Nearly four decades ago, following a meteoric rise and turbulent free fall in Manhattan’s art-world Babylon, Yayoi Kusama checked herself into a Tokyo mental institution, where she’s never ceased realizing her hallucinatory visions. With a new Louis Vuitton partnership, a stunning Rizzoli monograph, and her latest career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the 83-year- old artist’s life and work have finally come full dot.
YaYoi Kusama is an artist reclaimed. Once as prolific as Warhol, the Japanese painter, sculptor, performer, and writer retreated from public view after critics grew impatient with her spate of publicity stunts in the late 1960s. (She licensed her name to the X-rated newspaper Kusama Orgy, opened a gay social club called Kusama ’Omophile Kompany, or KOK, and instructed her disciples to hand out fliers in Manhattan’s Financial District that read, “Obliterate Wall Street men with polka dots.”) Then in her 40s, Kusama exiled herself to Tokyo. Broke and depressed, she checked into the mental institution where she’s resided ever since. In 1996, as a testament to how devalued her work had become, one of her ’60s-era phallic chair sculptures was found in an East Village junk shop with a $250 price tag.
Now 83, Kusama has finally returned to the city that once failed her with a triumphant retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In early July, two days before the Whitney show opened to staggering acclaim, Louis Vuitton shops dedicated to the artist’s signature red and white polka dots started popping up around the globe. Instead of the classic regal LV pattern, the luxury retailer decorated its purses and pumps, among other items, with Kusama’s dots. This September, Rizzoli will release a new monograph of her work, filled with 275 pages of images that span her life and six-decade career, including
her earliest patterned “Infinity Net” paintings and her grandiose mirrored room installations.
What Kusama’s concurrent book release, Whitney show, and worldwide Louis Vuitton campaign represent isn’t just a career resurgence, but the realization of her lifelong quest to become a bona fide star. It’s the forceful and beautiful imposition of her consciousness on everything she touches, and her reaching to touch everything she can: canvas, body, museum, and even shopping mall. Her art is bubbling and expansive, looping and recursive. For Kusama, everything is nothing and the same, emptiness and infinity all at once.
BULLETT: What is the difference between a polka dot and a circle? What does a polka dot mean that a circle does not?
YAYOI KUSAMA: Dots are cubic, but circles are flat. Dots are easy to move in the universe. Moon, stars, and people—we are made of dots. And they are infinity. Circles are not infinity, and have no active movements. They are controlled by rational human minds.
What do you think your brain looks like?
The image of it is always changing, and it’s difficult to explain my own brain. I think it would be much easier if someone else describes the image of my brain.
In 1968, you wrote an open letter to then-President Richard Nixon, offering to sleep with him if, in return, he’d end the war in Vietnam. How do you think history would have changed if he’d taken you up on the offer?
He would have been disqualified as the president, and we’d have ended that evil in history since it was his idea to start the war. It was a relief that the public could make it stop, but I don’t believe my open letter to him would have changed his mind.
Where do art and fashion intersect?
Art and fashion were separated in the past. Now the new era has come and they are in the same field. Only recently have leading artists started using “art” and “fashion” as synonyms. Thinking about them separately is boring for me, so I think about them equally.
What is infinite about love? Can there be never-ending love as intimated by your exhibition, Kusama’s Peep Show, from 1966?
Infinity is the most intriguing subject for humans. Endless love is created from the wishful thinking of humans. Love is both finite and infinite. Love, hate, and even the whole universe can be described as infinite—everything will be absorbed in the trial and error of our desires. What excites me the most when I am writing poems and stories is the word “love.” Poetry, infinite love for the sun, imaginary worlds, and stars—these cosmic subjects can be transformed to the most beautiful things when they are crowned with love. I didn’t start to mention endless love in 1966; I have been talking about this since I was little. Love also contains the nihilistic meaning.
How much has a scientific view of the universe, a universe composed of atoms and particles, shaped your work?
My room is always full of books related to the universe. I use many titles in my work that come from particle astronomy and quantum mechanics. I keep studying and reading books to solve questions about the sun, moon, Earth, and gravity through my paintings. I’ve always been into how the Earth plays its role in the universe.
What inspired your first work of art?
When I was little I went to a dried riverbed and put various-sized pebbles in a line, and I was so interested in the gravity and weight of them.