Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, now 80, is having a show of her recent work at Gagosian in New York. For a long time Kusama has been an enigmatic figure in the art world. She is famous for her obsessive dots and loops, covering furniture and entire rooms with stuffed “penises.” Diagnosed with the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) Kusama’s art can be seen through a number of different lenses. A recent article in the New York Times by Alexi Worth helps contextualize that discussion. Here’s an excerpt from Worth’s article:


When the elevator doors finally opened, a potbellied man with a fringe of gray hair bounded into the room, followed by a crew of gear-laden assistants. Araki, the most famous Japanese photographer, was an ebullient self-caricature. Grunting, laughing, shouting orders and dirty jokes, he seemed a mischievous antidote to the notion of Japanese reserve. The assistants scrambled to set up a tripod and a pair of giant lights, and to seat Kusama in front of one of her radiant new paintings, so that Araki’s performance could begin: squatting, swiveling, lunging back and forth between Kusama and his equipment, he moved through the small, crowded space with an enchanting unpredictability. After 10 minutes, he was sweating profusely. The rest of us watched him, more or less transfixed. But Kusama sat motionless, silent, never smiling, showing no response to Araki’s virtuosic patter. For most of an hour, she stared unblinkingly into the cameras, her gaze projecting a fixed, dour blankness.

I had seen that look before. In a famous Hal Reiff photograph from 1966, the young Kusama, as beautiful as any pinup, lies naked on a sofa covered with hundreds of phallic protrusions, wearing only painted polka dots and high-heeled shoes. It’s her eyes that transform what might have been a frivolous Surrealist premise (Playmate in Penisland) into something unexpectedly somber and unsettling. In posed photographs, Kusama nearly always looks back at the camera with a similar odd, mute intensity. I had assumed that her deadpan was a deliberate choice, a way of managing her public image. Perhaps only Picasso, with his habitual black-eyed ‘‘power stare’’ (the mirada fuerte), controlled his own photographic demeanor as consistently.

Watching her with Araki, though, I began to wonder if Kusama’s gaze was less strategic than accidental: the look of a woman whose emotions were damaged, or at least inaccessible to her physiognomy, who simply could not smile. Of course, I knew that Kusama lives in a psychiatric hospital, a small white building we had passed on the way to the studio. But it had never occurred to me that her sense of humor, which seemed so central to the work of hers that I loved best, could have been rendered invisible by her illness. After Araki left, we sat back down at her conference table. I told her it seemed odd to me that a woman whose art was so often comic, and even outrageously funny, should smile so seldom. ‘‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’’ she answered. There was no anger in her voice, but she whispered something further in Japanese to an assistant. The assistant leaned over to me: that was it. The interview was over.

I had hoped, in thinking about Kusama, to sidestep the question of her mental condition, which I suspected had been mythologized and perhaps blown out of proportion in recent years by critics, by journalists and, above all, by Kusama herself. Instead, later that evening at my hotel, I found myself scanning Psychiatry Online, joining the legions of amateurs who have speculated about her strangeness. The starting point for all such investigations — given the silence of her doctors — is Kusama herself. In 1975, at the lowest point in her career, she published an autobiographical essay, ‘‘Odyssey of My Struggling Soul,’’ that included vivid memories of childhood hallucinations, depression and suicide attempts. ‘‘I don’t consider myself an artist,’’ she declared; ‘‘I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability which began in my childhood.’’

Probably more than any other living artist, Kusama’s case highlights the tensions inherent in the division between mainstream and outsider art. Is great art the conscious effort of brilliant minds, or is it an outpouring of freakish individuality? Kusama’s is clearly both. Claiming to be utterly uninfluenced by any other artist or school, she pictures her art-making as a purely therapeutic necessity: ‘‘art medicine.’’ And yet her artwork has been understood, by her friend Donald Judd and others, as a uniquely sophisticated response to the predicaments of 20th-century modernism. At times, Kusama can seem like a grandmaster who claims not to play chess but who just happens to feel like moving his pieces into winning positions. Of course, this invites skepticism: some people doubt the severity of her mental illness, while others blame the ‘‘gullible art market’’ for overvaluing the work of a woman who never properly understood what she was doing. Kusama herself, delighted by her escalating auction prices but paranoid about the least implication of indebtedness to any other artist, has retreated ever further into gurulike ambiguities. ‘‘When I work on a piece,’’ she told me in an e-mail message, ‘‘I have no conception of what I want to create. With my hands doing the work on their own, a work is finished before I know it. Thus, my fantastical works yet unknown to me are produced one after another. . . .’’