Yayoi Kusama Working

KUSAMA! Top Multiple Portrait of Kusama (1966) photograph by Eiko Hosoe, then Yayoi tripping out in Woodstock, then having her way with some strawberry jam, then sprawled out at Kusama’s Peep Show or Endless Love Show (1966), then witching about in her pumpkin mirror room (1991).

Making one of these lady working posts on Yayoi is pretty much a cheater’s task. I’ve come across a couple of studio shots where she is making paintings in the late 50’s–

In her early New York days, Yayoi worked continuously on dot field paintings like these, which she called infinity nets. Infinity Net is also the name of her autobiography, which is definitely worth a read. And when you read it, you find out that she thinks of this work as “psychosomatic,” exploring themes of eternity, nature, emptiness, hallucination, obsession, compulsion, accumulation, and repetition, among others. In doing so, she hopes to confront and obliterate her deepest anxieties.

These early studio snaps are rare ones. Yayoi was very much in control of how she was portrayed producing her work. Most of the many, many images of Yayoi working are not mere documentation, but collaborative works between herself and the photographer that aim to achieve the same artistic goal as her infinity nets and accumulation installations: she is absorbed into the art she makes. A lot of her work was performance art, so that makes sense. Such is also the case with this embellished print she made for the Dutch magazine TIQ in 1966—

Another way she accomplished this absorption was by covering all the actual surfaces around her in the same patterns she was making on canvas, first by applying paint on objects—

Driving Image (1959-64)

Then paint on her body in a painted environment—

“…a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

Then she took to the park and the streets—

Horse Play in Woodstock, a happening that happened in 1967

At the New School for Social Research (1970)

Where she got to painting many many many many many other bodies—

At the Love-In-Festival in Central Park (1968)

Over the course of the 60’s, especially at the height of the Vietnam War, Yayoi staged over 200 “Happenings” in public spaces around New York City and abroad. The performances included body painting, fashion shows, orgies, and anti-war demonstrations in which Yayoi would cover the bodies of participants with her signatures polka dots.


Balcony photo by Herve Gloaguen

In  An Open Letter to My Hero, Richard M. Nixon, she wrote “Our earth is like one little polka dot, among millions of other celestial bodies, one orb full of hatred and strife amid the peaceful, silent spheres. Let’s you and I change all that and make this world a new Garden of Eden…. You can’t eradicate violence by using more violence.”

Anti-war Naked Happening, New York, 1968

Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street (1968)

“The money made with this stock is enabling the war to continue. We protest this cruel, greedy instrument of the war establishment.”

Alice in Wonderland performance in Central Park, August 11, 1968

Body painting for Yayoi’s film Self Obliteration

Self Obliteration (1967) in three parts:

Another obliteration.

She also worked the obliteration theme with reflective globes—

Narcissus Garden, Kusama’s contribution to the 1966 Venice Biennale.

And, of course, with phallic soft sculpture forms all over everything—

Golden Shoes, 1965

Accumulation furniture, 1964

Accumulation No. 1 (1962). Photo by Rudolph Burkhardt.

Collage (c. 1966, no longer extant) with photograph by Hal Reiff of Kusama reclining on Accumulation No. 2

With Accumulation No.2 at her studio in New York (1962)

Eikoh Hosoe and Yayoi Kusama, 1964

And polka dotted phallic shape soft sculptured covering everything! What Kusama called “a sublime, miraculous field of phalluses.”—

With Accumulation pieces at her studio in New York (c.1963-64)

Two installation views of Infinity Mirror Room–Phalli’s Field (or Floor Show) at the Castellane Gallery, New York (1965). Photograph by Eiko Hosoe.

When I read her memoir, I was surprised to learn that Yayoi’s phallus fixation was born of her terror of sex and disgust with wieners, a fear that has endured for her. Previously, I guess I believed her whole free love image and many penii suggested that we confront sexuality and embrace sex. And maybe that is what she suggests for the rest of us. But for herself, not so much…..

With her Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show installation at the Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York in 1963 and later at a retrospective in 2011.

Yayoi also had a straight up fashion line, Kusama Fashion Company Ltd., that sold in straight up stores, like Bloomingdales. She also had her own boutique and staged fashion shows all over Europe. Her clothing continued on the polka dot theme and also explored her dual interests in obliteration by obscuring the body beneath giant experimental muu-muus and peace and freedom through odd moments of nudity, a theme that emerged from her Happenings.

So good, right! No smiling.

Years later in 2012, you may know, she launched a collaboration with Louis Vuitton. She was 82 years old at the time and still not smiling. But shaper than ever! And now always with the red wig, hurrah! I feel like this late, extra-fancy work achieves her longstanding goal of exploring eroticism, voyeurism, and sensuality through psychedelic polka-dotted pattern.

By this time, Yayoi had been living for nearly 40 years as a voluntarily inpatient at a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, where she still lives. She maintains a studio nearby where she works every day.

Yayoi has said that would like to live to be at least 300 years old. As long as she has the energy, she will keep working.

Photo by Jason Schmidt

P.S. Several of the most fantastic images I found for this post I found on The Looniverse site, and nowhere else. Check that spot out!

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