Love, Sex, Life, Death, and Seattle with the Dot Artist I'm More Interested In: Yayoi Kusama's New Autobiography
by Jen Graves
on Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 3:45 PM
On a shelf in the art section at Elliott Bay Bookstore, a new book just caught my eye: Infinity Net, the English translation of Yayoi Kusama's autobiography. Kusama is the artist Dan posted about a few weeks ago.
Kusama is a fascinating figure well-known to artists, but not a household name. In her 80s, she continues to be a major force, respected and loved. She's known for her polka dots, for their ability to obliterate her if she uses enough of them. And she's also known for her obsessiveness. She lives in a psychiatric hospital, where she checked herself in.
Today she's in Japan. But she made her first great impressions—and friendships with artists like Joseph Cornell (her one great love? It seems that way from the autobiography), Andy Warhol, and Donald Judd—in 1960s New York.
And in Infinity Net, I find that her American journey started in Seattle.
Seattle was the first American city I set foot in. The owner of Seattle's Zoe Dusanne Gallery, who had helped debut such artists as Mark Tobey and Kenneth Callahan, had offered to exhibit my work.
I knew no one in Seattle apart from Mrs. Ota, whom I had met previously in Tokyo, and George Tsutakawa, a sculptor who taught art at the University of Washington. I knew that I had sealed a very challenging fate for myself. I was starting out on a crazy new life and was bound to run into trouble at every turn. But the joy I felt at finally arriving in America, after painstakingly piecing together every possible connection, far outweighed any anxiety about the hardships ahead.
In December 1957 the Dusanne Gallery staged my first solo show in the USA. Included were twenty-six watercolours and pastels, including Spirit of Rocks, Ancient Ceremony, Ancient Ball Gown, Fire Burning in the Abyss, Flight of Bones, and Small Rocks in China. I was featured on a radio programme called Voice of America to talk about the exhibition, as well as my impressions of the United States.
The exhibition was a resounding success. But I thought of Seattle as only the first step in my reckless journey. My final destination had always been New York; having reached the foot of the mountain, I wanted to climb to the top. The people in Seattle urged me to stay, but I felt I had no choice but to leave them behind and set out on the next adventure.
A page later, when she arrives in New York, she writes, "Compared to Seattle, this city was hell on earth. ...before I knew it I was living in abject poverty."
Over the years, Kusama established herself as a pacifist and a free thinker when it came to sex. Many of her performances incorporated nudity. It earned her the scorn of her homeland, where sensational headlines (and sometimes outright lies) made her a national pariah. Her mother told her she wished she'd died in a childhood disease. The girls' school she'd attended took a vote to ban her name from its alumnae roll. When she returned to Japan over the years, she found it abhorrently traditional yet also painfully Americanized/modernized, calling herself a Rip Van Winkle.
At my Burn the Panties Happening in New York, Mary had set her underwear on fire. Japanese women, too, needed to strip off their panties, set them ablaze, and liberate themselves sexually. The wife whose husband has left her weeping should herself go and participate in an orgy, or openly attend partner-swapping parties.
The University of Tokyo, with its famous Red Gate, was in my opinion nothing more than a symbol of male chauvinism. I believed we should tear the whole place apart and turn it into a platform for teaching the arts of homosocial and sexual intercourse. I was even prepared to bring my gay friends from New York and set myself up as the first female president of the school. In any case, I felt that most Japanese, both men and women, were essentially ignorant about sex and completely repressed.
But it wasn't—isn't—just Japan.
At the time, the USA—to say nothing of Japan—was still far from being sexually liberated. Of course, the road to complete sexual liberation is a long one.
Whatever people may say, I believe that the present situation, with sex pulled from its pedestal and looked down upon while all the males jerk off, is contrary to the wise providence of Heaven. We must have a sexual revolution, at all costs. In order to accomplish this I felt I would have to work like mad, and so that is just what I did.
At the same time, Kusama admits being freaked out by the idea of her own body penetrated by a penis. She writes frankly about her non-consummated relationship with Joseph Cornell—the two of them making out passionately, but neither one able to have actual sex. She remembers their mutual nude sketching sessions at his freezing place on Long Island.
But that room never did warm up. ...Joseph was not one to think of things like that. He was absolutely nothing like your average earthling.
He had suggested the nude sketching because he wanted to see my body, and he lost no time in getting my clothes off. 'Let's both get naked, then,' I had said. 'We can draw each other.' So there we were in our birthday suits and the unbearable cold of the Long Island winter. No heat in the entire house, and not even any decent food to eat. Joseph's shabby clothes lay in a pile on the floor of a squalid room. It was, all in all, a pretty wretched scene.
As for those 26 watercolors and pastels exhibited in Seattle in 1957, at least one has shown up at auction.
Perhaps the same one she refers to as Spirit of Rocks appears on Christie's web site as Rock Spirit, with the Zoe Dusanne Gallery listed in the provenance. (No other titles she mentions come up in a basic search.)
Rock Spiritsold in March for $52,500—wayyyyyyy over its $7,000-$10,000 estimate—and looks like it has not been exhibited publicly since its Seattle showing. I would love to know who bought it, and what they plan to do with it.