|Yayoi Kusama, Blue Coat. 1965.|
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, translated by Ralph McCarthy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1911. (This review was originally published in Art New England (April/May, 2012).)
By Carl Belz
When I assumed my post as director of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, in 1974, my first task was to move the collection from a handful of makeshift sites scattered around campus to a proper storage vault that had recently been added to the museum itself. It was a great opportunity so see just about every painting and sculpture we owned—prints and drawings, mostly unframed, would come later—and I was excited by the chance to handle the objects, feel their heft, study their condition, and read the labels on the stretcher bars to see whence they’d come to the museum. To greater and lesser degrees, I was familiar with the artists they represented, some widely acclaimed, some lesser known, and some whose names meant nothing at all to me. There was a woman’s coat, for instance, it was entirely covered with visually buzzing, aqua- and black-striped cotton phallic protuberances that gave off a weirdly disturbing sexual vibe. A registrar’s tag identified it as having been made in 1965 and accessioned in 1967, which meant it had been acquired by William Seitz, the Rose’s second director. Bill had been a curator at MoMA and had come to Brandeis shortly after mounting “The Responsive Eye”, an ambitious international survey of Op Art, a passion I assumed he brought with him when he came to Waltham. For me, that provided a handy context for understanding the dress itself and its presence in the collection, and with that I was pretty much satisfied.
Little did I know. Little, in fact, did a lot of people know, unless they’d hung around New York’s downtown art world where Yayoi Kusama set up shop and operated from the late 1950s through the 1960s, in which case they would have known the coat wasn’t just a one-hit Op Art wonder, known it also referenced Pop Art’s celebration of common objects and their sometimes surrealist transformations, known it demonstrated the gripping formal effect of Minimal Art’s modular repetitions, and known it signaled the first tremors of the women’s revolution that would erupt at the close of the decade and affect art’s history into the new millennium. They’d further have known how the phalluses—or, in some cases, Kusama’s signature polka dots—could proliferate, spread from an article of clothing to nearby tables and chairs to surrounding walls and thereby generate whole obsessive environments, sites for Kusama Performances and Kusama Happenings that she dedicated to peace and love. At the same time, they probably wouldn’t have known the full meaning, for the artist, of her friendships with Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd, yet they did probably wonder whatever happened to her when she left New York in 1973, returned to her native Japan, admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo in 1977, and, for the most part, dropped off everybody’s cultural radar screen.
But they surely know now: Through the many major exhibitions, starting in the later 1980s and continuing at the moment I write, which have celebrated her achievement in cultural centers around the globe; and through Infinity Net as well, her generously personal autobiography, which was first published in Japanese in 2002 and is now available in a 2011 English translation. It’s a terrific read, packed with information—about her life, her art, her career, her vision—that I’ve merely glossed here, because what especially fascinates me about it is how similar it is to her visual art—and yet how different. Similar in what I would call Kusama’s minimalism, her use of simple, modular units, the spots and dots of color and light in her installations, for instance, units that pair comfortably with her penchant for unembellished sentences and the direct, matter-of-fact literary voice of her autobiography. At heart, the art and the writing proceed with a steady and absorbing rhythm. It’s when the elementary units begin to accumulate that each medium begins to yield its separate and distinct aim. The installations become visually cacophonous and disorienting, reaching for the heavens, dissolving our selves among the stars, while the prose feels earthbound and determined, directing us inward to know ourselves in the here and now. Heaven and earth: pretty impressive, especially from an artist I initially identified as an eccentric seamstress.
(Editor's note: A major exhibition of Yayoi Kusama can be seen at the Whitney Museum of Art until September 30, 2012.)