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Artist Yayoi Kusama dressed in a red wig and red and white outfit

What Makes Yayoi Kusama the Epitome of the Rebel Artist


One of the world’s most famous artists, her essence and her story are undoubtedly those of a great rebel (as this interview shows).

A huge mottled pumpkin, an infinite room made of mirrors: with but these two images, a name will come to mind: Yayoi Kusama (Matsumoto, Japan, 1929). During the past few decades, she’s established herself as one of the most recognized contemporary artists in the world. Her exhibitions, universes replete with signs and reflections, attract thousands of people and her faculty for speaking of the infinite is like that of no other artist. Kusama, in her rarity, embodies something rather easy to neglect due to her fame: the archetype of the rebel artist.

But Kusama is not just a great rebel. She’s an artist whose singular sensibility has allowed her to work despite her outsider status, as an alienated woman, as a sick woman. She’s a person with a mental disorder, a woman who triumphed in a world of men, who emigrated from her native country, and whose work has never been cataloged within a broader artistic movement. But even more, she’s an architect who’s delineated as nobody has done before, the power of repetition, of the infinite, of macro and micro-universes, and of reality’s multiplication.

In 2000, the publishing house Phaidon published a book on the work of Yayoi Kusama. It includes an interview with the artist by the Japanese poet and critic, Akira Tatehata. The document shows Kusama at her most intimate, extravagant, alien, and capricious, and she describes her relationship with her own image, one that has resisted being categorized, again and again, these many decades.

Below is a short extract from this interview:

Ms. Kusama, after many years of being viewed as a kind of heretic, you are finally gaining a central status in the history of postwar art. You are a magnificent outsider, yet you played a crucial, pioneering role at a time when vital changes and innovations were taking place in the field of art.

During 1998–99 a major retrospective exhibition of your early work (“Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958–1968″) toured major museums in the United States and Japan. How did you feel when you looked at your past works again?

Well… if I were not Kusama, I would say she is a good artist. I’d think she is outstanding.

However, you had to fight one difficult battle after another before you came to this point.

Yes, it was hard. But I kept at it and I am not at an age that I never imagined I would reach. I think my time, that is the time remaining before I pass away, won’t be long. Then, what shall I leave to posterity? I have to do my very best, because I made many detours at various junctures.

Detours? You may have experienced hardships, but I don’t think you wasted your time. You have never stopped working.

I have never thought of that.

Your self-formation was grounded in Japan. Still, you did not flaunt your identity as a Japanese artist.

I was never conscious of it. The art world in Japan ostracized me for my mental illness. That is why I decided to leave Japan and fight in New York.

In any case, while in Japan you had already produced numerous works, most of which were drawings. It is true that in your encounter with New York’s atmosphere your worked flourished, beginning with the spectacular large-scale canvases such as your Infinity Net paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Still, the nets and dots that dominate your early New York works are clearly prefigured in the small drawings you made before your move to America. These nets and dots are predicated on a technique of simple, mechanical repetition; yet, in a sense, they also epitomize hallucinatory visions. At that time, were you interested in Surrealism?

I had nothing to do with Surrealism. I painted only as I wished.

I once wrote that Kusama was an “autonomous” Surrealist; which is to say that without you having had any direct knowledge of the Surrealist movement, the outburst from your singular, fantastic world characteristically appeared to converge with the world of the Surrealists. To put it another way, André Breton and his colleagues began this movement by methodologically legitimizing the world of those who possessed unusual visions such as yours.

Nowadays, some people in New York call me a “Surrealist-Pop” artist. I do not care for this kind of labelling. At one time, I was considered to share the sensibility of the monochrome painters of the early 1960s; at another time I was regarded as a Surrealist. People are confused and don’t know how to understand me. Regardless, some want to call me a Surrealist, trying to pull me to their side, others want me in the camp of Minimal art, pushing me in the other direction. For example: Henk Peeters, an ex-member of the European Zero Group, came to the opening reception of my exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1998. He phoned his former Zero Group colleagues all over the world and told them to come and see my show; but I had no special relationship with Zero. All I did was do what I liked.

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