Yayoi Kusama, translated by Ralph McCarthy, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, The University of Chicago Press, 2011, 239 pp., $35.
At 82, Yayoi Kusama is still licking old wounds. In her new memoir, she recounts the insult of a photographer who interviewed her in 1970 and then never thanked her or printed her name in the article. She accuses Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras and Andy Warhol of copying her ideas, which were “decades ahead of their time.” She embellishes that she was almost as famous as Jackie O. and President Nixon in the ’60s. And she bemoans how participants in her free-love Happenings were so cultishly fixated on her that they begged for sex and would beat up any other suitors.
Yet Kusama remains a mostly sympathetic character in Infinity Net, published in 2002 and translated into English in time for her new retrospective at the Tate Modern, Feb. 9-June 5, 2012. Her international stature was more than hard-won and she’s forthcoming about her weaknesses. Even when the book starts to feel dead in your hands -- bloated by ego and cold from Kusama's obsession with the accumulations of an internal scrapbook -- there's no shortage of page-turning grist.
The book follows the artist from her repressive childhood in Japan to New York, where, despite having no connections, she fell in with an influential crowd that included Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Joseph Cornell, her companion of over a decade -- sort of. “I disliked sex and he was impotent, so we suited each other very well,” was how she once put it to Artforum.
Kusama had an awakening in the late 1950s when she discovered her now trademark polka-dot. She was struck by how the dot seemed like a particle of matter which, when replicated endlessly, created a new kind of universe. The motif first appeared in her giant, hypnotically repetitious “Infinity Net” series of monochromes shown at Brata Gallery in 1959. “This was my ‘epic,’ summing up all that I was,” she writes. (In 2008, one of the “Infinity Net” paintings sold for $5.8 million at Christie’s, the third most expensive work at auction by a living female artist to date.)
In the 1960s, Kusama began hosting public body-painting parties and orgies in her studio. “Nudism is the one thing that doesn’t cost anything,” she wrote in a manifesto for a Happening titled The Anatomic Explosion. “Clothes cost money. Forget yourself and become one with Nature. Lose yourself in the ever-advancing stream of eternity. . . Kusama will cover your body with polka dots.” And she did, enacting what she called “self-obliteration,” a way of abstracting the human body into its environment.
It’s understandable why Kusama might be preoccupied with these escape fantasies. She was raised by an abusive mother and an absent, philandering father. Her family was wealthy, but intolerant of her artistic ambitions, and her mother destroyed many of her first paintings. Still, Kusama’s worst demons came from within. She suffered from panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and hallucinations. She says that drawing her visions on paper helped her control them. She has been living voluntarily in a mental hospital since the 1970s.
Kusama’s use of art as therapy has divided critics. Some think she’s an over-sharer, capitalizing on her personal traumas for publicity. She has written a dozen largely autobiographical books, including a collection of poetry based on the childhood hallucination that first led her to the canvas. Frieze magazine said her “deathless retelling of this anecdote is itself a form of obsession.” Others argue that her illness is inherent to her genius, and you can’t consider one without the other. Besides, she came up in the personal-is-political age of the ’60s.
But if Kusama immersed herself in art to free her mind, it doesn’t seem like she ever escaped the torment of her other warden -- Japan. Even as a girl she despised her homeland, which she calls “a corrupt, bogus, fourth-rate country,” and dreamed of moving to New York. So when she discovered a used copy of a Georgia O’Keeffe monograph as a teenager, she decided to write a letter to the artist. Surprisingly, O’Keeffe responded with a short but encouraging note. “When you get to New York take your pictures under your arm and show them to anyone you think may be interested,” she said.
It was all the push Kusama needed. Miraculously, she arrived in the U.S three months later.
In Infinity Net, Kusama’s resentment of Japan is still raw. Many of her cultural critiques are reasonable enough -- the Japanese art scene is overly market-driven, there are too few dealers, critics and foundations to give young artists their start. She’s probably right, but her rosy-eyed comparison of the west is oddly out of touch. “The reason why foreign collectors are now selling their Impressionist paintings to Japan at such outlandish prices is not that they are in need of money, but that they want to use the money to cultivate and promote contemporary art in their own countries.”
She reserves her greatest ire for the Japanese people themselves. She calls the reporters “base and cowardly,” part of a “media machine that was not interested in my art or ideas, but interpreted everything I did as disreputable.” That sentiment also extends to many Japanese artists, collectors and tourists, whom she succinctly rounds up as “scum.” Male Japanese participants behaved inappropriately during her nude-ins and so she posted a sign on her studio door saying, “no Japanese allowed.”
But in the pit of brutal emotion mined in this book, that’s just the surface. In a chapter titled “People I’ve known, people I’ve loved,” she describes Joseph Cornell as looking like “Frankenstein’s monster” and a “withered shell of a man,” with a penis like a “big, desiccated calzone.” He called her nonstop, sometimes for five hours straight, and she was desperate to end the relationship. Yet she concludes the chapter saying “I have the deepest respect for Joseph Cornell, and gratitude for all the ways he looked out for me. Of all my artist friends, he was the greatest.”
Kusama’s memories of O’Keeffe are kinder. She describes the older woman as “noble” and “dignified,” writing, “Even now, among American women artists, she retains her place at the very top. It takes a rare person to build that sort of status while remaining absolutely true to herself.”
But perhaps the disparate treatment of her two friends has to do with her complex relationship with men. Kusama has often said that she is repulsed by the male anatomy -- what she sometimes calls “those things” -- and her fear of sex is “of the hide-in-the-closet-trembling variety.” Her solution, true to form, has been to turn art into exposure therapy. She constructed her first installation of phallic “soft sculptures” in 1962, and then grew the horrorscapes bigger and bigger. In 1965, she lined a room with mirrors to reflect a floor crawling with polka-dotted wormlike protrusions. “By now, the number of penises I have made easily reaches into the hundreds of thousands," she writes.
Of all the axes Kusama has to grind, however, her problem with men isn’t particularly offensive -- she simply avoids them. It’s the pettier rehashing of age-old quibbles that makes a reader wonder if we’re just collateral damage in a 230-page revenge fantasy. But all of this is just to say that maybe Kusama isn’t at her strongest as a writer. That doesn’t diminish her formidable achievements and much deserved comeback at the Tate, which the Telegraph has just called “magical and full of surprises.”
Kusama proudly rolled into the opening last Thursday in a polka-dot wheelchair with matching jumpsuit and red wig. Still unsmiling, she’s never looked happier.