Yayoi Kusama is the artist who filled up her world up with brightly painted spots. Suffering hallucinations and obsessive thoughts since she was a child, her career has been characterised by abrupt shifts in the areas in which she works – film, painting, poetry and ‘happenings’ to name just four of them. Its incredibly immersive nature, what she has occasionally referred to as 'obliteration', has remained the one constant - from her earliest, 1940s four-inch square drawings influenced by traditional Nihonga paintings, to the work she is still creating today, by all accounts, as formidable as ever at 80-years-old.
Kusama left Japan for America in her twenties, after writing a letter of introduction to painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Once there she quickly became part of the art anti-establishment becoming friends with Eva Hesse and sharing a studio building with Donald Judd. Climactic spells at the cutting edge of the late 1960s New York art scene saw her huge, polka dot images or infinity nets as she called them augmented by infinity rooms full of mirrors and populated by coloured balls, directly inspired by her hallucinations. She returned to Japan in the early Seventies and soon after moved into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill where she still chooses to reside today.
Describing the inspiration behind her painting Flower, she once remarked: "One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realised it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers."
Kusama is the subject of a truly stunning Tate Modern retrospective opening on February 9. Fashion house Louis Vuitton are supporting the exhibition during which they will also be holding events and activites for young people at Tate as part of the Louis Vuitton Young Arts Project in collaboration with the ReCreative website.
Conceived as a series of immersive environments, in some cases characterised by the dense patterns of nets and polka dots that have become her signature, the highlight of the Kusama show is a new work, Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled With The Brilliance of Life which will be her largest mirrored room to date. Its curator Frances Morris, Head of Collections, International Art, worked closely with Kusama during numerous visits to Japan to bring the show to life. She tells Phaidon because of the sheer amount of work to choose from - hundreds of thousands of pieces over seven decades of creation – she has had to be incredibly selective. “We’ve chosen to chapterise her career and focus on the unfolding of particular moments in time," she says. "Rather than focus on everything she ever made we’ve focussed on the paradigm shifts and each room focuses on one type of work."
Did you notice a pattern to her changes once you began breaking the exhibition down that way?
Spots! I think although there are some sharp stylistic changes, and changes in media, there are, underpinning all those diverse different bodies of work, some strong shared characteristics. For example, excess. Excess both in the excess production and the fact that she plays each work to its bitter end, over and over and over again. That’s a metaphor for the way she works and also underpins the repetition, whether they are marks or symbols or patterns. So everything is covered, corner-to-corner, floor-to-ceiling. That sense of the idea of obliteration or covering is something that you see in every type of work.
And that's evident right from the start?
Her very earliest work is really her own personal take on the traditional Japanese paintings which she did in her twenties - then she breaks with it. It’s like the doors have opened on a new way of looking which embraces this idea of covering the surface very densely. You see it in her early watercolours and gouaches, the complete covering of the paper with spots, patterns, dashes, patterning repetition, texture and space encapsulated on the page - the idea of the drawing going off the page. It’s not bound by the notion of centre. That potential for the work to invade the space it occupies you see right in the early tiny drawings. So the potential is there from the 1950s onwards.
Can you see a kind of crescendo to each movement and then a complete change in direction?
I think that’s a very good question. There is in a way a crescendo or burn out moment around 1968. Because she goes from painting in the late forties to works on paper in the late fifties to painting again in New York in the early sixties to these accumulation sculptures, the ones covered in phalluses or covered in macaroni. And then she gets progressively radicalised. So the work moves from studio to street; from alone to communal; from private to public; until she makes this extraordinary film, Self-Obliteration in 1967 which kind of brings it all together. The spots you see on the drawings become spots she takes into landscape. She’s painting animals and the water on the pond. That’s almost a burn out moment.
Is it a case of her being in control of it for most of the journey until it overwhelms her?
It did overwhelm her. In the sixties she gets more and more crazy. Not mentally crazy – though she was obviously having a series of breakdowns - but the work became more and more hippie, more sub-cultural, more and more outside of the ‘legitimate’ institution of art.
What caused that?
Something that was happening in 1968. She got very caught up in youth culture. And she got very caught up in strategies of self-determination as an artist. Think about what Warhol was doing at the time. It was almost a YBA-type moment in New York when artists began to take charge of their own careers. Part of Kusama’s reaching out to the public was to mastermind the enterprise culture around visual arts. It’s interesting, there are bits of pre-empting Damien Hirst in a way. She set up shop, she had a fashion house, she was designing clothes, she was taking out adverts, writing her own press releases. It was partly the scene that was going on at the time, partly a positive response to something that was quite negative which was her failure to be taken up by Leo Castelli or any other great dealer. She didn’t have a big gallery behind her at a time when gallerists were becoming more and more important.
How was she left out of all that?
I don’t know. It may be that she was too hot to handle. It may be that she was quite difficult to work with. I wouldn’t have thought she was the sort of person who would have listened too carefully to what a dealer was saying. Indomitable is the word. She had a huge ambition. If I had been Leo Castelli at the time I could imagine myself saying to her: ‘Yayoi, I can sell your Infinity Net paintings, don’t do these sculptures with willies all over them.’ And Kusama would have probably said, ‘But that’s where my work is taking me!’ She just wasn’t very wise in shaping a career. Castelli might have said, ‘That’s what I can sell, that’s where you can find your market’ but she might have said ‘but its not where I can find my soul!’
Did she verbalise that to you?
No, because she doesn’t like talking about that period that much. Like a lot of artists she’s very preoccupied by her current work. She’s not terribly interested in going back and picking over her past. I hope that part of her pleasure in seeing this show will be to see that her earlier work is still hugely appreciated. This is the first time she’s had a retrospective in the UK. In a way, from her point of view, it’s the post-1990s that have been appreciated internationally. She’s been commissioned very widely for her contemporary work so in some ways she might be a little surprised that we are so interested in her earlier work.
How does she surprise you when you’re working together?
For somebody who has so evidently achieved so much and who in Japan is a household name I’m astonished by how much support and encouragement she needs and how much response she wants to have to her recent paintings. She's very keen to know what you think about her recent work. She’s very keen for reassurance that they’re good, interesting paintings.
And how closely did she work on the edit for the show?
I did make a selection of the recent paintings for the exhibition and then she wanted to change that selection. She had her own views on which ones she felt happy with and I was happy to concur with that because she’s been in the studio with them since she made them. I argued the toss for a few that I thought particularly strong. I've met very many senior artists who exhibit extreme arrogance about their work, so although she is very strong-willed I like the way that she seeks reassurance. That was, in a way, generous of her. She cares about what people think.
How does she talk about them, what are the words she uses to describe them?
That’s a very difficult question to answer because she mostly talks in Japanese. So when she talks in English it’s very straightforward. Her paintings are her words and when she does talk about her work or her approach it’s often in a semi-poetic way. She’s not the sort of artist who’d say I’m very happy with the way I’ve made this texture. She just doesn’t use that kind of language. It’s like a pure form of creativity. Although I think (her work) is deeply part of art history she doesn’t play on the art history aspect of her work. She doesn’t rationalise it in that kind of way. She’s working on an extensive series of paintings which continue. When I first went to see her she’d made 20 or 30. The last time I went to see her they were well over a hundred. And they are large. She sits down, pauses momentarily and paints.
Do you get the impression she feels this moment in time has some kind of psychic or emotional link to that late Sixties period?
Well I think she sees herself as driven by a single imperative and the way she articulates it when she talks about these early visions, this way of seeing the world through a veil. It’s an all-embracing worldview that she sees her life and art as a continuity. So it’s different ways of addressing the same way of seeing the world. There’s an interesting parallel to the late 1960s in that she has this very public side of her practice. We hope to have a collaborative work here at Tate Modern where visitors will be able to contribute dots to a public space. So she’s very keen on engaging people in her work and vision. In the sixties she was getting people to paint naked bodies, so it's revisiting that idea. In a way it’s inherent in the idea of the work spilling off the canvas that eventually you involve the audience.
And she still chooses to live in a psychiatric hospital, doesn't it restrict or impair her art?
It’s her decision. It’s her way of managing her own personal fragility. A way of her managing her anxieties is to live in a very, very sheltered, ordered, caring environment and it allows her to have the liberty and confidence to go into the studio every day and work very intensely. She doesn’t have family and she’s not surrounded by a huge number of friends so it’s a very important support structure for her, as indeed are her studio team. She spends her nights and her non-studio times there.
Part two is available now, read Kusama: 'I promised myself I'd conquer the world' here.
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