Yayoi Kusama’s art fully emerged in a big way when she moved from Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, to New York in 1959. Despite the obstacles — she suffered from mental problems and was an unknown Japanese female artist in a milieu dominated by white male artists and critics — by the second half of the 1960s, Kusama had made her way to the forefront of New York’s avant-garde scene. She had even become a worthy rival to Andy Warhol for public notoriety.
The current exhibition at The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art showcases some of the work created at the peak of Kusama’s career in New York. Original posters, flyers, photographs and videos of events make up the bulk of this show, though there are a few artworks, including the grand installation “Dots Obsession” (2011). Though “Dots Obsession” is worth a visit on its own merits, the tangible artworks are not the main story here: This show is about the art that happened off the gallery walls, and in the streets and parks of New York City.
Art historian Midori Yoshimoto, who wrote “Into Performance,” a history of pioneering Japanese women artists in New York, explains in her book that Kusama was among the first women, who included Yoko Ono and Atsuko Tanaka, to leave Japan for America in order to pursue their art practice. It was a move made necessary due to the restrictive system of patriarchy and seniority that ruled the Tokyo art scene of the time.
Although Japan was at the fore of postwar avant-garde art, such an art form was not considered a socially acceptable pursuit for its women, and those few who went against society were not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Leaving Japan became an established pattern for women who sought artistic freedom.
What these women found in New York was indeed a vibrant scene, but it was also an environment in which they were doubly “othered” — as women and as Asians. The old geisha stereotype of Japanese women prevailed and anti-Japanese sentiment was still common among the older generations of Americans. Not only did Kusama, and others of her kind, overcome these obstacles and thoroughly benefit from the radical world of the New York avant-garde, but they also made important contributions to American art history. As Yoshimoto writes, Kusama helped bridge the avant-garde movements of America and Japan.
After arriving in New York, Kusama’s signature canvases of polka dots and net patterns expanded in size, until they started to fill all available wall spaces. Her paintings gradually became “environments” where sculpture and painting worked in combination, and she made a habit of staging elaborate photographs of herself inside these artscapes. From as early as 1963, she would hire professional photographers to take her picture with her artworks — often while wearing complementary costumes that she made herself, and sometimes while sporting nothing but polka dots. These photos are an easily overlooked part of Kusama’s work, but they were essential to her persona as an artist.
By 1966, Kusama’s artistic pursuits had moved outside gallery spaces and into the streets and parks of New York City. She would create unscripted performances or “happenings,” and her obsessions with dots and visual “self-obliteration” were reinterpreted through the objects and people around her. The term “body festival,” which is used in this exhibition’s title, specifically refers to a series of public-park art performances organized by Kusama in the summers of 1967 and ’68. It was these type of events that garnered enough attention from the press for them to give her the nicknames “Polka Dot Princess” and “Dotty.”
However, New York’s memory of Kusama faded in the following decades. On returning to Japan in 1971, she found it almost impossible to do the kind of art she had become famous for in New York. One attempt at conducting a public nude-painting session had her promptly arrested. It was not until the 1990s that her art career was revived through some major retrospective shows and exhibitions of her more recent artistic output. Her legacy to American and Japanese art is now rightfully recognized in both Japan and America, and we continue to enjoy Kusama as the living, breathing, multi-colored, polka-dotted treasure that she has become.
“Kusama’s Body Festival in the 60’s” runs till Nov. 27; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Wed. till 9 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.watarium.co.jp (Japanese only). Midori Yoshimoto’s “Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York” is published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.