How Yayoi Kusama Beat the Art World At Its Own Game
When Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama was shut out of the New York art world in the 1960s, she forged her own path instead.
Photo courtesy of Dogwoof
Due in part to the Instagram-ready aesthetic of her famous infinity mirror rooms, 89-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has become a household name over the last decade. According to new documentary Infinity, over five million people have visited her museum exhibits since 2014 alone. But her dominion over social media is perhaps the smallest piece of the jigsaw puzzle when it comes to Kusama’s success.
Seventeen years ago, filmmaker Heather Lenz sought to bring Kusama’s story to the big screen. After over a decade of funding applications, cross-continental trips between America and Japan, and “nos” from studio executives who couldn’t get their heads around profiling a non-American woman, Infinity has finally been released. It documents Kusama’s path from her mother ripping up early paintings she made as a child, to her artwork now commanding prices of over $7.1 million.
Kusama wasn’t always a success: no-one showed up to her first Japanese exhibition. Disappointed but undeterred, Kusama moved to New York in 1957. “When she goes to America she believes that she’s going to have a lot more opportunities,” Lenz tells me at a special UK screening of Infinity, in partnership with queer feminist magazine Polyester. "But she leaves behind one set of problems only to be faced with another set of difficulties.”
Recognizing the hierarchical, patriarchal nature of the art world, Kusama got creative. She’d encourage friends to walk into galleries and ask curators about her work, and date wealthy men who could help fund her early years in America. In 1966, Kusama famously rocked up at the Venice Biennale, uninvited, to sell her sculptures to members of the general public. But despite being a marketing maverick way ahead of her time, after years in New York still Kusama found herself with no money and no huge strides made when it comes to commercial success as the 1950s rolled into the 1960s.
Before starting the documentary, Lenz viewed Kusama as an artist whose “contributions to the American art world hadn't been properly understood, recognized, or appreciated.” But the 17-year-long process of creating Infinity made her realize how much Kusama’s career was held back by her gender and ethnicity. “You can see that she was doing work comparable to her male peers and yet their careers take off decades ahead of her,” Lenz tells me. And even though Kusama shopped her work around various galleries, she saw her ideas copied by male artists and time again.
Infinity shows Kusama exhibiting one of her soft sculpture sofas at a group exhibition alongside one of American sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s papier-mâché sculptures in 1963. Only a few months later, Oldenburg debuted his own soft sculpture, Giant BLT (Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich). Kusama claims in the documentary that Oldenburg’s wife Patty subsequently contacted her and apologized for her husband’s imitation of her work. On another instance, Infinity details Andy Warhol allegedly seeing Kusama’s Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, and subsequently exhibiting his own take on the wallpapered room with Cow Wallpaper.
And the pressure of moving to a new country in hopes of achieving success took a toll on Kusama’s already-fragile mental health. As Kusama went on to explain in her 2003 autobiography “Infinity Net,” ”I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.” Infinity explores how, as Kusama’s peers imitated her work and her art failed to sell, her mental health began to decline. “One thing that I do know is that after Claes Oldenburg decided to make his soft sculpture she started taking tranquillisers soon after,” Lenz says. After she stopped taking the tranquilisers, Kusama revealed in an interview with Lenz that she’d attempted suicide.
In a case of life imitating art, Lenz was also shut out by financiers and film industry executives as she struggled for nearly two decades to get Infinity made. “Most people in the industry have no empathy or understanding as to how much more difficult it is for women to get the funding or get their projects made,” she tells me. Lenz even had to put the film’s costs on her personal credit card during production. But the film industry at large seemed uninterested in having Kusama’s story told by a first time, female director. “People think about diversity on screen in fiction films but honestly the same applies to non-fiction,” Lenz says. “The people that control the money have the same mindset about what is going to make money and what isn’t.”
While those who quickly stumble through a mirror room may not consider her an overtly political artist, Kusama’s work is deeply rooted in social justice. She staged the first gay marriage in the United States in 1968 as part of a performance piece held at the Church of Self-obliteration on Walker Street, Manhattan. During the 1960s, Kusama began gaining celebrity status in the States, mostly linked to her large-scale naked performance art pieces, which were critically acclaimed, but commercially unviable. She opened naked painting studios, and would hold protests against the Vietnam War in places like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1969, she even painted her signature polka dots on nude performers at New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden in an unannounced and uninvited visit. Her work became critically acclaimed, but still commercially unviable.
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And with the publicity, came the backlash. Despite Andy Warhol throwing outrageous parties at Studio 54, Kusama was viewed as salacious. “Some of her male peers were doing happenings that were equally progressive or outrageous, but they didn't get the same kind of backlash that she did,” says Lenz. “And again, I think she recognized that that was because she was a woman. She just couldn't get away with the same things that her male peers did without being criticised.” Her peaceful protests became spectacle, and previous supporters began to turn. Ultimately, Kusama moved back to Japan, and moved into the psychiatric hospital where she has lived since 1977.
But opinion began to shift towards her work throughout the 1980s. “[It’s the] work that she did in the 1960s that largely contributed to the ability she had to have this comeback later,” Lenz argues. “All of these images exist of this progressive art and you see her pressing forward against all odds.” Kusama’s 1989 retrospective at New York’s Center for Contemporary Art that was a game-changer. “A tremendous amount of research went into making that show happen," Lenz says. "The care and attention they gave to shining a spotlight on her, after she hadn't had a show in New York in well over a decade...led to a ripple effect.”
While Kusama is now an exceptionally popular, and profitable artist, for the most part female artists don’t command the same prices as their male peers. The challenges Kusama faced throughout her life, documented in Infinity, are ones still echoed by the next generation of female artists. Watching Infinity is both a cautionary tale and one of inspirational affirmation. Kusama’s experiences serve as a warning of the crushing realities of the art industry, and the importance of never giving up.