To make Accumulation No. 1, her first sculpture, Kusama covered an armchair with scores of hand-sewn stuffed and painted protrusions, which she referred to as phalluses. “I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this obliteration.” When she first exhibited this work in New York, her home throughout the 1960s, critics were, perhaps not surprisingly, shocked by the sexualized transformation of an ordinary domestic object by a female artist.
Gallery label from "Collection 1940s—1970s", 2019
Accumulation No. 1 is the first in an ongoing series of presciently feminist sculptures by Kusama. When the twenty-nine-year-old artist arrived in New York from Japan in 1958, she had already developed what she called an “infinity net” motif: a signature pattern of interlocking cellular forms that she painted on room-size canvases with the stated goal of covering “the entire world.” This ambitious fantasy spurred her to expand the infinity net and its variants—repeated dots and phallic protuberances—into three dimensions. In 1962 she began a group of sculptures composed of household furniture that she covered with stuffed and hand-sewn canvas phalluses and then painted. Though their sexual explicitness is hard to ignore, critics at the time prudishly avoided any mention of this aspect of the works. Kusama made Accumulation No. 1 in her Manhattan loft, which was located in the same downtown building as the studio of her friend the artist Claes Oldenburg. An early example of soft sculpture, it resonates closely with Oldenburg’s stuffed canvas sculptures of supersized domestic objects made around the same time. It was shown at the Green Gallery in New York in late 1962, along with works by Oldenburg and others, in what was widely considered the first group exhibition to focus on Pop art.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
"My sofas, couches, dresses, and rowboats bristle with phalluses,” Kusama once said. The “phalluses” to which she refers are swatches of cotton duck canvas, stuffed with cotton and coated with enamel paint—the same materials used by the most celebrated men of the New York avant-garde, including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The plump armchair in Accumulation No. 1—Kusama’s first sculpture—bursts with limp phalluses of varying lengths. In keeping with the repetition so central to her process, she hand-sewed each one of these protrusions. Critics were shocked by her humorous, sexualized transformation of an ordinary domestic object. Kusama explained that she “began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust towards sex. Reproducing the objects…was my way of conquering the fear.” It was also her way of disempowering the repressive patriarchal society she left behind in Japan and the machismo that then dominated the New York art world.
Additional text from In The Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting online course, Coursera, 2017