Japanese sculptor, painter, writer, installation artist and performance artist. She received little formal training, studying for one year at the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts in 1948. In 1957 she moved to the USA, settling in New York. She was very ambitious, using her position as a non-American woman and her history of mental illness to create a flamboyant public persona. As a child she had experienced hallucinations, often in the form of fields of dots, which were to become central motifs in her art, with her own interpretations of her work drawing heavily on this personal mythologizing. She produced large paintings known as Infinity Net Paintings, such as No. A. B. (1959; Toyotu, Mun. Mus. A.), which consisted of the repetition of small looped paint marks. These paintings were received enthusiastically by artists such as Donald Judd, who saw her work as reflecting the emerging Minimalist aesthetic.
In the early 1960s Kusama began to cover items such as ladders, shoes and chairs with white phallic protrusions. Accumulations No. 2 (1962; Hood Mus. A., Dartmouth Coll.), consists of a sofa covered with these soft cloth lumps, which are both absurd and threatening in their transformation of such a familiar object. These works are more directly about sexuality and identity than her paintings, with the protrusions covering and immobilising objects in a parody of phallic power. Kusama’s manipulation of her position as a female artist is demonstrated in the publicity shots taken at this time, for which where she posed seductively with her objects (see 1990 exh. cat.). Around this time Kusama began to make installations, often including these phallic protrusions, as in Infinity Mirror Room–Phalli’s Field, (1965; see 1990 exh. cat., pl. 80). Here Kusama used her signature polka dots to decorate the stuffed phalli, which were placed in a mirrored room to give the illusion of an endless surreal field of objects. Kusama also made collages from photographs of these objects and installations, often incorporating shots of herself. Between 1967 and 1969 she concentrated on performances held with the maximum publicity, usually involving Kusama painting dots on her naked performers, as in the Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MOMA (1969; see L. Hoptman and others, p. 117), which took place at the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. These works ensured that Kusama was constantly in the limelight both as an artist and as an eccentric personality. During her time in New York, her work was linked with both Minimalism and Pop art, but it was never assimilated by any one artistic movement, as her work constantly evolved during this period. In 1973 she returned to Tokyo, where she began to write fiction, and in 1977 she settled permanently, at her own instigation, in the Seiwa Hospital in Tokyo as a result of her mental illness. When she left New York she was practically forgotten as an artist until the late 1980s and 1990s, when a number of retrospectives revived international interest. Another turning point in the reassessment of her importance occurred in 1993, when she represented Japan in the Venice Biennale. Her art at this time drew on motifs from her earlier sculptures, as in Shooting Stars, (1992; Niigata, City A. Mus.), which combines phallic protrusions with a grid structure, sprayed silver rather than painted white as in the Accumulations series. These later works expand on the theatricality of her earlier installations and performances, with the use of primary colours and highly stylized dots and patterns bringing an accentuated sense of hyperreality to Kusama’s already well-established trademarks.
Catherine M. Grant
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press