Inside artist Yayoi Kusama’s tragic years in New York
In 2019, New Yorkers lined up for hours to see Yayoi Kusama’s show at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea – eager to get the Instagram selfie of the moment, posing in the artist’s famous mirror rooms. or with one of his dotted pumpkin carvings.
Now the 92-year-old show just opened at the New York Botanical Garden, “Kusama: cosmic nature”, with its colorful work scattered over 250 acres, is already selling for whole days.
But when Kusama first arrived in New York City in 1958, she struggled to draw crowds.
During her 15 years here, she’s done some of the works she’s famous for today, like the Infinity Net paintings which cost up to $ 8 million. Early on, Kusama begged the galleries to show his work. Most refused.
She believed her male peers – including Andy Warhol, whom she called a “close friend” – copied her work.
All of this led to a suicide attempt.
“Kusama faced terrible prejudices in the art world,” his old friend Hanford Yang, an architect and longtime Pratt teacher, told the Post. “She was so good, but none of the big galleries wanted to show her because, firstly, she was Japanese and, secondly, she was a woman. . . She wrestled in New York. She had no money. I used to see her cry.
Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama grew up on a seed farm that had been in her family for a century. She spent her childhood immersed in fields of flowers, which she says in the documentary “Kusama: Infinity” is where she first had hallucinations – including “talking” violets – which inspired his art.
Some of the artists who Kusama says copied his work:
Kusama said in the film that her parents had an unhappy marriage and that she was tasked with spying on her father, who had a wandering eye. Seeing him in a “sexual act” led to a permanent fear of sex. She said she saw her art as a way to overcome trauma.
She briefly attended Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts and wrote a fan letter to Georgia O’Keeffe, who became, Kusama said, her “first and greatest benefactor.”
Eager to come to the United States and be an artist, Kusama landed in Seattle, then New York, at age 27, just 13 years after World War II.
“It was a time when Japan was still in the minds of many Americans as an enemy,” said Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim. “And we know America can be a racist country. Animosity towards Asians has been an integral part of social and political reality for centuries. It must have been very difficult for her.
In her autobiography, Kusama describes his first Manhattan apartments as “hell on earth.” She used a door found in the street as a bed and ate “from the fishmonger’s garbage.” She painted all night to keep warm as she had no heat.
And she was “aggressive” in pushing her art, Yang said.
Kusama described transporting a canvas “taller than me” 40 blocks to the Whitney for examination, to be rejected. She went to parties looking for clients, crushed events, and befriended contemporaries like Warhol and Donald Judd. When O’Keeffe visited New York, she introduced Kusama to art dealers.
Yang thanks Judd for introducing him to Kusama at Judd’s apartment on Park Avenue South and 19th Street.
“He said he wanted to introduce me to a ‘wonderful artist who will be a great artist in the future,’” Yang said. “And that was Kusama!”
His first solo exhibition, in October 1959, was in a gallery created by artists. Judd reviewed it with praise for ARTNews and bought one of the pieces for $ 200. The support of a highly respected male peer has gone a long way.
In 1962, Kusama began showing soft sculptures, covering sofas and ironing boards with hand-sewn phallic shapes. “No one was doing soft sculpture,” she says in the documentary. Later that year, his peer Claes Oldenburg made his debut in soft sculptures. Kusama felt he had stolen the idea. “His wife pulled me aside and said, ‘Yayoi, forgive us,’” Kusama said.
In 1963, she landed a solo exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery, her very first installation. “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show” featured a boat covered in soft phallic shapes; she also carpeted the space with repetitive images of the boat. In her autobiography, she wrote that when Warhol, her “close friend” and “rival”, came to see the show, he shouted “Yayoi, what is this? It’s fantastic! ”A few years later, when Warhol plastered the walls and ceiling of the famous Leo Castelli Gallery with repeating cow wallpaper, Kusama was crushed.
“She was very upset,” Yang said. “It was very similar. . . and no one gave Kusama credit.
In 1965, Kusama made his debut in his very first mirror room at the small Castellane gallery, which tried and failed to sell the piece for $ 5,000. (They now go for around $ 2 million each.) Months later, Lucas Samaras, an artist whose work is now in Whitney’s permanent collection, debuted in a mirror room at the Pace Gallery, more established.
According to the documentary, it was the last straw. Driven to suicide, Kusama jumped out of a window – but landed on a bicycle and survived. Fed up with feeling ripped off, she covered the windows of her Greenwich Village studio to prevent other artists from seeing and copying her ideas.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kusama began directing nude “Happenings”, where she painted nude volunteers and participated in nude political protests against the Vietnam War. By this time, her work was now featured all over Europe, and she was a household name in the New York art scene, but monetary success was still fleeting.
Although she never married or had children, she has had relationships, including with famous artist Joseph Cornell. The couple were a good match, Kusama said, as they “didn’t like sex together.”
But in 1972, he died of apparent heart failure. The following year, dissatisfied with the city’s art scene and the white men who controlled it, and sinking deeper into depression, Kusama returned to Japan and eventually registered at Seiwa Hospital, a mental institution. , where she still lives.
Now, she says in the movie, “I want to live forever.”
She continued to create, but New York forgot her. Then a curator found her.
“I heard about Kusama from all the Japanese artists who were in New York City,” Munroe told the Post. “They kept asking, ‘Where can I see Kusama? Why not Kusama? . . . But there were no books on her in English. She wasn’t in any of the best galleries. It was as if the world had forgotten her.
In 1989, when Kusama was 60, Munroe organized “Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective” at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in Manhattan, which re-launched her on the international stage. It also marked Kusama’s first return to New York in 17 years.
A few years later, in 1993, Kusama represented Japan at the Venice Biennale. In 1998, “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968,” which highlighted Kusama’s New York years, made its MoMA debut.
Now, with her shows sold worldwide, she is the world’s most famous and successful living female artist. According to ARTnews, Kusama’s auctions have more than increased tenfold, from $ 9.3 million in 2009 to $ 98 million in 2019.
Some of his New York art debuts – three paintings and eight works on paper – will be on display for the first time at Bonhams New York on May 12. The auction house hosts the sale of the collection of the late Dr. Teruo Hirose, Kusama’s personal physician and longtime friend. In a statement, Bonhams says it is “the rarest group of works by Kusama from the late 1950s and 1960s to ever be auctioned.”
Kusama still paints daily from his studio, a few steps from the institution.
Munroe said she was not surprised at Kusama’s success.
“A great artist is someone who changes the way we think and Kusama is,” Munroe said. “She wanted to change the world [and] she has.”