Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 1, 2017
Midori Yamamura Yayoi Kusama: Inventing the Singular Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 256 pp.; 4 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $30.95 (9780262029476)
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A legendary artist with an extraordinary life story and a larger-than-life persona, Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is a difficult subject for study, which leaves little room for diverse interpretation. Her account of mental illness and the fact that she has been living in a psychiatric hospital since the mid-1970s—upon returning to Tokyo after struggling in New York for recognition and success in the 1960s—have shaped not only public perception but also scholarly analysis of her artwork. When she reappeared on the international art scene in the early 1990s after two decades of relative obscurity, scholarship and criticism of her practice proliferated, but mostly examining it through a feminist or psychoanalytic theoretical lens and focusing on her phallic sculptures and installations that she produced in the early 1960s. But it is important to remember that it has been Kusama’s choice to live in the psychiatric facility, and it is she who has claimed her “mental illness,” framing it as the source of her originality. For example, in her autobiography, Kusama details how she has overcome since childhood endless traumatic experiences of hallucinations and other endless mental and social challenges with her strong will to live and create art (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, trans. Ralph McCarthy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). Clearly, Kusama has actively partaken in her own persona cultivation—a reason why some speculate her self-proclaimed illness may be part of a lifelong publicity strategy. Her life story sounds too fabricated to be real, but also too real to have been fabricated. A dilemma is that while Kusama’s biography has become an essential component of her practice, it is a precarious source for scholarly and critical analyses of her art, especially since disinterestedness has a long history in the disciplines of art history and criticism.

In Yayoi Kusama: Inventing the Singular, Midori Yamamura attempts to resolve this issue by looking objectively at Kusama’s practice and biography and locating them within a broad scope of postwar art and social history. Based on thorough archival research, which includes most importantly Kusama’s hard-to-access personal archive, this book presents not only the most detailed account but also the most comprehensive understanding published to date of the development of the artist’s art and life from the 1940s through the 1960s. Yamamura states that her focus is to “examine how Kusama and her artist peers, coming from differing geographical cultural, racial, and gender positionings, variously compromised and defied key issues of modernity” in the period following World War II (2). Yamamura does not assume Kusama as an exceptional case, but examines her career in social and cultural contexts of globalization and international avant-gardes: namely, the inter- and post-war Japanese social and art-scene situations (chapter 1), the postwar international zeitgeist for abstract art as practiced by artist groups such as Dutch Nul, German Zero, and American Abstract Expressionism (chapter 2), the expansion of the New York art market in the 1960s around the rise of Pop art and consumerism (chapter 3), and the late 1960s psychedelic culture and counterculture activism (chapter 4). In so doing, Yamamura reveals Kusama as an “essentially nonconformist,” who has never stopped challenging herself to make an original art and believing in art’s power to inspire social change (13).

It is unfortunate that such a singular, extensive book on Kusama could not include images of much of the artist’s work. Yamamura explains that when the book was in progress Kusama said she might consider providing images only after reading the full manuscript in a Japanese translation—a hint of her sensitivity about her public image. As a result, Yamamura “chose to maintain a professional distance from [her] subject,” making the wise decision to publish the book without receiving Kusama’s feedback on the content and therefore without including relevant image materials (xiii).

The strength of this book lies in its objectivity, which is firmly grounded in Yamamura’s rigorous research and veracious analysis. In particular, her fruitful access to Kusama’s archive enabled her to clarify how the story of “mental illness” has developed. The artist’s personal documents, including hospital papers, verify her testimonials of strokes, suicide attempts, and therapy sessions as true facts, and they confirm that Kusama does suffer from anxiety neurosis, although “the intensity of these experiences beyond the artist’s claims is unclear” (3). During the 1950s and 1960s, Kusama’s art was “never discussed in terms of hallucinations or mental illness,” but after she entered a psychiatric hospital in 1977, “the articles on Kusama in both English and Japanese published after 1977 somehow characterized her as a mentally ill artist, in a way that effectively makes her an outsider to the dominant histories of painting and sculpture” (3).

Kusama’s hospital records reveal that her mental and physical health declined notably while in New York in the 1960s. During that period, she had at least two major nervous breakdowns, one of which apparently involved her suicide attempt in November 1962, leading to her hospitalization in a psychiatric ward for the first time in her life; it also resulted in heavy psychotropic medication—Milton during the day and Doriden at night (114). Yamamura argues that it was after receiving these medications that Kusama began to mention hallucinatory experiences more frequently and elaborately (114). Yamamura suggests that both the artist’s breakdown and her attempt to dramatize her hallucinations are caused by the aggravating stress the artist was undergoing due to her perceived marginalization in the New York art world, which was at the time increasingly concentrated on promoting Anglo-American male artists associated with the emerging Neo-Dada and Pop art movements. In fact, it was eleven days after Claes Oldenburg’s successful opening of his first “soft sculpture” exhibition that Kusama is recorded to have taken Doriden for the first time in her life (114).

In her autobiography, Kusama claims that Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Lucas Samaras, who exhibited with her in the early 1960s, stole her ideas of (respectively) soft sculpture, use of multiplied and repeating images, and mirrored rooms, to cement a legacy in the art-history canon (39–42). By contrast, Yamamura, reconstructing the milieu as an art historian, portrays Kusama as one of the pioneering artists of the early 1960s who embraced everyday objects and motifs (which would soon lead to the formation of New Realism, Neo-Dada, Pop, and Minimalism) and who shared a cultural atmosphere and each other’s inspirations. For example, Yamamura acknowledges that Kusama’s soft sculpture (a series of found objects covered with phallic forms she began to sew in the winter of 1961) is one of her “most original contributions to the New York art world,” but also suggests that Kusama’s use of found household objects may have been inspired by Oldenburg’s The Store, which opened in December 1961 (108). The idea of mirrored room installations, which Kusama began producing in 1965, is not necessarily her invention either, and she may have seen the Swiss artist Christian Megert’s Mirror Environment, a centerpiece in the Nul Exhibition in 1962 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which she attended as one of the exhibition’s participating artists (76–80). Yamamura also compares and contrasts Kusama’s collages and Warhol’s first silkscreen paintings in ways to emphasize their differences: Warhol “avoided making a clean repetition of the transferred images of the illustrated one-dollar bill by intentionally fading some parts,” while Kusama was interested in using mechanically produced stickers and objects (106).

Readers might be surprised to find so much of this book on Kusama dedicated to discussing other artists. Yamamura’s meticulous analyses of works by Kusama’s contemporaries—whether or not they were ever in direct contact with the artist—are a special gem of this unusual book. They include, among many familiar names in postwar art history such as Barnett Newman and Yves Klein, underdiscussed artists like Tadaaki Kuwayama (a Japanese abstract artist who moved to New York in 1958), Heinz Mack and Otto Piene (the two founders of German Zero), and Aldo Tambellini (a leading countercultural figure and intermedia artist, who once sponsored and collaborated with Kusama). Furthermore, Yamamura closely examines Kusama’s works that have previously been underexplored, for example, her “wartime sketchbook” from the 1940s, the “Plexiglas structure” she showed at the Nul Exhibition, and her various audio-visual-light performances of the later 1960s.

As a whole, Yayoi Kusama: Inventing the Singular delivers a complete history of the artist by scrupulously examining how her work and life developed amid and against the currents of the times. By demystifying Kusama from biographical obfuscation, Yamamura successfully proves that this approach cannot do any harm to what Kusama has accomplished as an artist. This objective history of Kusama rather clarifies her pivotal role in art history and strengthens her status as a legend. A tremendous contribution to discourses on Kusama and her milieu, Yamamura’s study is also recommended to anyone interested in postwar art history and avant-garde art.

SooJin Lee
Assistant Professor, Liberal Arts, Hongik University, Sejong Campus, South Korea

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