In November 1968, as the bodies continued to pile up in the killing fields of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon had just been elected to his first term as president of the United States, a young Japanese artist named Yayoi Kusama sent him a letter in the spirit of peace and free love. “Our earth is like one little polka dot, among millions of other celestial bodies; one orb full of hatred and strife amid the peaceful, silent spheres. Let’s you and I change all that and make this world a new Garden of Eden,” she wrote.
Later in the letter she seems to suggesting that he sleep with her in exchange for his ending the war. “Let’s forget ourselves, dearest Richard, and become one with the Absolute, all together in the altogether. As we soar through the heavens, we’ll paint each other with polka dots, lose our egos in timeless eternity, and finally discover the naked truth: You can’t eradicate violence by using more violence. This truth is written in spheres with which I will lovingly, soothingly, adorn your hard masculine body. Gently! Gently! Dear Richard. Calm your manly fighting spirit!”
Over the past two decades, the 92-year-old Kusama has become a global phenomenon and the Instagram queen of the art world – the most frequently tagged living artist on the platform. The Tel Museum of Art recognized the public’s thirst for some culture (and the fact that people are still hesitant about popping over to New York or Paris), and have collaborated with the Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin on a huge Kusama exhibition. The exhibition has been described by The Art Newspaper magazine as one of the 10 best in the world for 2021. It will soon be opened to the public, and over 150,000 tickets have already been sold.
The Tel Aviv Museum is part of a global trend. Following the COVID-19 lockdowns, it got the green light to bring back major exhibitions of leading artists, both living and dead. Museums the world over are now putting up exhibits to designed to attract large audiences: The Guggenheim Museum in New York, for example, is showing Kandinsky; and the Albertina in Vienna, Modigliani.
The exhibition’s curator is Suzanne Landau, formerly the director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and currently the partner of art collector Steeve Nassima in the Nassima Landau gallery. She says that the idea to do a Kusama show was already emerging when she was leading the museum. It matured during the coronavirus pandemic, when she was working with curator Stephanie Rosenthal of Gropius Bau and with Studio Kusama in Tokyo.
Landau turned to the current director of the museum, Tania Coen-Uzielli, who agreed to meet the challenges of putting together an unprecedented exhibition for an Israeli institution. “There have already been large and complex exhibitions in Israel, like Ai Weiwei in the Israel Museum [in Jerusalem] and Louise Bourgeois in the Tel Aviv Museum, but this is the largest and most complicated,” says Landau. “It’s also bigger than most Kusama exhibitions worldwide. It’s a 3,000-square meter [32,000 square foot] exhibition.”
The exhibition costs millions of shekels – the museum is not revealing the exact sum – and there have been a large number of donations by various organizations, like the Mifal Hapayis national lottery and Bank Hapoalim in turn.
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A start at age 5
The exhibition is spread out over six areas in the museum’s two buildings, and is largely organized chronologically. It begins in the main building, with early works created by Kusama in the city of Matsumoto, her birthplace, between 1934 and 1957. It includes a piece she did at the age of 5, when she was already painting small polka dots on her face.
The same space features a gouache and ink drawing from 1954 depicting the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan, which ended World War II. Later, there are pioneering works, infinite networks that she created after moving to New York in the late 1950s. Next to them are three-dimensional objects from the “Accumulation” series, and her first two “Infinity Rooms”: “Phalli’s Field” and “Infinity Mirrored Room – Love Forever,” both from the 1960s.
The historical chapter continues with a survey of Kusama’s 1960s exhibitions, installations and films, including those featuring orgies and nudity, as well as works she created after her return to Japan in 1973. There is a record of her return to somewhat melancholy painting in the 1970s and ‘80s, and the development of the pumpkin motif that made her so popular.
Gropius Bau’s Rosenthal writes in her article that Kusama began depicting pumpkins in her work – which would go on to become the trademark of her art – in 1946. “Pumpkins are a motif which goes back to her childhood in the Japanese countryside. Pumpkins were also involved in her early hallucinations, which would involve fields of flowers speaking to her.”
After crossing the bridge connecting the museum’s historic building and its new one, visitors arrive at Kusama’s contemporary work. It is represented by two new installations that she created especially for the exhibition: an infinity mirrored room called “The Eternally Infinite Light of the Universe Illuminating the Quest for Truth,” and a hanging installation called “A Bouquet of Love I Saw in The Universe,” which is composed of a sort of enormous octopus in shades of pink with black polka dots.
An entire gallery is devoted to dozens of paintings that she has been creating since 2009 – seven of them were painted in the past year – which provide a glimpse into the present stage of her work. In the center of the space is the installation “Narcissus Garden,” which she created for the Venice Biennale in 1966, where uninvited, she displayed 1,500 plastic mirror balls on the lawn outside the Italian pavilion. In 1993, she received an official invitation to exhibit in the Japanese pavilion in Venice – the first woman to receive the honor.
Offering sex to Nixon, accusing Warhol of plagiarism
Most visitors are taking their selfies in the mirrored infinity rooms or among the polka-dotted elements, but Kusama’s biography and works go much deeper than Instagram-worthy shots. Her art, like her private life, is daring, wild, uninhibited and innovative. She was born in 1929 to a well-to-do family, started painting in her childhood and suffered from hallucinations from the age of 10. In 1948, she was accepted to the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts and studied in the Nihonga style, which was influenced by traditional Japanese painting. Her family objected to her studying art.
Japanologist Prof. Ory Bartal, head of the Visual and Material Culture Department at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, published a series of posts on Facebook about Kusama and notes that in Japan, women were barred from studying art until after World War II. “Only in 1946 was a law passed enabling women to study at the arts academy, and Kusama was one of the first women to study art,” writes Bartal.
“Had she been unable to study art, it is doubtful whether, in spite of her talent, her strength and her courage, she would have received an entry ticket to the art world,” he writes. “She’s a pioneer because she studied at a time when few women studied art. Moreover, even the few women who did so did not build a career in the field, and left their studies to marry and raise children, or continued as assistants doing very traditional painting in men’s studios. She, on the other hand, broke many glass ceilings.”
In 1955, out of a desire to become part of the avant-garde scene, Kusama sent a letter to the American artist George O’Keeffe, and included some of her watercolors. Due to O’Keeffe’s encouraging reply she decided to leave Japan. She briefly moved to Seattle in 1957, and a year later settled in New York. In 1962, Kusama surprised the art world with a new body of work, when she began to create three-dimensional objects – her aggregate sculptures. She covered domestic items, like a sofa, an armchair and an ironing board, in hundreds of phallic protuberances composed of tightly stuffed fabric. They forcefully and intensively revealed Kusama’s interest in sexuality, and some of them are on display at the Tel Aviv exhibition.
Artist Donald Judd, her neighbor, who was apparently also her lover, used to help her drag items that had been tossed onto the street into her studio, and to stuff the innumerable phalluses. In the catalogue, Landau and Rosenthal quote Kusama as saying that her fear of sex, which originated in her childhood, played a decisive role in this series of works.
“I began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust towards sex. In any case, I was terrified of sex and of the phallus. My fear was of the hide-in-the-closet-trembling variety. And it was precisely because of this that I made tons and tons of the shapes. That helped me to heal the wounds in my heart.”
One of the roots of this fear was that, as a child, Kusama was exposed to her father’s extramarital affairs, when she was sent by her mother to spy on him. In later years, she would more noticeably burrow obsessively into her fears in order to create aggregates or repetitions of the same object.
The preoccupation with sex continued, and became more sophisticated. In 1965 she create her first infinity room in the exhibition “Phalli’s Field (Floor Show),” which is now on display in Tel Aviv. Kusama covered a room with mirrors and the floor with white phallic shapes adorned with red dots. The idea was to turn herself and the viewers into an integral part of the work. In her article, Rosenthal writes that the reviews of the exhibition were very critical, and were even lewd and misogynistic, which emphasized the “otherness” of the artist as a woman who came from Japan.
According to a review published in The New York Post: “The artist, Kusama, calls it ‘Sex Garden.’ The mirrored walls of the gallery reflect the images endlessly. Kusama, a diminutive Japanese girl with long black hair, pretty enough to decorate an environment, says of her work, ‘Everyone has problems with sex, but I do not think we should take them too seriously. I myself delight in my obsessions and have chosen red polka dots for my garden because they are gay and yet they suggest spots like the spots of the disease. This disease is the attitude of the human race toward sex, which is a sick one.’”
The reviews didn’t really interest her and she continued to create provocative works and shows. In 1968, shortly after sending the letter to Nixon, she initiated what she called “the first homosexual wedding in the United States.” She also designed the costumes for it. “Both the bride and groom will wear a fantastic ‘orgy’ wedding gown, designed for two instead of one. Clothes ought to bring people together, not separate them,” Kusama wrote in the press release.
She also said that “The purpose of this marriage is to bring out into the open what has hitherto been concealed. Love can now be free, but to make it completely free, it must be liberated from all sexual frustrations imposed by society. Homosexuality is a normal physical and psychological reaction, neither to be extolled or decried.”
In 1969, she created the installation “Grand Orgy to Awake the Dead.” She invited participants, who stripped in the fountain of the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden and painted polka dots on their bodies. “In the 1960s, she was already well aware of the connection between art, public relations and publicity,” says Bartal. “She organized the installation down to the last detail and did PR for it, but she didn’t coordinate the event with the museum.”
The museum staff, who were surprised to see the public arriving in the garden, sent security guards to stop the event while the photographers were documenting the scandal, and the event was covered on the first page of the tabloid the Daily News.
Kusama’s innovations and bold, multifaceted creativity positioned her at the heart of the New York art scene. Some of her male contemporaries adopted her style, copied from her and earned even greater fame for it. Landau cites three in particular: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Lucas Samaras. Several months after Kusama exhibited her aggregate sculptures from soft materials at the Green Gallery, Oldenburg had a show of soft sculptural works at the same gallery. Landau says that Oldenburg’s wife apologized to her. “Like many women artists, she would only receive recognition for her work many years later,” Landau says.
In 1963, Kusama presented an exhibit entitled “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats” in which she covered the ceiling and walls with the replicated image of a boat, and in 1966, Warhol debuted his cow wallpaper design with the replicated image of a cow. In her autobiography, Kusama wrote: “Andy Warhol came to the opening and shouted, ‘Yayoi, what is this?’ His next words were ‘It’s fantastic!’… “When Andy papered the ceiling and walls at the Leo Castelli Gallery with silkscreen posters of a cow’s face, it was plainly appropriation or imitation of my One Thousand Boats Show,” she wrote.
The aggression of the men around here was apparently one of the reasons she decided to return to Japan in 1973. Another explanation was her fragile emotional state. Rosenthal suggests another possibility: “her letter to Udo Kultermann, written in February 1973, suggests that she was also very focused on matters of business during this time, which may have dictated why she chose to relocate.” she writes.
In the letter, Kusama wrote: “I have been here in Tokyo since last Christmas for promotion of art work. . . . I was working on my musical in New York some time, but the money is very tight there and it is hard to live there selling my art work. . . . I have come to think it is better to work and earn money here and spend it in New York. New York, I think, is no longer the place to make fortune [sic.]. … Above all I can sleep peacefully for the first time in several years without fear. . . . I see no future in New York.”
Despite her hopes to make art and earn money there, Kusama was unknown and misunderstood in Japan. She was looked upon as “the queen of naked happenings” or as “a national disgrace.” When she wanted to organize a naked happening, the authorities prevented it and the police arrested her. In 1977, she was placed in a psychiatric institution in Tokyo, where she continues to create art to this day in her nearby studio.
During that same period, she began to write. She published her novel “Manhattan Suicide Addict” and went on to write about 20 books. Over the years, she had completely faded from public consciousness. “What helped her come back was writing books,” Landau says, “and later on, her show at the Venice Biennale in 1993.”
Forget your phone
Artist and art historian Dr. Ayelet Zohar devoted a whole book to Kusama. She voices dismay about what she feels is excessive focus on the artist’s biography rather than on her groundbreaking work. “She is proof that the whole foolish belief that Japanese culture is all about ‘zen’ and that attempts to label Japan as minimalistic is one big mistake. It reduces the concept of Japan to one overly narrow aspect. She is a Japanese artist in every fiber of her being, but yet so far from that prettified description.”
Zohar says that Kusama’s uniqueness lies in the way she “creates an immersive environment that breaks down the hierarchical system. She makes the viewer part of the environment, and not someone who controls it through their gaze. She breaches the skin of the objects. She experiences the world in a different way from the masculine position that is concentrated on itself, and expresses her art from an emotional place as well.”
Bartal explains that “the story of the crazy artist who makes art from the depths of her psyche works very well. And also that she makes products that can be sold. She has lots of products for people who don’t understand or know art and just think it looks cool. Her aesthetic directly appeals to the taste of the masses. It’s important to say that she does not make the products for PR purposes. She is a pop artist and this is what artists of the genre do.”
The remarkable publicity she has gained in the past decade also has to with the selfie culture. Professor Yair Amichai-Hamburger, director of the Research Centre for Internet Psychology at Reichman University (IDC) in Herzliya, says: “When we take a selfie it’s like we’re attaching ourselves to the work of art. Kusama is very accessible. She breaks boundaries with her endless octopus arms and her installations with mirrors. Her work doesn’t hide you, and you don’t stand beside it. Instead, you become part of it. And that is its power. We blend into her works, and that becomes part of their dynamism and infiniteness.”
He recommends detaching yourself from your cell phone while visiting the exhibit. “When we’re always taking pictures, we’re not there in the present. There’s an illusion that we are in the present, but we are not truly there.”
Coen-Uzielli, the museum director, says she didn’t expect such an enthusiastic response to the exhibit so soon. “It shows that people understand what this is about and Kusama’s greatness. It’s not just people that want to come take selfies. People who are really interested in art have also been left dumbfounded.” She hopes that the relaxed COVID restrictions on travel will bring tourists from abroad as well.
“We are thinking about adding more visiting hours in the evening and keeping the museum open until midnight on Thursdays, but we won’t stay open 24/7,” she says with a smile when asked how the museum will be able to meet the great demand for the show, which is due to close in April 2022. She also knows that the real challenge will be to hold onto this audience. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to maintain a long-term relationship with them all, but the museum, with its variety, appeals to a lot of people.”