The Last Pop Artist

Yayoi Kusama: The Last Active Pop Artist

Susana Ramudo

From a mental institution to the Whitney Museum of Art, the Japanese artist has had a convoluted life and a successful career. Considered the last active pop artist, her work with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton made her a cult fashion icon.

Yayoi Kusama is considered the last remaining figure of pop art that is still active.The artist has a special relationship with New York City. In 1957 she left her native Japan and moved to the United States, where she would set residence in the Big Apple on 19th Street East. This was the period of greatest artistic output for Kusama. She made important contacts, attending social events where she would meet other artists like Donald Judd, Frank Stella, and Claes Oldenburg. Her first New York exhibition took place in October of 1969, and Judd was the first person to purchase one of her pieces. He lived in the same building as her, and they formed a very close relationship, platonic in many ways. Kusama also had a platonic relationship with artist Joseph Cornell.

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Yayoi Kusama.

She was always controversial due to the erotic and sexual nature of her artwork. In Japan, she was dubbed “queen of scandal”—to her parents’ dismay. They cut all financial support to their daughter, who was forced to return to Japan in 1973. In 1997, after several admissions to a private mental hospital in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Kusama decided to move permanently into the hospital, alleging an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Alexandra Munroe, Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York has said that for Kusama, the hospital was “her husband”. She couldn´t live far from it. Munroe visited the artist in Tokyo in 1989 with ideas for an exhibition in New York at the International Center of Contemporary Arts. There she saw the one-room apartment where Kusama lived with little more than a bed, a table, a desk, a small fridge, a bookshelf and a cabinet. It was paradoxical for an artist of such caliber who loved attention and fame. Munroe witnessed the fragile, anxious and unpredictable nature of Kusama, who had even fired her lifelong secretary more than three times.

Kusama recognizes her own mental illness, but in the many versions she has given of her life, she has occasionally blamed her mother. It is often difficult to separate fact from fiction in her accounts.

Yayoi was born in the Japanese city of Matsumoto, the youngest of four siblings. Her mother belonged to a wealthy family, and according to Kusama, released the anger she felt towards her unfaithful husband on her. All this has been told in Kusama’s 2002 autobiography, Infinity Net, where she describes her father as a kind and gentle man and talks about her childhood hallucinations.

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Yayoi Kusama, I Want to Live Honestly, Like the Eye in the Picture, 2009.

For Akira Tatehata, curator, art critic, President of the University of Arts in Kyoto and lifelong supporter, those obsessions and hallucinations attract viewers eager to understand what goes on in the artist´s mind.

One of the characteristics of Kusama´s art is the use of dots. She explains that the origin of this obsession stems from the abuse she received from her mother. She used to pinch her out of jealousy, leaving dots on little girl’s skin. Others argue that the dots represent her visions and hallucinations originated in a printed tablecloth.

In the last few years, Kusama has gained unprecedented name recognition as she attracts a younger audience. This new fame was born in 2012 when Louis Vuitton’s creative director Marc Jacobs fell in love with the artist’s dots. Never ending, infinite dots, which Jacobs wanted to transpose to the French firm designs. His intention to bring contemporary art closer to the public is evident in LV’s extensive body of collaborations with artists such as Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and others. From the start, Kusama felt honored with the selection. The artist has never denied her appreciation of increasing sales. It is her way of realizing that society needs her.

That same year, The Whitney Museum of American Art presented a retrospective of her work titled Fireflies on the Water, which was a critically acclaimed blockbuster exhibit. Yayoi Kusama has always been an artist ahead of her time.  ■

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