“I swore to myself that I would do well in New York.” Following the advice of her mentor Georgia O’Keeffe, a young Yayoi Kusama left her rural Japanese hometown in 1958 and moved to New York City. Kusama’s family vehemently disapproved of her passion and eventually gave her an ultimatum; it was her or it was painting. Of course we know how this story went. But in a (white) male-dominated art world, Kusama’s path to “success” proved long and brutal. However, the hostility that was shown to her would not deter her. Kusama did absolutely everything to get noticed.
After a traumatic year of being rejected by every gallery and living in poverty, someone recognized her talent – it was none other than minimalist American artist Donald Judd. Abstract Expressionism was at its heyday, but as soon as Judd saw Kusama’s original “Infinity” paintings, he was hooked. Judd gave Kusama’s first exhibition an enthusiastic review, and they became lifelong friends.
Before long, other key players in the modern art world began to pay attention to her. Kusama’s work received, slowly, a tiny fraction of the attention it deserved. Artist colleagues at the time (namely Andy Warhol) found Kusama’s work so good that they copied it and called it their own. Meanwhile, America’s hostility towards Asians (especially Japanese) after World War II cast a dark shadow over the artist’s existence. However, Kusama’s passionate commitment to her work turned into a way to process the bombardment of racism and sexism along with haunted memories of her childhood in Japan. The artist turned to painting not to escape but to survive. This symbiotic relationship still shapes their work today.
Kusama started making art at the age of ten and was immediately “moved” as she drew and painted the dots that would become her signature. She worked quickly and eagerly, and the physical and emotional act of making art quickly consumed her, much to the horror of her family. While Kusama’s work is beautiful (the current Infinity Mirror Rooms exhibition at Tate Modern is no exception), it’s important to remember that the struggle runs this artist’s story.
The “Infinity Rooms” have become one of the most published pieces in our contemporary art world for good reason. The rooms are uncompromisingly photogenic; their instagrammable qualities are evident and upcoming. The viewer only has a few minutes in the room (thank you, Covid) and has to decide whether he wants to fully immerse himself in the overstimulation that surrounds him or whether he wants to document it with his own videos and photos. I was one of those spectators, and if I’m honest, I struggled with that choice myself.
A kind of timeline lines the walls outside the rooms and documents Kusama’s early, middle and latest achievements. It’s complete with intimate portraits of the artist (performance, creation, etc.) by Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe. It brilliantly captures the dichotomy, opposition, and disparity of the beautiful, goofy, yet incredibly serious Kusama. The timeline is essential as it transports Kusama into different phases of her life and exhibition visitors can then engage emotionally with her story as they physically process the sensual experience of the iconic Infinity spaces.
However, what ultimately cannot be captured in videos and photographs (no matter how many shots) are the deep-seated complexities of the artist’s mental health. These not only shaped Kusama’s life and work, but also inspire a uniquely intense duality of emotions – beauty and tragedy, sadness and euphoria. When physically immersed in these swirling, sparkling spaces, this all-consuming aura cannot be ignored. Viewers continue to marvel at Kusama’s ability to create stunning works of art in the face of this suffering. But the irony is that the answer lies in their genius.
Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrored Room – June 12, 2022 tate.org.uk
Born in New York and raised in NYC and London, I was fortunate enough to travel the world and immerse myself in the international art scene. Contemporary art and writing are my two passions, which I combine with my art blog and Instagram (atozexhibitions). I currently live and work (freelance writing and art consulting) in London.
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