During the tragic years of the artist Yayoi Kusama in NYC

In 2019, New Yorkers waited in line for hours to see Yayoi Kusama’s show at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea – eager to get the latest Instagram selfie, the one in the artist’s famous mirrored rooms or with one of her spotted ones Posing pumpkin sculptures.

The recently opened show by the 92-year-olds in the New York Botanical Garden “Kusama: Cosmic Nature” with its colorful work on 250 hectares has already been sold out for days.

When Kusama first came to New York in 1958, she tried to attract crowds.

During her 15 years here, she did some of the work she is famous for today, such as the Infinity Net paintings, which cost up to $ 8 million. Kusama asked galleries early on to show their work. Most of them refused.

She believed male colleagues – including Andy Warhol, whom she referred to as a “close friend” – were copying her work.

It all resulted in a suicide attempt.

“Kusama faced terrible prejudice in the art world,” her old friend Hanford Yang, an architect and longtime Pratt professor, told The Post. “She was so good, but none of the big galleries would show her because she was one Japanese and two women. . . She fought in New York. She didn’t have any money. I’ve always seen her cry. “

Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Japan, in 1929 and grew up on a seed farm that had been family-owned for a century. She grew up surrounded by fields of flowers, where, as she says in the documentary “Kusama: Infinity,” she first had hallucinations – including violets “speaking” – that would inspire her art.

Some of the artists Kusama believed copied their work:

Kusama said in the film that her parents had an unhappy marriage and she was hired to spy on her father, who had a roving eye. Seeing him in a “sex act” created a lifelong fear of sex. She said she saw her art as a way to cope with the trauma.

She briefly attended the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts and wrote a fan letter to Georgia O’Keeffe, who, Kusama said, became her “first and greatest benefactress.”
Endeavoring to get to the US and become an artist, Kusama ended up in Seattle, then New York at the age of 27, just 13 years after World War II.

“This was a time when Japan was still an enemy in the minds of many in the United States,” said Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim. “And we know America can be a racist country. Hostility 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 her early Manhattan apartments as “hell on earth”. She used a door on the street as a bed and ate “from the fishmonger’s trash.” She painted all night to stay warm because there was no heat.

And she was “aggressive” in advancing her art, Yang said.

Kusama has described taking a “taller than me” canvas 40 blocks to Whitney’s exam and then rejecting it. She went to parties looking for patrons, crashed, and made friends with contemporaries like Warhol and Donald Judd. When O’Keeffe visited New York, she introduced Kusama to art dealers.

Kusama poses on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1968. Kusama poses on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1968. Getty Images

Yang credits Judd for introducing 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,'” said Yang. “And that was Kusama!”

Her first solo exhibition in October 1959 took place in a gallery started by artists. Judd checked it red-hot for ARTNews and bought one of the pieces for $ 200. The support of a respected male colleague has come a long way.

In 1962, Kusama began showing soft sculptures covering sofas and ironing boards with hand-sewn phallic shapes. “Nobody made soft sculptures,” she says in the documentary. Later that year, her colleague Claes Oldenburg made her debut with soft sculptures. Kusama felt that 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 papered the room with repetitive images of the boat. In her autobiography, she wrote that when Warhol, her “close friend” and “rival”, attended 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 dejected.

“She was very upset,” said Yang. “It was very similar. . . and no one did Kusama honor. “

In 1965, Kusama made her debut in her first mirror room at the small Castellane Gallery, which tried and failed to sell the piece for $ 5,000. (They now cost about $ 2 million a piece.) Months later, Lucas Samaras, an artist whose work is now in Whitney’s permanent collection, made his debut in a mirror room in the more established Pace Gallery.

According to the documentary, that was the last straw. Driven to commit suicide, Kusama jumped out a window – but landed on a bicycle and survived. Tired of feeling betrayed, 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 staging nude “happenings” in which she painted nude volunteers and took part in naked political protests against the Vietnam War. At this point her work has now been shown across Europe and she was a household name on the New York art scene, but financial success was still fleeting.

Although she was never married or had children, she had relationships, including the famous artist Joseph Cornell. The couple made a good match, Kusama said, because both “didn’t like sex”.

Kusama (pictured above, 1967) says she struggled in her early days in Manhattan.Kusama (pictured above, 1967) says she struggled in her early days in Manhattan.Getty Images

In 1972 he died of apparent heart failure. The next year, angry with the city’s art scene and the white men who controlled it, Kusama returned to Japan and sank deeper into depression, eventually checking into the Seiwa Hospital, a mental hospital where she still lives.

Now she says in the film: “I want to live forever.”

She kept creating, but New York City forgot about her. Then a curator tracked them down.

“I’ve heard of Kusama over and over again from all the Japanese artists who have been to New York,” Munroe told The Post. “They all kept asking, ‘Where can I see Kusama? Why not a Kusama? ‘. . . But there were no books about her in English. She wasn’t in one of the top galleries. It was as if the world had forgotten her. “

In 1989, when Kusama was 60 years old, Munroe curated Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective at the Center for International Contemporary Art in Manhattan, which helped her revive it on the international stage. It was also Kusama’s first return to NYC in 17 years.

A few years later, in 1993, Kusama represented Japan at the Venice Biennale. In 1998, Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968, highlighting Kusama’s New York years, debuted at MoMA.

Now that her shows have sold out around the globe, she is the most famous and successful living artist in the world. According to ARTnews, Kusama’s auction sales increased more than tenfold from $ 9.3 million in 2009 to $ 98 million in 2019.

Some of her early New York artwork – three paintings and eight works on paper – will be exhibited for the first time in Bonhams New York on May 12th. The auction house hosts the sale of the late Dr. Teruo Hirose. Kusama’s personal doctor and longtime friend. In a statement, Bonhams said this was “the rarest group of Kusama works from the late 1950s and 1960s that have ever been auctioned”.

Kusama still paints daily in her studio, which is a short walk from the facility.

Munroe said she wasn’t surprised by 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.”

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