to women's shoes and clothing -- even a rowboat. She eventually employed the same technique using macaroni.
Like her Pop and Fluxus colleagues, Kusama began stage-managing her notorious Happenings at this time. One such performance occurred in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. A few men and women removed their clothes and danced around in the fountain -- it made the front page of the Aug. 25, 1969 Daily News.
Kusama would often have her performers strip, and then cover their bodies with painted dots. Kusama has said that both the dots and the nets derive from hallucinations she had as a child, in which she imagined everything around her covered with dot-like shapes fashioned after her mother's freckles.
Kusama remained in New York throughout the '60s, save for trips to Venice and elsewhere for exhibitions. By the early '70s, she had returned to Japan after taking ill, and in 1975 she checked herself into a mental institution in Tokyo, where she has lived ever since. She maintains a studio in the hospital, and accompanied by a team of four assistants, continues to work prodigiously. Though virtually forgotten in the West after her departure from New York, attention returned to her work after it was included in the 1993 Venice Biennial, where she had a solo exhibition in the Japanese Pavilion. She subsequently has had exhibitions at the Paula Cooper and Robert Miller galleries in New York.
In conjunction with the LACMA show, I was invited to attend a party given for Kusama at the Chateau Marmont by the impresario Johnny Walker. Walker's relationship to the artist was unclear. No one there seemed to know; nor did they know much about Walker. In any case, Walker provided lots of drinks and cheese and crackers, and also invited two Japanese Butoh dancers to perform.
Things got going late. Bad El Nino weather plus a related traffic disaster caused everyone, including Kusama, to arrive after the scheduled kick-off time of seven o'clock. At a certain point, we were all asked to move to the verandah of Walker's sixth-floor suite, where a long canopy provided cover from a pissing rain.
Two Japanese men with white-face painted bodies cloaked in raincoats emerged from stage left like a pair of flashers. They dropped their coats, revealing bodies covered only with identical, woven clam shell-shaped codpieces, and began to dance in unison to loud music that sounded like a cross between Glen Branca and a Balinese Monkey Chant. The music was energized and relentless, perfect for the dancers' feverish movements. The rain continued to fall, but it didn't deter the performers, who moved around the terrace and on top of the balustrade, against a vista that included a huge Marlboro Man sign just west of the hotel.
Suddenly Kusama jumped up from the front row of spectators. She had a bundle of sheets of red self-adhesive dots of various sizes in her hand. As the dancers continued their exercise, the artist circled around them both, attaching the vinyl dots to their bodies. After the dots ran out, Kusama returned to her place on the floor before the dancers.
After some time the men disappeared, and the performance seemed to be over. But as the crowd moved out from under the canopy -- the rain had subsided -- people noticed the two dancers up on the roof of the Chateau. Somehow they had managed to climb onto the steep shingled roof, like a couple of flying trapeze artists, for a final salutation to the crowd.
Everyone was relieved to see them later, safely dressed in street clothes, mingling with guests in the suite. I took a seat on the divan in front of the fireplace, which had a gas jet fire going full blast. Left-over vinyl dot-sheets were distributed around the room. People began sticking the dots on each other, but nobody took off their clothes. I left with a four-inch red one on the lapel of my coat.
In the doldrums of the social club that is the L.A. art world, this evening stuck out like ... well, like an entertaining event. Never mind the nostalgia for '60s-style happenings -- it may have been over three decades ago, but Butoh is a lot older than that. I had fun. Thank you, Yayoi Kusama. Thank you, Mr. Walker, whoever you are.
"Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968" is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mar. 8-June 8, 1998. Subsequently it appears at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 9-Sept. 22, 1998; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Dec. 13-Mar. 7, 1999; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Apr. 4-July 4, 1999.
STEPHAN PASCHER is an artist and writer who divides his time between Los Angeles and New York.