Revolution Treehouse: Yayoi Kusama

Welcome to Revolution Treehouse, your corner of the Lawrentian for all things creative, outspoken and change-making! Art of every form is an evocative and efficient vehicle for political ideas, ranging from the protest music of the Vietnam War era to the graffiti transformation of confederate monuments during summer 2020. This column aims to share great art and cool facts about important historical and contemporary social movements with the Lawrence community because knowledge and inspiration make us powerful. Welcome to Revolution Treehouse!

Yayoi Kusama, one of the most celebrated pop artists alive today, turned 92 on March 22. Known for hypnotic infinity net paintings, penis chairs and an obsession with dots, Kusama’s work is based upon “developing [her] psychological problems into art” (Lenz). She was born in the Japanese castle town of Matsumoto, from whence she escaped her conservative family to New York City. She worked there in its art world for many years, challenging the closed-minded, white-male-dominated world of museums and art collectors with her aggressive installation projects and public happenings.

From a young age, Kusama has struggled with mental illness. One day, while sitting in her family’s flower fields with a sketchbook, she experienced the flowers surrounding and speaking to her. “I had thought that only humans could speak,” Kusama recalled, “so I was surprised the violets were using words. I was so terrified my legs began shaking” (Adams). Hallucinations such as this one haunted her childhood, and she used art as a coping mechanism to process her experiences. She reflects that “[w]henever things like this happened I would hurry back home and draw what I had seen in my sketchbook… recording them helped to ease the shock and fear of the episodes” (Adams). When Kusama would draw, her mother would sneak up and tear the pictures away from her because she wanted Kusama to attend etiquette school instead of pursuing art. Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum, has speculated that the childhood trauma of having her art stolen still informs her artistic process. Indeed, Kusama creates art at a furious pace, perhaps out of a deep-seated fear that it will be torn from her before she can complete it. 

Snatching away her art isn’t the only trauma Kusama’s mother inflicted upon her, however. During childhood, her mother would send her to spy on her father’s extramarital affairs with other women. When Kusama reported what she had witnessed, her mother would “vent all her rage on me,” Kusama wrote in her autobiography (Adams). Kusama’s phallic soft sculpture work expresses her trauma at witnessing a parent have sex with a stranger. She wrote, “I began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust toward sex. My fear was of the hide-in-the-closet trembling variety. I was taught sex was dirty, shameful, something to be hidden. Complicating things even more was all the talk about ‘good families’ and ‘arranged marriage’ and the absolute opposition to romantic love… Also, I happened to witness the sex act when I was a toddler, and the fear that entered through my eye had ballooned inside me” (Adams).

Kusama came across Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings in a book shop in Matsumoto and was very struck by them. She wrote to O’Keeffe asking for advice on how to survive as a painter. O’Keeffe encouraged her to bring her paintings to the United States and show her work to anyone she thought would be interested. When the time came, leaving Japan was difficult largely due to her family’s opposition to her dreams. Their aspirations for her, driven by patriarchal cultural norms, were to make a ‘good’ arranged marriage and become a traditional Japanese housewife, but Kusama set her sights on a successful career as a painter. Before escaping to the United States, Kusama burned about 2,000 paintings by the river near her home and promised herself that “[she] would paint much better than these” (Lenz). In 1958, she took up residence in New York City, as one of the first artists from postwar Japan to immigrate there. When she first arrived in New York, Kusama promised herself that she would “conquer New York and make [her] name in the world with [her] passion for the arts and [her] creative energy” (Lenz). 

Because of the rampant racism and sexism of the era, Kusama struggled to be taken seriously by the New York City art establishment; both her womanhood and Japanese heritage counted against her in the white, cis male-dominated art world. She managed to get her art into galleries alongside pop art idols such as Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, only to have her innovations appropriated. Oldenburg, who made sculptures in paper mache at the time, suddenly switched course to soft sculptures remarkably similar to Kusama’s. Midori Yamamura speculates that Oldenburg didn’t think of creating sculptures out of sewing until he saw Kusama’s artwork, cynically noting that sewing is “very unmasculine” (Lenz). Oldenburg rose to international stardom because of this uncredited appropriation.

Kusama’s first installation, “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show,” was very inventive: she covered a rowboat and its oars in phallic, soft sculpture protrusions, and then photographed the boat, turning it into wallpaper that she used to line a gallery. The boat sat in the middle of the gallery, surrounded by images of itself. Kusama noted that Andy Warhol came to the show, and “that influenced him, and then he had a show. He covered the wall with images of a cow. When I saw it, I was very surprised. Andy picked up what I did and copied it in his show” (Lenz).

The burden of having her brilliant ideas ignored by the art world, and then stolen by white male artists, proved nearly deadly. Kusama reflected that “I became so depressed one day, and the next day, I became more depressed. And then, I just jumped from the window. If I had landed on my head, I would have died, but there was a bicycle, and I fell on it” (Lenz). 

In the 1960s, Kusama staged anti-war demonstrations in New York City; her experience growing up during World War II led her to protest the Vietnam War through provocative, attention-commanding performance art, including naked dances and naked body paintings. She believed that “such a horrible war should never be repeated,” saying, “I made my art to try and change people’s minds about the love in the world that can last forever, and I wanted to spread hope to the world through my artwork. In New York, I did many big anti-war happenings. Several thousand people protested against the war with me” (Lenz). When Nixon was re-elected in 1972, the US became more conservative and it became even more difficult for marginalized artists to push boundaries and find work. Helaine Posner, Chief Curator of the Neuberger Museum of Art, observed that “[t]he system was set up to support white male artists, who were carrying on the tradition of modernism” (Lenz). 

In protest of the so-called ‘modern’ art world’s “closed-minded system” and attachment to tradition, Kusama staged a ‘happening’ (her name for her performance art) in the New York City Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden. She wrote a press release entitled “Thoughts on the Mausoleum of Modern Art”, in which she inquired, “What’s modern here? I don’t see it. While the dead show dead art, living artists die” (Lenz). 

Kusama chose to return to Japan in 1973, but she struggled to find a footing in the Japanese art world. She was treated like a “scandalous presence,” and journalists sought to portray her negatively in the media (Lenz). Kusama’s mental health worsened during this time; her experience of mental illness was “as if an invisible curtain rolled down and I felt separated from my surroundings. And then, when I was drawing, the drawing would expand outside of the canvas to fill the floor, and when I looked in the distance, I would see a hallucination and I would get surrounded by that vision” (Lenz). Her traumatic childhood memories prevented her from painting, and she attempted suicide a second time. 

The turning point came when she discovered a psychiatric hospital with a doctor who practiced art therapy. She checked herself into the hospital in March 1977 and has lived there ever since; the safety of that environment allowed her not only to begin creating art again, but to maintain a thriving career for several decades. Her art studio is two blocks away from the hospital, allowing her to walk to work every morning and return to the security of the hospital at night. Frances Morris, the director of the Tate Modern art gallery in London, observed that “the strains and stresses of life, the memories, have forced her to withdraw. But what she’s always done, she has always managed that process very well […] There’s a sort of a managing madness about Kusama […] She’s used her trauma to enormously productive ends” (Lenz). 

When asked how living in a psychiatric hospital benefits her, Kusama replied that it “made it possible for me to continue to make art every day, and this has saved my life” (Adams). She certainly creates as though obliterating herself through her art is the only way to find herself.