From a wheelchair in a psychiatric institution, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama fires her bulbs once again, in the form of a new collection with Louis Vuitton.
Yayoi Kusama runs at 93St a lap of honor and everyone wants to be there. In Paris, the luxury house Louis Vuitton sprinkles its famous dots (polka dots) over a new line of clothing and accessories. This ‘LV x YK’ collection has been in stores for a few days. For Louis Vuitton, this is the second collaboration with Kusama in ten years.
Tate Modern in London also repeats an earlier collaboration. The museum has taken two ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ by Yayoi Kusama out of storage and opened them to the public, ten years after the first exhibition. The exhibition is long overdue, but has been extended to April 2, and tickets keep flying out the door. If you still want to walk around the mirror rooms of Kusama, you better hurry.
Elsewhere in the world, her work can be seen at this very moment in Doha, Hong Kong, Tokyo… Her lap of honor with worldwide applause has, of course, everything to do with her age. It’s kind of now or never.
Louis Vuitton calls her ‘the most successful living artist’, and that doesn’t sound exaggerated. Kusama is a world star thanks to her little art that requires little effort or prior knowledge: just colored balls, everywhere. She paints them on dresses for women, naked men, horses and especially herself.
It is no coincidence that Kusama is a generation of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jackson Pollock. Kusama’s onions are as easily recognizable around the world as Warhol’s soup can. She is the last survivor of the majestic generation of pop art and action painting.
And of course the Van Gogh effect plays a role in the appreciation of her work: there is madness in her brain and in her art. She doesn’t deny that either. Her schizophrenic traits are even the root of her polka dot.
Kusama was a ‘strange’ child. Born in 1929 in Matsumoto (Japan), the first symptoms began to bubble up around the age of ten. The flowers in the garden spoke to her. The tablecloth, with a red floral pattern, came to life and spread over the floor, the windows, the ceiling, over her and over the entire universe that eventually threatened to swallow her. Young Kusama fled upstairs, but the stairs disappeared and she fell. She described her hallucinations as ‘self-disappearance’. The child locked himself in his room and began to draw maniacally.
Before her eyes, orbs filled every room, and it became a leitmotif for the rest of her life and the trademark of her art. Variation is not necessary. Always bulbs, everywhere. ‘Repetition is the basis of my art’, she would later say. ‘I painted bullets on people’s bodies. These orbs make them disappear and return them to the universe.’
She woke up one morning in New York to find hundreds of bullets crawling across her windows. She panicked and called an ambulance.
Around the age of fifteen, she was approached by a pumpkin during a walk in the countryside, and another Kusama theme was born. Onions and pumpkins appeared in her drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations.
Another ten years would pass before psychiatrists pointed out her condition. Those conversations were a liberation, she would later say. No, pumpkins couldn’t talk and the bullets weren’t real, nor were they a real threat. Since then, she has referred to herself as “a practitioner of psychoanalytic art.”
Yet every day is still a struggle. She experienced how her mental health put a brake on her ambition to become a famous artist. In traditional Japanese culture, people with disabilities are inferior. After her art education in Kyoto, she decorated a few solo exhibitions in the community hall in her hometown and in shops in Tokyo. But there was no breakthrough. She lived in poverty in Japan. So she looked across the ocean, to a life in the United States, where she hoped to settle down.
Kusama left Japan in 1957 for the Promised Land. She had set her sights on New York, in her eyes the art city of the world. But they weren’t exactly expecting a little Japanese who barely spoke English and liked to walk around in traditional kimonos.
In Manhattan, minimalists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd celebrated their heyday. The latter would become her studio neighbor and ‘her first love’. And Kusama would (albeit with some delay) be embraced as an artist herself in New York.
The image of the tormented, slightly insane artist fits better with Western clichés. She was also labeled a minimalist herself, much to her own chagrin: ‘I am not a member of a school, a trend or a movement. My work is who I am. It’s personal.’ Acclaimed art journalist Roberta Smith agreed in The New York Times: “Ms. Kusama is an artist who fits in anywhere and yet stands alone.”
Fashionistas vs. macho
The art breaks also unanimously see her as a big name. She is recognized as a feminist pioneer – not unimportant in today’s art scene that wants to throw off the macho yoke.
Last year you couldn’t miss it. From the Venice Biennale to the Whitney Biennale in New York, women were the theme. Any museum director who doesn’t want to be labeled a misogynist looks in every nook and cranny for female artists to fill his walls. Yayoi Kusama fits perfectly into that image today.
Of course, this has not gone unnoticed at Louis Vuitton. Women’s fashion, feminism and headstrong pioneers: it appeals to fashionistas who want to make a statement, if necessary with colored balls.
Like Warhol, Kusama wraps her world of thought in consumer goods. She made millions with it. Fans and dollars.
She may have left behind the social pressures of Japan, but her mental demons traveled with her. The fear came when she least expected it: she woke up one morning in New York to find hundreds of bullets crawling across her windows. She touched them and her hand also grew. She panicked and called an ambulance. At the hospital, she was kindly advised to seek psychiatric help.
It was not a great success. The Freudian psychologists in New York wanted to talk about her authoritarian and unloving mother, who was a box she preferred to keep closed. She tried to live with her demons in Manhattan, but they would only grow.
In 1977, after returning to Japan for some exhibitions, Kusama broke up. She was admitted to an institution in Shinjuku and made a drastic decision: She decided to stay in the hospital for the rest of her life.
She built a studio in the building, where she still works today – albeit with the help of assistants, as Kusama has used a wheelchair for more than a decade. She retired from the world to work. Onion and pumpkin.
‘Nudism costs nothing’
We have to go back to the legendary year 1968. The protest against the Vietnam War grew. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated. In May, Andy Warhol was shot. In June, the politician Robert Kennedy was killed. And in July, led by Kusama, young people took off their clothes on the sidewalk outside the Wall Street Stock Exchange.
Before the eyes of bewildered stockbrokers, the naked men and women painted each other with colorful balls. The Wall Street Stock Exchange sponsored the Vietnam War, was the message. And according to Kusama, nudity is a form of anti-capitalism. ‘Nudism is the only thing that costs nothing.’
Kusama had already mastered a number of art forms: watercolors, drawings, installations… and now organized a series of performances that brought traffic to a standstill in Manhattan. This was followed by a game of cat and mouse with the police, and the performance was rounded off with an orgy somewhere in an attic. The newspapers loved it. Pictures of naked hippies on their covers increased circulation. Kusama, who called herself the ‘high priestess of the hippies’, happily played along. Each performance was nicely advertised with a press release.
At first glance, it seems incomprehensible that this anti-capitalist activist would want to collaborate with Louis Vuitton. But Kusama’s onion art can easily be translated into fashion. She had already proven that herself.
She opened her own store on Sixth Avenue in the 1960s. Bloomingdale’s department store in New York had a ‘Kusama Corner’. Dresses with… balls hung on the racks. Forty years later, she worked on a fashion line with Japanese designer Issey Miyake and launched a perfume with Lancôme. Like Warhol, she wraps her world of thought in consumer goods. She made millions with it. Fans and dollars.
Fashion houses are close to home for her – in the institution where she lives today. Louis Vuitton sponsored the ‘Mirror Rooms’ in London and her exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2012. Marc Jacobs, then creative director at Louis Vuitton, suggested a ‘Yayoi Kusama’ line. And that idea is refreshed ten years later with a new ‘LV x YK’ collection.
For the hippies’ high priestess, the luxury house Louis Vuitton is not the enemy, but a platform forSt once again showing her name and work to the world. “Our collaboration ten years ago provoked a great response. I also see this project as an opportunity to share my artistic philosophy and thoughts with everyone.’