Yayoi Kusama is 82 years old. But when she is wheeled in, on her blue polka-dotted wheelchair, she looks more like a baby, the sort you might see played by an adult in a British pantomime. Her face is large for a Japanese woman and at odds with her smallish frame. Apart from her intense, saucer-shaped eyes and the arc of deep red lipstick across her mouth, there is something masculine about her features. She wears a lurid red wig and a dress covered in engorged polka dots. Coiled around her neck is a long red scarf decorated with worm-like black squiggles. When she is out of the spotlight, without her splashy red wig and garish outfits, she looks like a nice, grey-haired old lady. But in public situations Kusama’s art and Kusama the artist converge. It is as if the patterns she has obsessively replicated since childhood have seeped off the canvas and into the three-dimensional world of flesh and blood. Rarely has an artist so clearly articulated the art of the Sixties as the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. The significance of her work has to do with the specific time period in which she grew up and her perception of art is determined by an inner energy. Her work also transcends earlier established and traditional border lines between disciplines of art and between art and life itself. Kusama’s career is rooted in her Japanese origin. Born in Matsumoto in 1929 she studied at the Arts and Crafts School in Kyoto. In 1957 she moved to New York, which was at the time the world center of contemporary. This move was based on her early awareness that only in New York could she continue her development as a contemporary artist. During the years she lived in New York it become apparent that compared to the conventional image of the Japanese woman, she was a human dynamo of creative energies and abundant human resources. The results of these first years in the art of Kusama were large paintings, one of them 33 feet long, of white nets which, without center and compositional features, obsessively covered the canvas with such intensity that one had the feeling the nets could continue beyond the borders. “My nets grew beyond myself and beyond the canvasses I was covering them with. They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe. I was standing at the center of the obsession over the passionate accretion and repetition inside me.” (Kusama)
These early works with their radical and hypnotic repetitive energies were first exhibited in small, unknown galleries in New York and Washington. It wasn’t long before they made an international impact and were shown in the Monochrome Painting Exhibition in the Museum Schloss Morsbroich in Leverjusen, Germany in 1960. This international exhibition was a comprehensive documentation of a new concept in the arts after World War II and included works by Lucio Ponatana and Piero Manzoni from Italy, Mark Rothko from the USA, Yves Klein from France, and Otto Piene and Guenter Uekcker from Germany. Yayoi Kusama was the only representative from Japan, and her work was a unique and independent articulation of the new art.
The early Sixties in New York were years of experimentation, and one of the prime innovators in context became the Japanese immigrant Kusama. She expanded the thematic core of her work into themes like sex obsession and repetitive imagery which only much later were related to terms such as Pop Art and artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. Since 1962 Kusama has created soft sculptures, sometimes also referred to as a sewing-machine sculptures, and pieces of phallic furniture which gave expression to her underlying obsessive motif of sex. In connection with one of her early shows in the Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York in 1963 she said “these new types of sculptural works arose from a deep driving compulsion to realize in visible form the repetitive image inside of me. When this image is given freedom, it overflows the limits of time...
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