“At one time, I was even more famous than Andy Warhol”
Browsing the work of Yayoi Kusama I’m unsurprised that her fame was once greater than Warhol’s. Both artists worked in NYC in the 60s, ran with a similar crowd, and enjoyed similar amounts of attention. Kusama has had a long, productive career in which she experimented with the use of pattern, repetition, and recurring themes of obsession. Her work could arguably be considered a forerunner of both pop art and minimalism, influencing artists from the likes of Oldenberg to–as mentioned before–Warhol himself.
So what happened to Kusama?
While Kusama is still well represented in galleries, museums, biennales and more, she’s hardly the household name that Warhol is. An extreme comparison, of course, as Warhol is one of the few artists most people outside of the art world know about. But even compared with her contemporaries of non-Warhol-ian fame, such as Eva Hesse and Donald Judd, Kusama seems to get the short end of the recognition stick. I personally had not heard of her until a brief mention in my Queer Looks class, in which she was referenced for her piece Homosexual Wedding.
Kusama had an impressive group of friends and supporters, with Georgia O’Keeffe acting as a mentor when Kusama first came to New York; connecting her with galleries and potential buyers, giving advice, and even offering a place to stay. Kusama made further connections with artists such as Hesse, Judd, Cornell and more, immersing herself within the art scene of the time.
Kusama has one of the most interesting backgrounds as an artist I’ve ever seen; a childhood spent living with an abusive mother and womanizing father, dealing with the hallucinations and neurosis connected to her mental illness, and eventually leaving her home behind to make it big in the art scene. I try not to romanticize mental illness, as it’s very common for art historians to depict very real problems as a quirk or affectation of the artist’s persona, but Kusama is the first to claim that her illness greatly affects her work. In fact, the colorful and repetitive polka dot patterns that are so common in her pieces are a result of her hallucinations in which patterns leave their objects to cover entire rooms.
Kusama says of her work, “I am an obsessional artist. People may call me otherwise, but I simply let them do as they please. I consider myself a heretic of the art world. I think only of myself when I make my artwork. Affected by the obsession that has been lodged in my body, I created pieces in quick succession for my new ‘-isms.'”. Continue reading